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:

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: Once a despised symbol of bourgeois decadence, the piano now holds a revered place in the new China – and Steinway plans to capitalize on the change

July 16, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

In China, the piano is not what it used to be for many decades.

Especially during the era of Chairman Mao Zedong, the piano became a symbol of Western culture and bourgeois decadence that the Communist leader and his followers rejected.

But with the recent economic resurgence of China and its emphasis on education – coupled to the “tiger mom” phenomenon — the piano has become a status symbol.

Steinway Grand Piano

The Ear earlier ran a piece on the way Western classical music is treated in today’s China versus how it was treated during the Cultural Revolution.

Here is a link to that background story:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/07/10/classical-music-how-did-western-classical-music-fare-in-china-during-the-cultural-revolution-and-today/

And this past week, The New York Times featured an extended story about the future of the piano in China – along with the future in China of the Steinway piano company, the most famous maker of pianos in the world.

Here is a link to that fascinating story that certainly suggests that the center of the classical piano culture is shifting from Western Europe and North America to Asian and specifically China:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/business/international/steinways-grand-ambitions-in-china.html?_r=0

 


Classical music: The Ear sees blackmail, censorship, self-censorship and moral weakness –- NOT “compromise” – in the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to cancel the “Live in HD” broadcast of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” next fall.

June 24, 2014
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It sure doesn’t seem like the Metropolitan Opera (below) could or should be the hero in this opera. More like it plays the role of the bad guy, the villain.

Met from stage over pit

Or is it really more of a soap opera?

In case you haven’t been following the news, the general director of the Metropolitan Opera Peter Gelb has caved in to pressure from Israeli lobbies and agreed to cancel the scheduled “Live in HD” broadcast of the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” by the acclaimed contemporary American composer John Adams (below and at bottom in a YouTube video with the stage director of the Met’s production.)

John Adams

 The Ear finds that action thoroughly reprehensible.

It seems the pro-Israeli lobby thinks the opera is anti-Semitic and too kind in the way it treats the four Palestinian terrorists — from the Palestine Liberation Organizations — who in 1985 took over the luxury cruise ship the Achille Lauro and killed the disabled Jewish passenger Leon Klingerhoffer in his wheelchair and then threw him overboard.

Well, I want to tell the head honchos at the famed Met: Don’t do my thinking about terrorism and Mideast peace for me. Just give me the facts and let me make up my own mind.

I want to see art, not propaganda, which is apparently what some pro-Israeli activists think would be good for the rest of us. I think I can see tragedy where there is tragedy, whether it is Jewish or Arab tragedy, Israeli or Palestinian tragedy. Just listen to the “Night Chorus” (below) and watch the videos that go with it:

This whole affair sound more than a little to my mind like a protester who would censor William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” or Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” in the name of a higher morality.

I say: Let us see the opera –- it is one of next season’s “Live in HD” satellite broadcasts that I would like most to attend -– and then decide for ourselves.

Stop condescending to us, stop underestimating us.

Now, one suspects that the poor finances of the Met would help to explain a lot of the shameful action. And Gelb admits that donors didn’t pressure him but that groups connected to donors did.

So here is the compromise: There will be no protesting at the actual opera production in New York City –- where tickets can run hundreds of dollars and seating is limited and most of the world cannot and will not see it — and no boycotting or withdrawing of financial support if the Met doesn’t broadcast it worldwide to a much larger audience.

I think I smell blackmail.

What do you smell?

I know I smell censorship on the part of the protesters and self-censorship of the part of the famed opera company’s administrators who caved in to their demands.

“The Death of Klinghoffer” would seem to build on the other news-based or reality-based operas of John Adams that the Met has staged and then broadcast so successfully by the Met: “Nixon in China” (below) about President Richard Nixon meeting Chairman Mao; and “Doctor Atomic,” about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the building of the first atomic bomb.

DeMainNixon Orth2

Here is a line to the story in The New York Times about the original decision:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/18/arts/music/met-opera-cancels-telecast-of-klinghoffer.html?_r=0

And here is a link to reaction from the composer John Adams, who counters objections and make convincing points:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/19/arts/music/klinghoffer-composer-responds-to-mets-decision.html

Here is a link to a fine critique from the longtime senior music critic for The New York Times Anthony Tommasini:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/21/arts/music/what-the-death-of-klinghoffer-could-have-accomplished.html

Here a link to a fine editorial that appeared in The Boston Globe:

http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/editorials/2014/06/21/met-opera-embarrasses-itself-and-cheats-its-audience-cancelling-klinghoffer-broadcast/2zsWa83uXtcIsFU5eQd0nI/story.html

And here is another great editorial, this one from The New York Times, which is located in a city known for its large Jewish population and, one presumes, its large body of Jewish subscribers:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/20/opinion/the-metropolitan-operas-backward-move.html

 

 

 

 


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