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.
In the 1950s and '60s, when the West German and East German Olympic squads were forced to compete as a single team, gold medals were handed out to the strains of the "Ode to Joy" in lieu of a national anthem. It served as the anthem, too, for the Rhodesian white supremacist regime of Ian Smith. One can imagine a fictional performance at which all sworn enemies — Hitler and Stalin, Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush — for a moment forget their adversities and participate in the same magic moment of ecstatic musical brotherhood.
There is, however, a weird imbalance in this piece of music. In the middle of the movement, after we hear the main melody (the "joy" theme) in three orchestral and three vocal variations, something unexpected happens that has bothered critics for the last 180 years: at Bar 331, the tone changes totally, and, instead of the solemn hymnic progression, the same "joy" theme is repeated in the marcia turca ( or Turkish march) style, a conceit borrowed from military music for wind and percussion instruments that 18th-century European armies adopted from the Turkish janissaries.
The mode then becomes one of a carnivalesque parade, a mocking spectacle — critics have even compared the sounds of the bassoons and bass drum that accompany the beginning of the marcia turca to flatulence. After this point, such critics feel, everything goes wrong, the simple solemn dignity of the first part of the movement is never recovered.
But what if these critics are only partly correct — what if things do not go wrong only with the entrance of the marcia turca? What if they go wrong from the very beginning? Perhaps one should accept that there is something of an insipid fake in the very "Ode to Joy," so that the chaos that enters after Bar 331 is a kind of the "return of the repressed," a symptom of what was errant from the beginning.
If this is the case, we should thus shift the entire perspective and perceive the marcia as a return to normality that cuts short the display of preposterous portentousness of what precedes it — it is the moment the music brings us back to earth, as if saying: "You want to celebrate the brotherhood of men? Here they are, the real humanity ..."
And does the same not hold for Europe today? The second stanza of Friedrich Schiller's poem that is set to the music in "Ode to Joy," coming on the heels of a chorus that invites the world's "millions" to "be embraced," ominously ends: "But he who cannot rejoice, let him steal weeping away." With this in mind, one recent paradox of the marcia turca is difficult to miss: as Europe makes the final adjustments to its continental solidarity in Lisbon, the Turks, despite their hopes, are outside the embrace.
So, when in the forthcoming days we hear again and again the "Ode to Joy," it would be appropriate to remember what comes after this triumphant melody. Before succumbing to the warm sentiment of how we are all one big family, I think my fellow Europeans should spare a thought for all those who cannot rejoice with us, all those who are forced to "steal weeping away." It is, perhaps, the only way we'll put an end to the rioting and car burnings and other forms of the Turkish march we now see in our very own cities.
This article was published in The New York Times OP-ED Monday, December 24, 2007.