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
8 Comments

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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:

https://slippedisc.com/2020/09/beethovens-5th-is-a-symbol-of-exclusion-and-elitism/

https://nypost.com/2020/09/17/canceling-beethoven-is-the-latest-woke-madness-for-the-classical-music-world/

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: https://www.vox.com/switched-on-pop/21437085/beethoven-5th-symphony-elitist-classism-switched-on-pop

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.

 


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Classical music: World-class conductors are making news with two retirements, a death and a contract renewal. Who will emerge as the new and younger star maestros? Plus, today is the last performance by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and pianist Ingrid Fliter of music by Benjamin Britten, Frederic Chopin and Robert Schumann. Read two reviews of the concert.

February 15, 2015
4 Comments

ALERT: Today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall is the last performance by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain and pianist Ingrid Fliter (below) of the “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge” by Benjamin Brittten, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor by Frederic Chopin and the Symphony No. 4 in D Minor by Robert Schumann. Here are two reviews to tempt you.

Here is a review that John W. Barker wrote for Isthmus:

http://www.isthmus.com/daily/article.php?article=44522&sid=841e6fa0653921af622026d5ee793a0f

And here is a review that Jess Courtier wrote for The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal:

http://host.madison.com/ct/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/reviews/review-mso-gives-an-engaging-performance-of-variations/article_20ea0913-bf1b-5a71-a8fb-173831888a6e.html

ingrid fliter with keyboard

By Jacob Stockinger

Sometimes things just seem to happen in waves and clusters.

This past week has been a rough one for the media, for example.

There were the deaths of reporter Bob Simon (he was 73) of CBS News and “60 Minutes” and columnist David Carr (he was 58) of The New York Times.

Then there are the ongoing truth-telling problems of NBC’s top-rated anchor Brian Williams. And comedian-host Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show.

The same seems to go for orchestral conductors.

Female Orchestra Conductor With Baton

ITEM: Edo DeWaart will step down at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra after the 2016-17 season. It is a major loss for the orchestra that many critics say has never sounded better.

http://www.bizjournals.com/milwaukee/news/2015/02/12/edo-de-waart-to-step-down-as-milwaukee-symphony.html?surround=etf&ana=e_article

edo de waart conducting

ITEM: Alan Gilbert will step down from The New York Philharmonic after only eight seasons, after the 2016-17 season. He has his reasons for leaving such a prestigious post, especially after all the praise he has earned for programming and performing during his tenure.

Here is a terrific story from NPR (National Public Radio):

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/02/06/384318430/a-friday-surprise-alan-gilbert-will-leave-the-new-york-philharmonic

And another story for the revered British magazine Gramophone:

http://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/alan-gilbert-to-leave-the-new-york-philharmonic

New York Philharmonic Alan Gilbert

ITEM: The conductor Israel Yinon – known for exploring neglected repertoire — has died at the age of 58, during a performance in Lucerne, Switzerland of Richard Strauss’ “An Alpine Symphony.”

http://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/conductor-israel-yinon-has-died

Israel Yinon

But there is some good news:

On the other hand, the acclaimed Yannick Nézet-Séguin -– the openly gay French-Canadian maestro — has just extended his contract with the Philadelphia Orchestra through 2022.

Here is a story:

http://www.gramophone.co.uk/classical-music-news/yannick-nézet-séguin-extends-his-contract-with-the-philadelphia-orchestra

Yannick Nezet-Seguin close up

 


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