‘I wanted to stay true to the poem’s core message,’ explains Anthony Anaxagorou about writing a new version of Friedrich Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’.
The original poem, which Ludwig van Beethoven chose to have sung at the climax of his Ninth Symphony, was written in 1785. Schiller was a poet and philosopher who believed strongly in the potential of humankind: his passionate verses addressed to joy include lines such as ‘All men become brothers / beneath your tender wings’.
Anaxagorou’s own poetry explores social and political topics from masculinity to the refugee crisis. He was commissioned to create an updated libretto for a global project marking 250 years since Beethoven’s birth, All Together: A Global Ode to Joy. Led by conductor Marin Alsop, the project set out to perform Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 across five continents, with new words and music added to the symphony in each location.
In the run-up to creating his libretto, ‘O Human’, Anaxagorou worked with schools and community groups to explore what an ‘Ode to Joy’ would mean right now for young people in the UK. He says, ‘They wrote poems in ways they felt revolved around joy – a joy or hope for a better world, the joy of belonging, of family, friendship and national activism.’
Anaxagorou initially wanted to incorporate lines from the young people’s poems into the finished piece.
‘But as I was working quite strictly around prosody [patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry] some of the lines wouldn’t fit the verses, so I had to adjust parts of their writing while trying to honour the sentiment and make it work with the music. I found out later that Beethoven apparently did a similar thing, rendering parts of the original poem so as to have it fit with his score.’
Anaxagorou found that many of the young poets’ responses to the ode were focused on topics such as the climate crisis, gender inequality and racism. In response, the libretto began to explore issues ‘from our attitude as a nation towards those fleeing conflict zones, to the way we treat our planet, its wildlife and our consumer impulses.’
In updating the poem, he attempted to move it out of its Christian framework into something more secular, and make it more inclusive in terms of gender.
The final version was rehearsed by a choir made up of hundreds of voices, and was intended for two performances by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, featuring four soloists, the Bach Choir and the London Philharmonic Choir, and conducted by Marin Alsop.
Talented young performers from London and beyond who were due to take part included Kinetika Bloco, Tomorrow’s Warriors, Finchley Children’s Music Group, Only Boys Aloud, The Kaos Signing Choir for Deaf & Hearing Children, Lister Community School Choir and Southbank Centre’s Voicelab.
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