Notes From the Margins…

The Brexit Party: All Men Shall (Not) Be Brothers

  • July 04, 2019
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In case anyone ever doubts what a sad, petty and downright nasty country we are becoming, the Brexit Party will always be there to remind us.  On Monday, they managed to stage a mighty protest by turning their backs – turning their backs I tell you! – on a young orchestra playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy at the opening of the European Parliament.  Courage like this really does leave Tiananmen Square in the shade doesn’t it?  It’s even more moving when you think that they wouldn’t turn their backs on their salaries.

No wonder two of the female MEPs were holding hands to support each other and give each other strength.  Sisters united in political infantilism might need to do that, but many of us watching this sad stunt will also need strength as we contemplate a future in which this party might even get into government.

But let’s talk about music and poetry.  The Ode to Joy was originally written by Friedrich Schiller in 1795 as a paean to human freedom and brotherhood – a message made clear in its rousing line ‘All men are brothers.’  Beethoven included parts of the poem in his ninth symphony, written when he was completely deaf and premiered for the first time in 1824 at the Imperial and Royal Court Theatre in Vienna.   The premiere took place only nine years after the Congress of Vienna, where the Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich presided over the post-Napoleonic attempts to reimpose the ancien regime on a continent still pulsing with revolutionary ideals.

The Congress  was one of various ‘European Unions’ that have come and gone through history, and its premises were entirely reactionary.   No one was more reactionary than Metternich, who did his best to suppress the political and social forces unleashed by the French revolution through censorship, police surveillance and repression.

Beethoven was working in the Austrian capital as a freelance musician and was himself politically suspect because of his sympathies with the French revolution and his contacts with French emigré intellectuals.  Despite having felt obliged to churn out a 15-minute piece on Wellington’s victory in 1815, he had clearly not abandoned these sentiments.   The symphony was conducted by the theatre kapellmeister Michael Umlauf,  but Beethoven stood next the conductor setting the tempo and ‘waving his arms like a madman’, as one audience member described it.

Metternich and his police chiefs probably did not want to hear the line ‘all men shall be brothers’ proclaimed anywhere near Vienna,  but Beethoven’s audience clearly did.  Even though Beethoven once concluded ‘ as long as the Austrians have brown beer and sausages, they’ll never revolt’, they loved the Ninth.   At the end of the symphony, they threw their hats in the air – in what may have been an attempt to convey their enthusiasm to the deaf composer.

Since then the Ode to Joy has undergone an extraordinary evolution into a genuine piece of ‘world music’ – signifying a desire for peace, brotherhood and freedom that many different peoples have aspired to.  Chilean prisoners under Pinochet sang it to each other in prisons and detention centres.  Every year orchestras across Japan play it in order to welcome in the New Year – a tradition that began when German prisoners of war performed in Japan for the first time in 1918.   In Osaka 10,000 singers perform the ode nicknamed ‘Daiku’ (‘Number 9’) in reference to Article 9 in the Japanese Constitution’s ‘Peace Clause’ outlawing war as a means of resolving conflicts.

The Ode to Joy was played at Christmas 1989 to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.  That same year student protesters at Tiananmen Square played it over loudspeakers even as tanks were coming to destroy their movement.   In 1972 the Council of Europe made the Ode its official anthem, and in 1985 it was adopted as the anthem of the European Union

Beethoven might have been been puzzled to  find the Ode to Joy in A Clockwork Orange or Die Hard, but he would surely have taken some satisfaction on seeing his music carried back and forth across the world by orchestras, choirs and flashmobs, all of whom have found solace and inspiration in one of the most stirring passages of music ever written, whose  essential message still stands as a message for our times

Joy, bright spark of divinity
Daughter of Elysium
Fire-inspired we tread within thy sanctuary
Thy magic power re-unites all that custom has divided
All men shall be brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.

Needless to say, this is not a message that Nigel Farage and his merry men and women like to hear, especially coming from the European Union.  They are dancing to a very different tune,  insofar as you can dance to the shrieking air raid siren which accompanied Nigel’s entry at last week’s Brexit Party rally in Birmingham to remind the party that the nation is at war and that we need a Strong Leader to lead us.

 

After being introduced to a crowd of more than 5,000 in Birmingham carrying Brexit Party glowsticks, with an air raid siren booming out he tore into the main two parties

If this sounds familiar, and if Nigel’s glowstick rally/rave sounded a little bit…Nuremberg, that may not be entirely surprising, because these are Nigel’s roots.  After all this is a man whose former English teacher at Dulwich remembers him swaggering round a Sussex village singing ‘Hitler youth songs’.  An a former teenage pal wrote an open letter reminding him of when he once sang  a song with the words ‘gas them all, gas ‘em all, gas them all’.

Let no one say that Nigel doesn’t like music then.  And it’s safe to say that whatever those ‘Hitler youth songs’ were, they probably didn’t include words by Schiller and music by Beethoven.  Nevertheless the Great Man didn’t like some of the  mockery and criticisms that were directed against his party on Monday, and he felt the need to respond to them in the way that only he knows how:

Where to start with this?  How about that word ‘ancient’?  When applied to trees ‘ancient’ is a lovely, resonant word.  Who doesn’t like to think of an ancient oak tree or redwood that has been standing there for centuries?  When applied to the ‘nation states of Europe’ however, it is a entirely meaningless ethnonationalist buzzphrase that serves the same kind of political function as  concepts such as ‘Christian Europe’, ‘Judeo-Christian Europe’ or ‘indigenous peoples of Europe’ that Nigel and people like him are prone to using.

Such concepts are sometimes deliberately ahistorical and sometimes just plain ignorant.  In Nigel’s case you can never tell which it is.  But let’s just consider some simple facts:

No nation state is ‘ancient’.  All the member-states of the European Union are relatively modern, and some have only been created in the last few decades.  The European Union is not a country, and Antonio Tajani clearly used the word in his admonition of the Brexit MEPs to emphasise their lack of respect rather than suggest that the EU is a country with its ‘own anthem and flag.’

Contrary to Nigel’s assertions, the European Union was not created ‘without permission.’   All of its member states joined voluntarily and remain in it voluntarily.

We, as the world knows too well, are leaving, but we haven’t been able to leave because our politicians have not been able to transform  the false promises and expectations that drove the Leave vote into a political reality that does not harm the country, and because Brexiters have refused to accept any compromise and are now in headlong pursuit of a no deal hard Brexit regardless of the consequences.

That’s why the Brexit Party turned its back on Schiller and Beethoven on Monday.   And one thing you can be sure of: these are not people with any desire whatsoever for universal brotherhood.

Let no one believe that a country like this can ever be ‘open’, ‘welcoming’ or ‘Global Britain’ – apart from our possible appeal to fascists, ethnonationalists, carpetbaggers, asset strippers and dodgy millionaires looking for a new offshore tax haven.

On Monday Nigel and his pals showed the world how ‘open’ and how ‘global’ we are, even as they pretended to ‘represent’ a country they are intent on wrecking.

In doing so, they did not demonstrate our ‘greatness’, but provided further proof of our decline and our deranged national hubris.  And the fact that we have allowed this to happen will be a source of shame to millions of us for many years to come.

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. Mike Speirs

    4th Jul 2019 - 4:45 pm

    Hello Matt, good to read your thoughts on Beethoven and the Ode to Joy. I think one of the best concerts I have ever been to was a performance of the 9th symphony with around 100 people in the choir. It was stirring stuff indeed. But I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the antics of the brexiteers… or maybe just gnash my teeth in despair. I’ve been inspired by others recently, both the new centre left government in DK and the people of Hong Kong and Istanbul. There’s still some sanity! See my latest rants on https://mikescaravan.wordpress.com

  2. Andreu

    9th Jul 2019 - 7:43 am

    In the same opening session, trhee Catalan MEPs, Carles Puigdemont, Oriol Junqueras and Toni Comín, were banned from taking their seats. The alliance of the EU mafia (Tajani-Tusk-Junker) with the Spanish authorities made 2.3 million votes useless. Catalan votes (and some Galician, Basque and Spanish) are right now in the dustbin. I hope the CJEU in Luxembourg will take a wise decision and restore this fundamental right.
    All men and women shall have their vote respected.

  3. Nik

    9th Jul 2019 - 1:53 pm

    As usual what a great read, Matt. Just a minor correction: There is no Royal Opera House Muscat in Vienna! According to Nik-epedia the premier took place in the “Theater am Kärntnertor” aka “Imperial and Royal Court Theater of Vienna” which as razed in the 2nd half of the 19th century.

    • Matt

      9th Jul 2019 - 2:14 pm

      Cheers Nik. Corrected. I read that name somewhere. Should have checked with you first!

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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