Beethoven in the Shadows of Berlin: Karajan’s European Anthem

Beethoven in the Shadows of Berlin: Karajan’s European Anthem

The musical symbol of the European Union is the work of a former Nazi Party member. How this happened and what it says about the new Europe is troubling. The European anthem is the instrumental melody of “Ode to Joy,” from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, first performed in Vienna in 1824. The European Council—the highest organ of the European Union, composed of leaders of EU member states—gave the melody this official status in 1985. The decision fulfilled plans for the song first laid out on July 8, 1971, in West Berlin by the Council of Europe, the first postwar European institution whose chief purpose is the defense of human rights. The official arrangement of the new anthem was conceived by the director of the Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, who published the score under Schott Music, made a recording with the classical music label Deutsche Grammophon, and promoted it in the media with his orchestra. Karajan’s arrangement is protected under copyright, and the copyright holder belonged to the Nazi Party from 1935 to 1945.

The anthem, however, is still Beethoven’s music. Karajan’s score is in D major, just like the finale of the Ninth, and it begins with a phrase lifted directly from measures 77 to 80 of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Opus 125. It continues with the melody played in its entirety by the violin section, then with a solemn march variation, exactly as in measures 140 to 187 of the original. It concludes ritenuto molto exactly like the cadential formula, which, in the choral part of the original, follows each stanza of Schiller’s poem. However, the European anthem, which has no words, distinguishes itself from the original score by its slower tempo and fuller orchestration (a “trombonification”). Thus, except for these details, which do give the piece the ceremonial style of “state music,” the work of the arranger involved just cutting and pasting three fragments of Beethoven. As an artistic contribution, it is far from irreplaceable. Nevertheless, the work bears Karajan’s signature, and it reminds us that this European symbol was born, as it were, in the shadow of the Berlin Wall.

In 1971, Karajan, then dubbed Generalmusikdirektor of Europe, was recruited to create the new symbol because of his celebrity status. In addition to a lifelong post as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and his position as principal guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic; as well as his responsibilities heading the Salzburg Festival and its offshoot, the Easter Festival; and his time at the Paris Orchestra and other prestigious orchestras; his recordings, with Deutsche Grammophon in particular, made him the best-known and highest-paid classical musician in the world. There is no question that collaborating with a conductor of such renown, whose very profession, moreover, has a long tradition of associations with political and military command, was an asset to th...

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