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.


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Classical music: Musicians have four times the risk of hearing loss, study shows. Plus, pianist Mark Valenti plays a FREE recital of Brahms, Debussy and Mendelssohn at noon on Friday

January 11, 2017

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features pianist Mark Valenti playing music by Szymanowski, Brahms, Debussy and Mendelssohn. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

By Jacob Stockinger

It isn’t new research.

But The Ear stumbled on it and finds it no less compelling or convincing because it is a couple of years old.

Researchers say that musicians run four times the normal risk of hearing loss.

But they also point to things that can be done to lessen the risk.

Whether you are a professional musician, an amateur musician or an avid listener, you might want to read about this research.

So here is a link:


Classical music: Maestro John DeMain talks about the challenges and rewards of Beethoven’s “Ninth” – the “Choral” or “Ode to Joy” symphony that he will conduct this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Symphony Chorus plus soloists.

May 4, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

It could well be a case of saving the best for last.

This weekend brings what, for The Ear, is the one of the most interesting programs – maybe THE most interesting program — of the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The sonic combination of a Romantic classic and post-World War II modern music includes the performance of a major symphony that is a beloved icon around the world: the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven (below), also known as the “Choral” and “Ode to Joy” symphony.

Beethoven big

The Ninth was the symphony that Leonard Bernstein famously conducted in Germany to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So what better offering to accompany it than something composed by Bernstein – his 1954 “Serenade” for solo violin and orchestra, with MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, that is based on the Socratic dialogue “Symposium” by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. (Greenholtz will talk about the Bernstein work in a Q&A here later this week.)

Love and joy: Can there be a better way to finish out a season?

The program will be performed under the baton of longtime MSO music director John DeMain, who studied and worked with Leonard Bernstein. It will feature the Madison Symphony Chorus, as prepared by MSO assistant conductor Beverly Taylor (below), who also heads the UW-Madison choral department.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

Guest vocal soloists are: soprano Melody Moore (below top); contralto Gwendolyn Brown (below second); tenor Eric Barry (below third); and bass Morris Robinson (below bottom).

Melody Moore

Gwendolyn Brown

Eric Barry

Morris Robinson

Performances are in Overture Hall in the Overture Center. Times are Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $12-$84.

For details, go to or call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, including audio samples and a link to program notes by MSO bass trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen, visit:

Maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) recently agreed to do an email Q&A about Beethoven’s Ninth with The Ear:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Why does Beethoven’s Ninth always appeal and what makes it an icon in the public mind? What makes it at the same time so revolutionary and so typically Beethoven?

Aside from the Ninth Symphony being a great musical composition, one cannot get away from the inclusion of the poem by Friedrich Schiller (below, in a painting by Ludovick Simanowiz). The “Ode to Joy” literally shouting that all men in our universe are brothers is what makes this symphony an icon in the public mind. (At bottom is a more informal street scene flash mob performance in a YouTube video that has more than 8 million hits.)

The first three movements are typically Beethoven in style, though consummate in his compositional development. It is the inclusion of voices in the last movement, and the length and structure of the last movement that makes this symphony truly revolutionary. This was the first symphony to have included a chorus and soloists for its final movement.

Friedrich Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz

It isn’t hard to guess what meaning it holds for the public and why audiences find it popular. But what does this music do to you? How do you feel when you perform it and have finished it?

Music for me is a powerful aural emotional experience. While there is great beauty, majesty and excitement to be found in the first three movements, it is that last movement that fires up my own emotions, not dissimilar to what the listening audience is feeling as well.

Literally shouting for a united brotherhood on Earth under our Maker in heaven, Beethoven develops this movement from a lovely and simple melody in the beginning, to a massive and wild declaration at the end.

It is always a uniquely significant event, often conjuring up whatever injustices are occurring in our contemporary world. Certainly our challenges in the Middle East, and our domestic situations, most recently in St. Louis and Baltimore, will resonate in people’s minds as they listen to this music. It’s a call for harmony in the universe.

When you finish conducting the Beethoven Ninth, you are emotionally and physically drained having conducted not one, but two symphonies, as the last movement is a symphony unto itself.

John DeMain conducting 2

What are the challenges, technically and interpretatively, for you, as a conductor and for the orchestra players, the soloists and the chorus?

There is rather elaborate contrapuntal writing for the orchestra, which always poses a problem for ensemble and clarity. Length poses a challenge for endurance, particularly for the strings. The recitative sections for the orchestral basses as well as the soloist are particularly challenging for the conductor, as are the on the spot pull backs in tempo during the last movement.

We all know that the vocal writing is a challenge to both the soloists and the chorus, but particularly for the chorus. The high tessitura (average pitch range) of the writing makes it extremely difficult for the sopranos and tenors to sustain a thrilling fortissimo, for example. (Below is a photo of the Madison Symphony Chorus by Greg Anderson.)

Beethoven was completely deaf at this point in his life, and was writing what was in his mind, not paying particular attention to what was doable. But then, isn’t that how musical innovation and the stretching of form sometimes happen?

MSO Chorus from left CR Greg Anderson

Why did you choose to pair The Ninth with the Bernstein’s Serenade? Do you see certain parallels or contrasts?

Well, Lenny was a real devotee of Beethoven, and in this composition, he does marvelous things with the use of leitmotif. I love juxtaposing 20th century harmonies with the musical language of the early 19th century. Both composers use dissonance as a part of their language, but in very different ways.

The Serenade, while not specifically programmatic, deals with the various aspects of love, and relates to the Beethoven in that love has to be the basis that binds all men and women together.

I  also love featuring our wonderful concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz (below), and when she suggested the idea, I thought it would make a wonderful contrast to the Ninth, and fill out the concert in a truly wonderful way to close our season.

Naha Greenholtz [playing

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