Brexiteers turn against the first great British symphony

Brexiteers turn against the first great British symphony


norman lebrecht

July 04, 2019

I was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row last night for a response to the Brexit Party’s MEPs turning their backs on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which happens to be the EU anthem.

Aside from the calculated discourtesy, I pointed out that Beethoven’s ninth was the first great British symphony, commissioned by the Philharmonic Society from an office close to the BBC, from a composer who desperately needed the money and was touchingly grateful for the commission. George Bernard Shaw called it ‘”the only entirely creditable incident in English history’.

Be that as it may, the Brexit movement knows no history.

Listen to Front Row here.


  • Robin Worth says:

    Will they burn books next?

    • Bob Boles says:

      They don’t even have any books. A nation of illiterate filth.

      • Zelda Macnamara says:

        They don’t represent “the nation”. Not at all. Most of us are not “illiterate filth”.

        • Andrew says:

          Of course they represent the nation. They’ve just won an election and are the largest single party in the farcical EU parliament. Some of the elected Brexit MPs have actually written books, which just goes to show that the ignorance of Bob Boles.

          • Steve says:

            I’d really love to read their ‘books’ lol…

          • Saxon Broken says:

            Andrew writes: “They [the Brexit Party] have just won an election”.

            Er…no. The truth is that, even excluding votes in Scotland and N.Ireland, more people voted for pro-remain parties than for leave-parties in the European elections. Admittedly, there wasn’t much in it (and it is sufficiently close that we don’t know what would happen if there was a new plebiscite).

        • Bob Boles says:

          But they *do* represent you – quite literally. You’re now represented in the EU parliament by a shouty woman who believes that gay people can be ‘treated’ to make them ‘normal’ again. She gave her maiden shriek in the EU Parliament this afternoon, complete with arm-waving, gibbering, drooling, and hysterical tub-thumping. A woman who has previously been a British cabinet minister.

          She doesn’t represent me. I walked away from your illiterate filth country after your Tony Blair bombed civilian targets in Serbia, and you all cheered him on. And you all gave a ticker-tape welcome to Donald Chump last month.


          • Wesley says:

            Well done on providing such a measured Remainer response. You are a beacon of tolerance and enlightenment in these dark times. In fact, I’m sure that the logic and temperance of your posts will persuade many Brexiteers of the folly of their ways. After all, calling them “illiterate filth” is an entirely measured response to people who don’t share your views. I congratulate you on the insights you display into the Remainer mind.

        • Sue Sonata Form says:

          Don’t you just love the tolerant Left, though? Name-calling is their additional olympic-level sport.

  • anon says:

    The Philharmonic Society of London paid Beethoven £50 in 1822, which is equivalent to £6,300.12 in 2019, for his Ninth Symphony.

    To be fair, Beethoven did recycle some stuff from his Choral Fantasy, borrowed someone else’s poem, was late, and was, you know, like, kinda deaf.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      So sue him.

    • 18mebrumaire says:

      According the National Archives Historical Currency Converter £50 in 1820 would buy you one of the following: 4 horses, 10 cows, 55 stones of wool, 8 quarters of wheat, 333 days wages for a skilled tradesman — but that would be if B had spent the money in England.

    • Robin Smith says:

      £50 was about a year’s pay for an average Agricultural worker at that time.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Bunch of ignorant self serving ninnies who do not represent the British public. By the way when chief idiot Farage was at Dulwich College he pronounced his name rhyming with garidge. A national newspaper reported recently that he is getting 12k a month from the EU as salary, pension pot and expenses, more than I get in a year! He is standing for Parliament for a the eighth time at the next General election.

    • Don Fatale says:

      They were recently elected so of course they represent a significant proportion of the British public! Staying seated, having given advance notification, would have been a more respectable position.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Yep, the fact they were elected means they do represent a portion of the British public. Even if you wish that not to be true.

  • CJ says:

    I hope these rude people will have the pride to turn their back also to the comfortable salary they have been paid for years? Or they could give it to the NHS?

    • John Rook says:

      Absolutely. There must be no opposition in the EU parliament.

      • HugoPreuss says:

        You confuse a valid democratic opposition with the hypocrisy of members of parliament who literally turn their back on the symbols of that parliament, but still collect the money.

        Brings to mind another legislator who once famously said: “We are not members of parliament. We are owners of immunity and owners of a free railroad ticket.” The name of that member of the German Reichstag was Joseph Goebbels.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Your comments are bizarre. You are confusing “policy” with the legislative means to achieve policy, e.g. the parliament.

        If you oppose what the EU is doing, then by all means get someone elected to get it to do something else. But what you are proposing is to abolish the elected institution because you can’t produce a democratic majority for a different outcome.

  • anon says:

    How does one “turn one’s back” to sound waves? They still hear it.

    You know in their heads they’re just humming along with the melody, and they’ll be humming it all day long.

    But that’s typical of the hypocrisy of Brixiteers, they enjoy all the benefits of something from the EU while at the same time engaged in some ostentatious gesture to deny they are actually enjoying that benefit.

    They would’ve been better off putting their hands, à la the three monkeys, over their ears, their eyes, and their mouths.

  • John Borstlap says:

    It is not ‘appropriation’ but a promise of fulfilment of what that work ‘says’.

  • Bob Boles says:

    An ignorant army of chavs and knuckledraggers – led by a cheesy spiv with baccy-stained teeth and a Flash Harry coat. No surprise to find this coterie of loonies and beer-swillers turning their back on Beethoven, and on civilisation. Their thuggish leader could not have shown his true colours more clearly. The Gauleiter Regiment of Britain’s shameful future is on the march.

  • Will Duffay says:

    Objectionable bunch of childish attention-seeking nincompoops turning their backs on history and progress.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed. Interestingly, in this case progress is symbolized by a work written in 1823, inspired by Enlightenment thought.

  • Armchair Bard says:

    [as regards the photo]

    Odd grey urinals at the EU Parliament. But good that they’re non-gender-specific.

    (c) David Baddiel

  • Esther Cavett says:

    And it was so beautifully played. Just listen:

  • mathias broucek says:

    It’s so sad to see the angry comments here. I voted remain but I don’t find it necessary to hate people who have different views to me and/or choose different ways to express their views

    • Anon says:

      It’s called being grown up. Agreeing to disagree, but Brexit brings the hidden monsters out in the most shy people!

      • Gordon Freeman says:

        Agreeing to disagree on morally reprehensible concepts being forced into law… is… grown up?

        • Saxon Broken says:

          In a democracy, sometimes laws are passed which some people don’t like. But democracies usually allow you to campaign for a government which will reverse its policy.

  • Steve says:

    An embarrassment to the civilized world, making their lack of education, culture, grasp on history.. plainly evident to all.

  • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

    The problem with the Choral Symphony is: it’s very difficult for the chorus to sing. I don’t just mean physically, although it’s quite difficult physically, lots of sudden jumps from one register to another which can choke you (in the bass line of the chorus; I’m a bass so that’s what I’m looking at) but also mentally, it has lots of weird melodic and harmonic surprises, counter-intuitive line-fragments unlike anything you’d ever sing or hum naturally.

    Well, haven’t you noticed that non-professional choirs and choral-societies do the Brahms Requiem all the time, and the Mozart/Sussmayer Requiem, and the Verdi Requiem, and pretty often the Faure Requiem, and plenty of Haydn and Bach, but only the hard-hitting professionals ever seem to do Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or the Ode to Joy (Choral Symphony)? No one even does the Choral part on its own, leaving out the first three movements of the symphony (and maybe also omitting the instrumental beginning of the fourth movement), even though it could stand quite well as part of a larger program with other pieces. There’s a reason for this, which is, the Ode to Joy is so amazingly difficult and confusing.

    Beethoven was a voice abuser. My bet would be he likely had an affair with a vocalist when he was young, and it ended badly.

    • John Borstlap says:

      B wrote that finale with ‘future choirs’ in mind, did not want to take into account the reality of his own contemporary average performance standards, as with all his instrumental works.

      The qualities of that finale have been contested ever since the premiere, and there are still quite some musicologists and performers who say: the symphony is great apart from that crazy finale. Also during the 19th century, the Golden Age of Beethoven Worship, the finale was subject to controversies. But, of all people, Debussy, the composer who wrote the absolute opposite of Beethoven’s music in almost all respects, defended the finale in a review:

      “A little notebook with over 200 different renderings of the dominant theme in the finale of this symphony shows how persistently Beethoven pursued his search…It is the most triumphant example of the molding of an idea to the preconceived form; at each leap forward there is a new delight…”

      Even young people today are stirred by the music:

      ” im a gurl who loves heavy metal but this song is great lol he’s a pure deaf genius.” — MizFroggy888 on YouTube


  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    Thanks to Norman for pointing out the Brit responsibility for the B Ninth. If I am not mistaken, LvB’s also had discussed a commission to come to New York after this. Oh, what if…… ??? What did B think of the USA, I wonder, given his obliteration of the dedication to the Eroica? And what might he have composed for the occasion?

    • Saxon Broken says:

      New York? Unlikely. It was 1823 and the US was a very remote, barely populated, and obscure place at that time. The idea of America only really got going in the late 19th century with metal, steam powered ships.

  • Jaime Herrera says:


  • Gordon Freeman says:

    Indeed, no unthought-through association should be made, the words “all mankind are sworn brothers” has nothing … in common with … the idea of … the EU?… wait a minute.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Yes the composer was so grateful for the commission he allowed it to be first performed in Vienna on 7 May 1824. So the ‘great British symphony’ actually became a great European symphony.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The first attempts at premiere of the 9th in London miserably failed, the music was too difficult and the finale incomprehensible. Only much later it was more or less ‘mastered’ but still deemed impractical, and the later performance history was burdened with doubts and controversy. Yet, in the end the piece succeeded marvellously. This trajectory, accompanied by uncertainty, looks like an apt symbol of the development of the EU.