President Michael D Higgins will launch a nationwide musical tribute to the country’s frontline workers at 6pm on Sunday 21 June, European Music Day. Four musicians will join President Higgins on the steps of Áras an Uachtaráin to perform Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (Óid don Lúcháire), the European Anthem, before the musical salute continues with a larger group of musicians and singers led by the acclaimed soprano Mairéad Buicke at the National Concert Hall, Dublin. Ode to Joy will then echo across the entire nation as musicians and music lovers will be called on to perform their own tribute within their local communities, while maintaining physical distancing.
The brainchild of the Royal Irish Academy of Music’s Professor James Cavanagh, the project is a collaboration between more than 80 music organisations around Ireland, who are hoping to involve as many of Ireland’s 600,000 instrumentalists, singers, dancers and performers as possible in this unique, live musical moment. Many well-known personalities, including Daniel O’Donnell, Charlie McGettigan and Foster and Allen’s Mick Foster have already pledged their support.
Professor James Cavanagh describes the tribute as "a wonderful opportunity for Irish musicians and performers to reach out to all of our frontline and service workers… Taking place on European Music Day and during Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year, it is also a way to show our solidarity and goodwill towards our fellow Europeans.”
The original text of ‘Ode to Joy’ is by the 18th century German poet Friedrich Schiller, and the theme from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is its best-known setting. However, for Sunday’s tribute the organisers have called upon Poetry Ireland’s Poet-in-Residence Catherine Ann Cullen to create new, easy-to-learn Irish/English lyrics to help make it possible for every adult and child in the country to participate.
So how does a contemporary Irish poet follow Schiller in setting words to one of the most famous pieces of music of all time? We caught up with Catherine Ann Cullen to find out more on how she rose to the challenge:
“A few weeks ago, James Cavanagh of the Royal Irish Academy of Music got in touch with Poetry Ireland to see if we could supply some lyrics to ‘Ode to Joy’ as a celebration of frontline workers. My main role in Poetry Ireland is to work with communities, so a nationwide call to come together to make music and sing was impossible to refuse. I think the initial idea was to get musicians together, and the notion of adding words came later. I’m a songwriter as well as a poet so I know that writing lyrics is not the same as writing a poem, especially when the tune is already there.
The challenge in this case was to keep it simple and write as little as possible - in twelve lines of singing there are only six lines of lyrics. I initially wrote four lines as a sample and James thought that, to make learning the words easy, it would work best to change just one line of the four for each verse.
Beethoven was inspired to compose the music by a poem written by the German writer and historian Friedrich Schiller in 1785, and there’s speculation that the poem was originally called ‘Ode to Freedom’. So in a way having a poet write new words completes that circle of inspiration. Although I didn’t think anyone would notice, I wanted my lyrics to reference Schiller’s poem, which is about brotherhood - “all people become brothers”. That’s why I have the “Sisters, brothers…” line. Poor old Schiller was never happy with his poem, I suppose all artists can empathise with that!
Performers of all ages are invited to perform Ode to Joy after 6pm on Sunday 21 June in whatever style they like from their doorsteps or public green areas. Easy sheet music for most instruments, plus Catherine Ann Cullen’s new lyrics for anyone who would like to sing along, can be downloaded from www.odetojoy.ie.
Participants are also invited to help the celebration come to life online by live streaming their performances with the hashtag #OdeToJoyIE
The tributes at Áras an Uachtaráin and the National Concert Hall will be streamed on www.rte.ie/culture at 6pm on Sunday 21 June 2020.