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Billy Bragg sings an 'Ode to Joy'

The British folk singer has written new lyrics to Beethoven's famed chorale. It receives its U.S. premiere Saturday in Santa Monica.

August 27, 2009|Elina Shatkin

A rabble-rousing folk singer isn't the first person who comes to mind when drafting new lyrics for one of the most recognized pieces of classical music in the world. But British singer Billy Bragg, known for his politically charged pop songs, penned new lyrics for "Ode to Joy," the chorale finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Instantly recognizable, the triumphant refrains of "Ode to Joy" are traditionally set to "An die Freude," a German poem written in 1786 by Friedrich Schiller. The poem celebrates universal brotherhood and a common yearning for peace. In that sense, Beethoven and Bragg were a perfect match.

But it wasn't until Bragg was watching a soccer game between Germany and England at the 1996 European Soccer Championships that the theme really hit home. "The teams marched onto the pitch to 'Ode to Joy' and I thought, 'That's not fair! Beethoven's a blooming German.' But in that context, Beethoven wasn't being a German, he was being a European. And so was I," Bragg said.

"That's what I was thinking of when I wrote the lyrics: people brought together by culture, by reconciliation."

Using what he considers to be the key line in Schiller's poem, "Alle Menschen werden Bruder" ("all men become brothers"), Bragg wrote a new ode to unity and peace. It was given its debut in 2007 at the reopening of London's Royal Festival Hall, the site of 1951's Festival of Britain, the celebration of a bomb-ravaged nation staggering to its feet after World War II. "It was a manifestation that we had survived the war, that the values we stood for were intact and that we were going to put them on display," Bragg said.

For the North American premiere (and only the third performance) of Bragg's "Ode to Joy" Saturday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, the Asia America Youth Orchestra will perform the piece with a diverse array of cultural groups -- including jazz singer Dwight Trible of the Pharoah Sanders Quartet, the Dafra Drum Ensemble and bluegrass singer Susie Glaze -- performing their interpretations of various parts of the symphony. Bragg will lead the audience in a singalong of the chorale.

Though pleased with the results of his first foray into classical music, Bragg is uncertain if Beethoven's Ninth will become part of his regular set lists. "I wouldn't just throw it in between 'New England' and 'Milkman of Human Kindness,' " he said. "But if it becomes widely known and popular, I'm sure I'll be able to fit it in in some context.

"Maybe I should make a choral album: 'Songs for Singing Choirs With Billy Bragg.' "

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elina.shatkin@latimes.com

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Beethoven Bragg

Where: Eli & Edythe Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica

When: 7 p.m.

Price: $55 to $100

Contact: (310) 430-1954, www.beethovenbragg.com

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