Sing for Europe

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EUflagThis week brought an interesting creative collaboration my way – working with someone I met in a Facebook group to produce a singable arrangement in English of the EU anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. I’ll talk about the creative process in a mo, but first I’d like to invite you to download it from the bottom of this page and sing it with all your friends. In particular, if you can join us on 25 March in London, that was the primary occasion we produced it for, but really sing it wherever and whenever you like.

So the thing about this that was interesting is that it would seem on the face of it a simple and obvious thing to do to sing the Ode to Joy in a mass open-air gathering. It is, after all, written to evoke the great odes produced for mass open-air gatherings during the French Revolution, and the melody is transparently accessible in both its vocal demands and its memorability.

But there were two sets of obstacles. First, were the words. We could sing the original German poem by Schiller, of course, but that isn’t necessarily very accessible to singers in an English crowd – and more significantly, it would be even less accessible to listeners. I can imagine a bunch of us might crank out a verse or two in German at some point on the march, just for fun, but it wasn’t the best choice for the circumstance.

The standard translations of Schiller’s words are written for comprehension, not for singing, so don’t fit the tune. And, to be honest, translating the text does rather draw attention to the way a lot of the allusions are less meaningful to a 21st-century audience than an 18th-century one. Some of the gendered references are rather uncomfortable for modern consumption too – all that stuff about finding a good wife. You’ll notice the EU use the instrumental version of the tune as the anthem, indeed – a very sensible solution given the way the language issue is compounded across the whole union – and thereby neatly sidesteps the question of problematic content.

(Side note: interesting how linguistic distance makes me more comfortable with historical distance. In German, I experience this poem much more as a voice from another era, singing it in inverted commas, so to speak. In my own language, I feel more responsible for the content.)

Ian Miles took on the task of writing a new set of words to fit the tune, after Schiller, but with the freedom of rendering the hymnodist would use with religious texts. And he’s done a wonderful job. If you know the Schiller, you recognise that it’s not all that close, but you still feel the resonances. And he has worked in a whole bunch of specific references for the Europhilic, woven into the internationalist idealism of the tradition that brought us the original ode.

My favourite moment is his placement of the word ‘striving’ on the push-beat in bar 12 – a brilliant bit of word placement to harness musical shape to enhance meaning.

The other obstacle, strangely enough, was the music. Not the tune, of course: that is as fit for purpose as any marching song you could hope to find. But if you wanted to sing in harmony, you can’t just lift it straight out of Beethoven’s symphony. For one thing, he introduces the theme gradually, on a soloist, then a group of soloists before bringing in the full choir. And the solo lines are really not marching music – they are full of challenging, virtuosic stuff that demand even an experienced professional step up to their game.

Even Beethoven’s choir parts aren’t very accessible. To be fair, any chorister singing this exposition will also be singing the really complex stuff towards the back end of the movement, so there’s little point in criticising Beethoven for making the initial presentation of the tune a demanding sing. The whole thing is predicated on a certain level of skill, and a decent amount of rehearsal time. He wasn’t writing for impromptu demonstrating.

So, my task was to produce an SATB rendering that honoured the Beethoven, but which could be pretty much sung at sight with inadequately warmed-up voices in distracting circumstances and still carry a good deal of oomph. I’m really pleased with the result. I’ve brought the tune down into a range that will work for massed voices – the soprano line is thus arguably a bit low for a true soprano, but perfectly normal for a ‘I don’t really know what my voice part is, but I enjoy a good sing-a-long’ kind of voice. Actually, any true sopranos could still sing it up an octave like Beethoven asks for if they feel like it!

The harmony parts are based on elements of Beethoven’s voicings, but all smoothed out, and again brought into mid-range. The thing I’m really pleased about is getting just enough shape into them that they’re not too forgettable, whilst still keeping them simple to sing. There were a couple of places where I tweaked the lines in response to Ian’s text, for example the E in the alto part in bar 11. Originally this was a C# - fine for the harmony, but the shape of the text asked for a bit more of a lift on the word ‘each’.

I can’t help wishing we’d done this a year ago, mind. The Remain campaign was hampered by its failure to stir the spirits. A good anthem is just what it needed.

Well, we have one now. Please feel free, as I say, to download the music and sing it with gusto and fervour whenever your heart needs lifting. And if you can come to London on 25 March to sing it on the occasion it was written for, please sign up to the Sing for Europe facebook group and let us know your voice part.

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A New Ode to Joy.pdf254.47 KB

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