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Then They Came for Beethoven

This week, Vox published an article titled “How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music.” “Since its 1808 premiere, audiences have interpreted [its opening progression] as a metaphor for Beethoven’s personal resilience in the face of his oncoming deafness,” write Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding. But “for some in other groups—women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color—Beethoven’s symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism.” In the article, and an accompanying podcast, the two men ask “how Beethoven’s symphony was transformed from a symbol of triumph and freedom into a symbol of exclusion, elitism, and gatekeeping.”

The article has been widely mocked on social media—in part because the authors (both white men, from what I can tell) offer no real evidence for their claim. That’s odd given that they are purporting to redefine the cultural meaning of what is arguably the most well-known, widely performed, and beloved composition known to humankind. Hundreds of millions of people have fallen in love with this symphony over the past two centuries—many of them inspired by the fact that Beethoven managed to create it while he was succumbing to deafness.

The writers begin their podcast by honing in on the symphony’s first movement—and its inclusion on the famous 1977 Voyager record that was put into outer space, in the hopes of transmitting the human legacy to some other alien civilization. (Other tracks on that recording included percussion music from Senegal, choral music from Georgia, a Night Chant by Navajo Indians, a Peruvian wedding song, selections from Louis Armstrong, Stravinsky, and much more.) In regard to Beethoven, one of the hosts asks rhetorically: “When an alien civilization discovers this golden record and we greet them with, like, dun dun dun DUNNNN… are we the conquering intergalactic empire? Is that what they’re going to think?”

To which the other responds: “It’s a great question, because not everyone feels that Beethoven is the best representation of our species’ collective achievement. For a lot of people, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony doesn’t represent triumph and resilience, but elitism and exclusion.”

I’m a professional cellist who—in non-pandemic times—performs classical music for people of all races. Beethoven’s music is precious to me. And it’s bizarre to hear these two men talk this way. None of what they say bears any connection to Beethoven’s actual work. And their call-and-response faux-curious dialogue about what aliens will think of Beethoven’s supposed “elitism” is embarrassing. Yet Sloan is a musicologist, and Harding is a songwriter.

They do, however, pay a backhanded compliment to Beethoven. This is what happens when a piece of art has such a gigantic influence on a society and its collective identity: The art’s story becomes our story. Naturally, those who demand that our story be rewritten to match a prescribed ideology or theme (such as, say, oppression and intersectionality) will also demand an overhaul in our understanding of the art that defines that story.

The hosts even accuse Beethoven—whose democratic ideals are well-known to anyone who has studied his life story—of empowering colonialism. Says one, “I can almost even see the sort of stride of empire, colonialism, industrialism, all those things that have sort of that same built in narrative of triumph and conquering.”

Really? That’s what you imagine when Beethoven’s 5th begins? I would be scared to imagine what flits though his mind during a performance of Wagner’s Parsifal.

In Japan—which, last time I checked, was populated by quite a few people of color—public performances of Beethoven are a holiday tradition. When asked why so many Japanese people have fallen in love with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, a Tokyo choral director explained “Beethoven casts a spell on you. Many start off thinking, ‘I can’t do this,’ but then other members urge them to try harder, and working together they get it done. The feeling of accomplishment is sublime.”

That quote appeared in the Japan Times, which, as one might expect, featured a wide array of interviewees to demonstrate the writer’s point. The Vox piece, by contrast, is sourced to the co-authors’ own vague thoughts. To the extent outside authorities are invoked, the attempted smearing of one of history’s great composers is attributed to the “many” (unnamed) people who, we are assured, share the authors’ animus.

I am always happy to praise the universality of Beethoven, and of music more broadly—and never more so than right now, when music is about the only thing we have to fall back on for a sense of collective joy. I have been playing cello since I was five years old, and I remember the first time I played Beethoven’s 5th complete in concert—as a high-school freshman with my youth orchestra in Boston. Since then, I have been fortunate to play it many times, in many parts of the world, to audiences of every skin color. The thrill of the music that I felt that very first rehearsal, up in the woods of Maine at our pre-season retreat—that thrill has never left me. When people ask me if I ever get tired of playing the 5th, I answer—truthfully—that each time I play it, it leaves me more invigorated.

Audiences feel this thrill, too, notwithstanding the suggestion that the enduring popularity of the symphony is owed to snobbish habit. It is one of the few pieces of music that people from all walks of life ask our symphony to play more often. As well as spanning all of the planet’s races, Beethoven’s fans span young and old, and rich and poor. I know this, because I have often given out my complement of free tickets to people who cannot afford to attend but are dying to do so. There is something about the composer, and specifically about this piece, that can cause an audience member to leave the concert hall a different person.

Whenever I think of our capacity to love music—even on first hearing—I remember the time when I was in Qatar, playing with my orchestra. We were rehearsing the overture to Wagner’s Tannhaüser. The orchestra had put a clip of the rehearsal online, and I was watching it that evening when a Filipino hotel worker came to offer turndown service. He didn’t speak English fluently, but we fell into conversation. I pointed at the iPad I was using to play the video, and put on the part of the overture where the brass are playing a huge, soaring theme, and the violins are almost fighting back, playing a thicket of notes, like an uprising against the brass—a thrilling passage. The worker told me he’d never had the chance to hear any classical music in his life, yet found himself in tears by the end of the passage. I don’t know if he ever heard a single note of classical music since our meeting. But where the power of music is concerned, that one brief moment speaks for itself.

Beethoven is a truly odd target for progressive critics, because his views on geopolitics are known to have been, by the highly regressive standards of his time, quite progressive. It would make far more sense to target someone such as Wagner, whose personal defects and despicable views are well-known. And in that Qatari hotel room, I certainly could have held forth with a speech about all this. But what interest would that have served, except stripping the beauty from a fine piece of music?

I really wonder what Sloan and Harding have to say about the Afghan Women’s Orchestra, which in 2017 performed Beethoven’s Ninth at the World Economic Forum. Please watch the brief YouTube clip, which appears below, and ask yourself whether you find yourself inspired—or, channeling Vox’s musical experts, tsk-tsking at all these misguided women paying homage to white supremacy.

Music of this type has no fixed story. It has infinite stories, as the possibilities of fantasy and enchantment are endless. There is no set program, no agenda. And if Beethoven’s 5th makes Sloan and Harding imagine the world’s people of color crushed under western jackboots, perhaps that’s something they might like to work on privately. Don’t blame the music.

When I interviewed Walter Isaacson for the first episode of my recently-launched podcast, I asked him if we needed to do a better job defending the integrity of the humanities. His answer was optimistic: The humanities “naturally defend themselves.” Given Beethoven’s power to inspire, his was the last cultural citadel I expected to see besieged. Yet here we are. Next month, maybe Mozart. Or Bob Dylan. Or Britney Spears. Once we agree to subordinate our love of art to the dictates of joyless ideologues, all of the limits fall away.

 

Daniel Lelchuk is Assistant Principal cellist of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and the host of the Talking Beats podcast.

Featured Image: Image of Beethoven published in 1830 by Franco-German lithographer Godefroy Engelmann.

Comments

  1. Is there a reason why we should give a toss about two idiots from Vox displaying their idiocy to the world?

    Wankers gonna wank.

  2. My thoughts exactly as I read this piece. It will be so refreshing when morons saying moronic things are simply ignored.

  3. I wonder if these authors have heard of Gustavo Dudamel and the El sistema youth orchestra programs that have flourished in Venezuela and other countries throughout the world. I’ve conducted concerts in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Viet Nam and there is a great appreciation for the Western classical music tradition in those places. BTW, the string section of the New York Philharmonic has about two dozen musicians with Asian surnames in its ranks. Beauty transcends all of the misguided ideological narratives that the progressive left continues to push on everyone. Camille Paglia warned of these a priori abstractions based on ideological premises vis-a-vis the arts thirty years ago. And whatever happened to “different strokes for different folks?” Some people like classical music, some don’t. That’s diversity of taste and opinion. I thought we were supposed celebrate diversity.

    Moreover, there are many women and LGBTQ advocates who are members of orchestras, opera companies, ballet companies, chamber music ensembles, etc., who are not at all “uncomfortable” with Western classical music.

  4. Vox and so much of the rest of the media is a joke. If something is part of the Western tradition, they and their SJW readers believe it must be sexist, racist, transphobic, etc. What a bunch of unserious idiots! They take everything out of its historical context and have no appreciation for anything that happened more than 15 minutes ago.

    Imagine that white men and women created something based on their cultural values and historic experience. How terrible!!!

  5. The humanities “naturally defend themselves.
    Really?

    They sure did a lousy job of defending themselves against ISIS and the Taliban.

    I suspect they will do just as poorly against Antifa, the American incarnation of ISIS and the Taliban.

  6. Thanks for this. Last week a conductor (from Britain??) was interviewed and he was espousing idiot ideas like those in the VOX article. That started a long heated conversation between me and hubby about whether classical music (not just the norms around performances) was “classist.” We finally, I think, are moving to an understanding that music can convey emotions or moods, but not ideas (except for lyrics, of course). Anyway, I was glad to read the eloquent debunking.

  7. Given Beethoven’s power to inspire, his was the last cultural citadel I expected to see besieged. Yet here we are. Next month, maybe Mozart. Or Bob Dylan…

    Bob Dylan? A Jew named Robert Zimmerman who changed his patronymic to the first name of a Welsh poet, was the lover of a Latinx, culturally appropriated both Black and Celtic musical forms, converted to Christianity, and was awarded the Nobel Prize by a bunch of Swedes? That Bob Dylan? I’m amazed that he hasn’t been cancelled long since.

  8. When I was in university 35 years ago, the identity student politicians were claiming that Beethoven was actually black and that the oppressive whites were hiding his true identity because they would not acknowledge a black genius. True story.

  9. Lets be honest, white people are driven.

    OK, let me provide a counterpoint:

    By the turn of the 19th-20th century, it was customary for middle-class American families to give music/instrumental education to their daughters, often on the piano. So there was a large pool of musically educated Americans who were socioeconomically in position to contribute to the widening of musical repertoire of the nation. Yet it was much poorer Negroes who came up with jazz, which became quite a musical phenomenon first in America, then all over the world.

  10. No, Scandinavians are Vikings. Stop appropriating my culture. If you take the Vikings away from me all I’ll have left is Greta Thunberg and IKEA.

    We’ve kind of been coasting ever since our rape and pillage phase.

  11. There are two kinds of response here which I think miss the mark. One is, “they are idiots, ignore them”, the other takes issue with the Vox article in some way, perhaps discussing Beethoven’s politics.

    Both responses are misplaced. The authors are certainly not idiots, nor are they merely attention-seeking, at least not for us. What they are doing is practising, or refining, or developing, the lines of thought to be imposed in a totalitarian manner should the Woke fascist revolution succeed.

    By the “Woke fascist revolution” I mean that collusion of real-world actors with everyday power who give force to the edicts (cancellations, denunciations, etc) of Twitter. Twitter has been the main voice of the revolution. A few years ago it was just the eccentric ramblings of underemployed children - the sort of idiots it seemed safe to ignore.

    Then something strange happened. Twitter edicts began to have real world effects. Organisations, private and public alike, began sacking people, or forcing humiliating apologies. They also commissioned degrading training courses in which the trainees were accused of irredeemable sin, and were obliged to say just enough to show acquiescence, but not so much that any degree of resistance might be implied.

    The MSM began to discuss these outrageous constraints and worse, forcings, on personal behaviour as if it was quite normal. It lied about events, inverting victim and aggressor roles, and tried to suppress any facts not faithful to the cause.

    The public authorities and the police began a differential approach to public order offences, smilingly tolerated in the cases of XR and BLM, deprecated with use of police force in the case of G5 vandals and London statue protectors. In the face of the Covid emergency, BLM congregations and the daily arrival of hundreds of poorly documented immigrants are fully accepted, while smaller groups for any other purposes are severely policed and publicly condemned.

    This is a classic fascist collusion of diverse powerful actors in order to impose fear and a uniformity of thought. BLM have provided the Brown Shirts which add street thuggery to the mix (obviously much more advanced in the US where it is now common for pavement diners to be demanded to signal support while being harangued to a point just short of physical violence by a crowd of “protesters.”)

    This fascism requires a rejection of western thought, art, and values, which are seen as tainted and supremacist. The authors of the Vox article are developing the intellectual framework for this creed. At the moment what they have to say about Beethoven does not matter; it will do so when concert-goers are harangued at the doors of auditoriums, concert staff are sacked, performers refuse to go to certain venues because of threats, and concerts are cancelled because of the public costs of providing security.

    The second response, which is to take substantive issue with the Vox article, mistakes the article as a contribution to western rational thought, instead of an outright attack on western values. The quality of the argument is not primary, since it will be enforced by threats and pain. Indeed the more absurd the argument, the more complete the subjugation of those it is designed to humiliate. In fact every time a substantive debate occurs, the insane and harmful idea is entered into the mainstream of reasonable debate, whose outer boundaries are thereby extended in the direction of the greater absurdities we will be forced to agree to, should this fascist revolution not be stopped.

  12. Back in 1990 I conducted a concert at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Music by Duke Ellington…his Three Black Kings suite, and Beethoven…his 7th symphony, was on the program. After the concert an elderly black woman came up to me, shook my hand and thanked me for presenting this concert at the venue where she had seen many wonderful performers over the years. As she was about to leave she smiled and said, “You know, I never knew Beethoven had so much soul.”

  13. That was a good article by Daniel Lelchuk. It’s not like we lack examples of talented composers who had to create under the strictures of tyrants; let’s-drench-the-world-in-politics, Vox, seems happy to join those tyrants. Here is a bit of a comment I posted on the music site, the Music Salon which linked to Daniel’s article:

    The lie at the heart of gender/race/class studies: that its methodology opens new vistas into traditional curricula of the humanist West. No. It is all answers, no questions. Ideology, I believe, is the term. Like all ideologies it narrows human margins down to the bone: White man bad, et al. What the ideologist cannot comprehend is that when a man or woman sits down to paint, draw, compose, write, sculpt, design he or she ceases to be a man or woman - he or she becomes an artist - that is, a being whose palette is the entire phenomenal sonic and visible world, along with the added spice of imagination. Of course the artist and his/her work will be spotted with signs of his/her time; but those will be incidental and not the artist’s purpose for his or her work. The ideologist, stuck in the cement shoes of politics cannot comprehend that next to fire, the gods greatest gift to humanity was art - a wonderful, non-utilitarian, free grace-note that expands our sense of being human …

  14. Untenable, and believe me I’ve tried. My family, including my parents, stopped speaking to me after I expressed my opinion that the BLM protests should at the very least be given the same treatment from our government, institutions, and media that the lockdown protests received merely two weeks before. They were troubled that I would equate such an important movement with the hate and ignorance of those confederate flag waving hicks. I pointed out that it was they who argued that the anti-lockdown protests were putting all our lives at risk and spreading the disease and it was also they who argued that no restriction was too restrictive if even one life could be saved. By their own standards (the ones they made such an exhibition of only a week prior) the BLM protests were illegitimate and as good as murder.

    That night I was told via text that my own family was scared of me, they apparently fear the things I will say when I visit and want me to seek help for my “anger,” which they believe I hold. I suspect they lacked a framework by which to understand the argument I was making. To them it is a self evident truth that white supremacy is embedded within every part of our society and every person is either knowingly or unknowingly perpetuating it. Anyone who questions these truths or appears insufficient in condemning it can only be motivated by white supremacy. Thus, no part of the argument I made was ever considered or even acknowledged for it was regarded as nothing more than “anger”. The next time they spoke to me was when they showed up to my wedding in August. We have only spoken a few times since.

    The friends I have are not much different. Woke ideology isn’t just the only framework they have to understand the world, it’s the only framework they have to understand themselves. Their self worth, social status, and privilege are all legitimized through this ideology. When I question it, or present facts that contradict it, I am not just attacking an abstract set of beliefs. I am attacking them personally and questioning the legitimacy of their worldview as well as devaluing the only currency they have to trade for social status.

    Untenable. I’ve already lost too much.

  15. The fact that your family gets cross about your views shows that they are insecure in their own views to some extent.

    I had a friend ith your problem. His family had turned quite lefty in the course of a few years as his brother and sister caught the bug and the mother and followed on so as to please their pushy children. it was quite easy really because mum and dad were both civil servants.

    What my friend did to counter this situation was to introduce me to the family. On his instructions I turned the charm up to maximum and played the eccentric Tory Toff to the limit. Every time anything political came up, I would not attack their left-wing views drectly but instead insinuate that people of refinement were above such things. It worked a charm. Now the mother subscirbes to the Spectator and the siblings are far more moderate in their views.

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