A serendipitous moment – flicking through the radio channels on the road over Salisbury Plain, an untypical voice appears on BBC Radio 3, radical singer Billy Bragg talking about Beethoven’s musical setting of Frederich Schiller’s 1785 poem ‘Ode to joy’. The tale of the music drew upon the hopes of the French and American Revolutions, upon beliefs in human equality, upon a vision of the world very different from that which prevailed. Beethoven, Bragg explained, wrote from a feeling of disappointment that such hopes would not be fulfilled in his own country.
It seemed odd that a tune, becoming bland through its overuse at every possible EU occasion, tied to an institution more known for its bureaucracy and its corruption than for its vision and idealism, should have radical roots. Bragg is a veteran radical, and having watched Tony Blair’s betrayal of every radical principle, will presumably have a catalogue of his own disappointments.
Having spent a day in Cambridge, where there are visible reminders of disappointed hopes, thoughts on the radicalism that inspired Bragg were fresh. He spoke of the Levellers, the English radical movement of the Seventeenth Century. Their hopes were to be betrayed by Cromwell who replaced monarchy with dictatorship and misery. Medieval churches in Cambridge still have vacant niches where once stood statues of saints, smashed by Protestant zealots. The men of Oliver Cromwell in the Seventeenth Century had been preceded by the men of Thomas Cromwell a century before, a Cambridge college walk named after Bishop Nicholas Ridley recalling the martyrdom of the English bishops in the Sixteenth Century.
The Levellers had been a radical Christian group, believing the teachings of Jesus should be applied to the life of the country, believing Christians were called to build the Kingdom of God on Earth; they were to learn that the last thing the Church was prepared to contemplate was having Jesus’ words fulfilled. Radicals long ago gave up on looking to the Church to bring change in society. In the days of Beethoven, the Church would have striven only to protect its own privilege, contemplating charity only as a means of keeping things unchanged.
Aspirations expressed by Schiller and immortalised by Beethoven in ‘Ode to joy’, aspirations of unity and brotherhood, will never find fulfilment in a Church built on hierarchy and authoritarianism. The hope that they might find fufilment through political channels seems also to have taken a battering. It would have been interesting to have asked Billy Bragg where he might have found realistic hope, is hope something that can now find substance only in songs?
If Frederich Schiller were alive today, where would he look for a vision of what might be? And if Beethoven were present to set it to music, what tune would he write?