Schiller's liberationist Ode to Joy


At Christmas time, 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted a version of Beethoven's 9th symphony in Berlin in which he changed one word in the well-known Ode to Joy in the fourth movement. "Freiheit" ("Freedom") replaced "Freude" ("Joy"), to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall that had occurred weeks previously

It was not the first time the lyrics had been changed; Beethoven himself had been free with the original poem by Friedrich von Schiller, the 250th anniversary of whose birth occurred on November 10.

Schiller was a philosopher, dramatist and poet who influenced progressive German thought in the period up to and after the French Revolution of 1789. His thinking centred on beauty, not merely as an abstract aesthetic concept, but a morally forceful one: the good is the beautiful. He linked this to human freedom.

Schiller's voluptuous thinking and idealism was expressed in the 126-line Ode to Joy, written in 1785, which can be read as praising drunken revelry. Beethoven chose verses that communicate that.

But the poem has another message, perfectly expressing Schiller's political radicalism, which was entirely missing from the celebration of the collapse of Stalinist East Germany.

The most stirring performance of this section of the poem is by Black American singer and socialist, Paul Robeson, on the Freedom Train and the Welsh Transatlantic Concert album (Folk Era Records). Robeson was subjected to illegal harassment, including a travel ban by US authorities in the 1950s due to his radical politics.

In 1953, 1956 and 1957, miners in south Wales invited Robeson to their annual Eisteddfod. He was not able to circumvent the government travel ban until the laying of a transatlantic telephone cable.

In 1957, Robeson sang to them from a New York studio and the Welsh sang back to him from the other side of the ocean. Robson performed the Ode to Joy, climaxing with Schiller's revolutionary words intact:

Build the road of peace before us
Build it wide and deep and long;
Speed the slow and check the eager
Help the weak and curb the strong.
None shall push aside another
None shall let another fall.
March beside me, Oh my Brother
All for one and one for all.

[Barry Healy will edit Cultural Dissent from January 2010. Please send submissions to Barry at .]