VIDEO - Ode to Joy: Music, the language of Europe?

What if the Ode to Joy were sung in Latin, French, Esperanto, or English? By (re)discovering the origins of the Ode to Joy, and by analysing Karajan's arrangements, we are finally able to understand the extent to which the notion of a communal language is important in this hymn.

VIDEO - Ode to Joy: Music, the language of Europe?
VIDEO - Ode to Joy: Music, the language of Europe? , © Getty / ullstein bild ullstein bild

Music: the common European language?

Featuring Christophe Dilys, France Musique presenter and conductor, Alexandra Gouton and Matthieu Cabanes of the Radio France Choir

On 5 May 1972 the new European anthem was broadcast across 50 different radio stations accompanied by a message in 13 different languages. The music is the Ode to Joy by Beethoven, from the final movement of the 9th symphony.

Les influences de Beethoven et de Schiller

Beethoven was 54 years old when he completed his 9th symphony in 1824… he passed away three years later. But the work is not the composer’s swan song, since sketches of the symphony have been found dating back to 1811. As for Schiller’s Ode to Joy, it is known that from the age of 23, in 1793, Beethoven hoped to set the text to music and to place it within a great symphonic work. He turned to the form of a patriotic hymn.

In order to compose his own patriotic hymn, he drew upon all the stylistic codes of the period: he used a solemn character similar to the English anthem God Save the King, whose slow tempo allows for each word and note to be placed and heard. As for the melody, well he composed a melody that rises and falls, like an arch, similar to the Marseillaise.

All the essential ingredients are present in the Ode to Joy to make an effective hymn: a catchy melody, seemingly popular, easy to sing; a simple rhythm allowing for an easy placing of the words, with a tempo similar to that of a military march. If you remove the words, you are still left with a glorious music that holds its own.

The hymn became extremely popular, and was even used by countless political movements. In July 1971, the European Council decided to adopt the Ode to Joy as the new European hymn: the instrumental arrangement was given to the conductor Herbert von Karajan.

Herbert von Karajan's arrangements

The secret to the success of Karajan’s arrangements lies in Beethoven’s music itself: ultimately, there is very little to do. The melody is made up of two phrases. A / B. If we use these letters, the hymn according to Karajan is built thusly: AABABA. In the symphony, the solo voice opens the Ode, soon joined by the choir for the final BA: Karajan kept the same structure in his transcription but added more instruments and increased the overall intensity.

5 points to remember:

  1. Karajan’s arrangements decontextualise the ode, removing it from the ruins and chaos of the symphony: there is no longer the notion of freedom rising out of disaster found in Beethoven’s original symphony.

  2. The arrangements flatten the orchestral material: there are no subtleties between the inner voices, no counterpoint, no little melodies beneath the main melody: there is no rise to the main climax, but simply an alternating loud/less loud.

  3. The hymn is slowed down: from 160 beats per minute on Beethoven’s side to 120 with Karajan: the message is therefore more poignant and sacred than energetic.

  4. By orchestrating the work for piano, wind orchestra, and symphony orchestra, Karajan ensured that the hymn could be performed and heard by everyone: by a small group of people around the piano, a municipal wind orchestra, and even an impressive televised event with a symphonic orchestra. 

  5. The words have been removed, making the message universal, and easier to convey, thereby avoiding a cacophony, a hymn akin to the “Tower of Babel” whilst also avoiding any and all potential conflicts concerning a “dominant” European language. 

Ultimately, we only hear Beethoven’s message of liberty, without focusing upon the words.

What if the Ode to Joy were sung in Latin, French, Esperanto, or English?

Matthieu Cabanes, tenor, and Alexandra Gouton, soprano, of the Radio France Choir, took on the challenge of singing the hymn in Latin, Esperanto, French, English, and German.