‘Ode to Joy,’ Followed by Chaos and Despair

LAST week, European Union leaders put an end to a decade of diplomatic wrangling and signed the Treaty of Lisbon, which outlined a complete overhaul of the organization, including the creation of a permanent post of European Union president to represent Europe on the world stage. During the ceremony at Lisbon’s grandiose Jerónimos Monastery, a choir performed Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in the background. While the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, first performed in 1824, may seem an innocuous choice for the official anthem of the European Union (it was declared such in 1972), it actually tells much more than one would expect about Europe’s predicament today.

The “Ode to Joy” is more than just a universally popular piece of classical music that has become something of a cliché during the holiday season (especially, oddly, in Japan, where it has achieved cult status). It has also been, for more than a century, what literary theorists call an “empty signifier” — a symbol that can stand for anything.

In early 20th-century France, the Nobel laureate Romain Rolland declared it to be the great humanist ode to the brotherhood of all people, and it came to be called “the Marseillaise of humanity.” In 1938, it was performed as the high point of the Reichsmusiktage, the Nazi music festival, and was later used to celebrate Hitler’s birthday. In China during the Cultural Revolution, in an atmosphere of total rejection of European classics, it was redeemed by some as a piece of progressive class struggle.

[Extract. Appeared on The New York Times, on December 24th, 2007. (full text).]

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