Beethoven in Westminster

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The 9th Symphony at Brexit’s 11th hour

Beethoven is not part of Simon Wallfisch’s typical repertoire. The revered baritone and cellist, who will be performing Schubert’s Winterreise on the 15th in Oxford, could have spent his Wednesday afternoon rehearsing, but has instead chosen to brave the ‘poisonous’ Westminster atmosphere in order to sing ‘Ode to Joy’ in protest against Brexit.

Wallfisch and the band of musical activists that accompany him want more than to simply have their say. By harnessing the joy that music-making can engender, they hope to mitigate the aggressive atmosphere that has been building around the houses of parliament. ‘If you just go out there and sing and play it’s a natural human response to listen or join in,’ says Wallfisch. ‘It brings people together – that’s the magic of it.’

As a professional musician, 60% of Wallfisch’s work is in Europe, and he relies heavily on freedom of movement for a regular income. He has been staging protests now for two years – this is his 22nd – at first on his own, until violinist Simon Hewitt Jones joined him, suggesting they use music as their ‘hook’. ‘I turned up all on my own waving an EU flag and Simon said “we need to focus on the positives – the artistic side. Then we’ll have a much clearer, deeper message.”’

Certainly the tactics employed by Wallfisch and his troupe were changing the atmosphere. Protestors from both remain and leave camps were eager to join in with the singing, and for the hour that Wallfisch and his gang were present, the cloud that has hung over Westminster since the 2016 referendum result seemed to lift temporarily.

‘For us there are three key things’, says Hewitt Jones. ‘First, making sure that we spread joy … what better piece of music to do that than Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Number two, that the joy leads to a sense of empathy and understanding between people … and number three is that that empathy inevitably leads to unity, and that can happen regardless of people’s political outlook.’

As well as Ode to Joy, the musicians gave a rousing rendition of the English National Anthem, again in an effort to promote unity. Despite some confused reactions from onlookers, convinced that the Anthem could only carry a message of remain, Wallfisch was adamant that patriotism and EU membership were not mutually disjoint. ‘It’s not that we’re un-patriotic – we want Britain to be a strong, leading member of the EU, especially in the arts.’ 

There can be no doubt that these efforts are bringing smiles to College Green, but as the 29th March closes in with no sign of a People’s Vote, it looks increasingly as though their music has fallen on deaf ears. As I left, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they’d inherited the sad legacy of the musicians on the Titanic, spreading hope through music even as the great ship sank around them.