The Well-Tempered Ear

Did Beethoven and his Fifth Symphony foster racism, exclusion and elitism in the concert hall? The Ear thinks that is PC nonsense. What do you think? | September 19, 2020

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By Jacob Stockinger

Controversy has struck big among classical music critics and fans — just in time for the Beethoven Year that will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth this December. Plans call for celebrations by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, and others. 

At question is what seems yet another fallout and dust-up from the Black Lives Matter movement and the current struggle to foster social justice and racial equality.

In some ways, it all seems inevitable.

Now the history-denying advocates of cancel culture are suggesting that Beethoven (below) and his music – especially the popular Fifth Symphony (you can hear the famous opening in the YouTube schematic video at the bottom)  –  fostered white privilege and the rise of racism, sexism and homophobia in the concert hall.

That seems like quite an accusation for a single composer and a single piece of music that was premiered in 1808.

The assertion is food for thought. But not much.

In the end The Ear finds it a stretch and a totally bogus argument. He thinks that Beethoven attracted far more performers and audiences than he repelled. Others, including famed critic Norman Lebrecht in his blog Slipped Disc and a critic for the right-wing newspaper The New York Post, agree:

The Ear also thinks it is political correctness run amok, even for someone who, like himself, advocates strongly for diversity of composers, performers and audiences – but always with quality in mind — in the concert hall.

Just because Beethoven was such a great creative artist is hardly cause to blame him for the inability of other artists to succeed and for non-white audiences taking to classical music. Other forces — social, economic and political — explain that much better.

Yes, Beethoven is a towering and intimidating figure. And yes, his works often dominate programming. But both musicians and audiences return to him again and again because of the originality, power and first-rate quality of his many works.

Beethoven himself was deaf. That would certainly seem to qualify him as inclusive and a member of an important category of diversity.

No matter. The writers are happy to blame Ludwig and his work for exclusion and elitism. They argue that people of color, women and LGBTQ people have all felt alienated from classical music because of Beethoven’s legacy.

Of course, there is elitism in the arts. People may be equal, but creative talent is not.

And clearly, Beethoven was a towering and intimidating figure – more for the quality of his music than for the simple fact that it exists. Such exclusion and elitism have to do with other factors than the composition of the Fifth Symphony.

If The Ear recalls correctly, when he died Beethoven was given the largest state funeral up to that time for a non-royal, non-politician or non-military person.

And how do you explain that Beethoven’s music, so representative of Western culture, appeals deeply to and attracts so many Asians and Asian-Americans, and became both banned and symbolically central to those opposed to Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China?

But these days being provocative can become its own reward.

You can read the analysis and decide about its merits for yourself, then let us know what you think in the Comment section.

Here is a link to the opinion piece in Vox Magazine, a free online journal:

What do you think about the idea that Beethoven played a large and seminal role in fostering an elitist and exclusive culture in classical music?

Did you ever feel alienated from classical music because of Beethoven or know others who have?

What is your favorite Beethoven composition?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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  1. Comment by Vincent Fuh — September 20, 2020 @ 9:58 am

  2. Of course those crazy liberals are bringing up all this nonsense. Beethoven would be flabbergasted to hear the nonsense spewed about how he is responsible for elitism, exclusion, and racism. I’M flabbergasted!

    Oh, wait! * I’m *a crazy liberal. So crazy I think liberalism is open to opposing views, opposes banning books or ideas, and thinks free speech, and free access to all kinds of music, are basic components of being a liberal. As such I believe people should be able to expound their ideas freely and try them on the open marketplace.

    That said I *cannot *understand how they can believe these ideas make any sense. That they do flabbergasts me! Just because Beethoven’s music might have led to new norms for concert-goers I cannot see how either he or the music is to blame. It is the behavior of others that has led to any problems there may be. I feel the opponents are exaggerating those problems, also.

    I have been a season subscriber to the Madison Symphony since Overture Hall opened. I have often commented to my companions how good it would be to see more young people and more members of minority groups present. I felt and feel that the situation was such primarily due to the costs of attending the symphony. The problem is much the same for the theater, the opera, the ballet. Is Beethoven responsible for this too? I cheer all of the outreach programs the Symphony has to reach these groups. They show no inclination to discriminate against any of them. They hold special concerts for them. And almost every regular concert introduces works by new composers.

    Clothing? I have seen people wearing shorts and short sleeved shirts, open at the neck, people wearing jeans and other informal wear at many performances and no actions to exclude them. Some of these show up repeatedly, similarly attired. They must not have felt too excluded. I have been at performances when people applaud at “Inappropriate” times. The fact there are only a few doing so quickly leads them to hold their applause until the house in general applauds. I hope this does not intimidate anyone so they discontinue coming. I do not believe any hostility is directed their way.

    I do not come from a family that attended such events. I started attending because I had learned to like the music by listening to phonograph records. (Does anyone remember them?) I had to learn “how to behave” by emulating the crowd. Rather than discriminating against “newbys” I found the audience glad to help me appreciate the music and the experience, happy to have new recruits to the “cause”. I feel the same way toward concert newcomers today.

    When we can start attending such events again I urge anyone who has not done so and has a curiosity about it to attend if they can afford the entry price. There are special rush tickets and other ways the economically challenged can get cheaper tickets. As long as you do not talk when the music is playing or act offensively the worst that will happen to you is you will be treated just as anyone else is who does not know other members of the audience. I’m sure you will not be shunned or discriminated against. Unless you try to convince me Beethoven and his music are discriminating against you.

    Daryl Sherman

    My favorite composer is Beethoven, but I like hundreds of other classical composers. I appreciate jazz and folk music. Some country music is good but a lot does not appeal to me. I have a lower tolerance for rock and roll and its offshoots. My all time favorite piece is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Handel’s *Messiah *gives it pretty good competition. The first piece of classical music I ever purchased was Dvorak’s *New World Symphony. *

    On Sat, Sep 19, 2020 at 12:01 AM The Well-Tempered Ear wrote:

    > welltemperedear posted: “PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG > POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not > just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw > potential audience members to an event. And you might even a” >

    Comment by Daryl Sherman — September 19, 2020 @ 5:49 pm

  3. So disappointed by this lazy, trouble-in-river-city piece, one which (either on purpose or not) tries to delegitimize not only BLM, but other attempts to have a hard look at the myriad ways in which much high-art culture is dominated by certain groups, how high-art culture seems to affirm the priorities of those groups, and how it can, and has, marginalize those not in those groups. To pretend that the real issue here is fairly represented by the extremity of the “cancel-Beethoven” folks is absolutely dishonest ahd defensive. Shabby music writing, as far as I’m concerned. I’m unsubscribing…

    On Fri, Sep 18, 2020 at 10:02 PM The Well-Tempered Ear wrote:

    > welltemperedear posted: “PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG > POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not > just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw > potential audience members to an event. And you might even a” >

    Comment by Luke Schulze — September 19, 2020 @ 5:34 pm

    • whoa… I don’t mind learning about the fact that these voices exist out there. Nor do I find that it delegitimizes groups with well-founded concerns over exclusion.

      Comment by trs — September 22, 2020 @ 4:41 am

  4. I agree with you. Beethoven only wanted to create music, not play politics. I Think people today are carrying this political correctness business too far. Wish folks would just sit back and cool it, for once.

    Comment by Frank Stowers — September 19, 2020 @ 1:25 pm

  5. The elephant in the room is the referenced podcast “Switched on Pop” which in turn is based on the book of the same title by the two authors of this Vox piece.

    The result: gain lots of needed visibility for your podcast and book.

    It’s the way the internet works.

    Comment by Augustine — September 19, 2020 @ 7:37 am

  6. I believe it’s quite the opposite. Beethoven was the first major voice for the people rather than another voice for the aristocracy.

    Comment by Susan Fiore — September 19, 2020 @ 7:13 am

  7. “What do you think about the idea that Beethoven played a large and seminal role in fostering an elitist and exclusive culture in classical music?”

    oh please.

    Comment by Kathy Otterson — September 19, 2020 @ 6:58 am

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