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: Spend a week in the Age of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I when the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival is held, starting this Saturday. Part 2 of 2.

July 6, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Starting this Saturday, the 17th annual Madison Early Music Festival will take place on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

The theme this year focuses on William Shakespeare and the Age of Queen Elizabeth I.

You can check out all the details of the festival at: http://www.madisonearlymusic.org

The co-directors of the festival – the wife-and-husband team of singers Cheryl Bensman Rowe and Paul Rowe (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot and signaled in the answers by the initials CBR and PR) took time out from the hectic preparations to answer an email Q&A with The Ear.

Here is a link to Part 1 that appeared yesterday:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/classical-music-spend-a-week-in-the-age-of-shakespeare-and-queen-elizabeth-i-when-the-17th-annual-madison-early-music-festival-is-held-starting-this-saturday-part-1-of-2/

Today is the last of two parts:

Paul Rowe and Cheryl Bensman Rowe 2016 CR KATRIN TALBOT

Why was the theme of the “Shakespeare 400: An Elizabethan Celebration” chosen for this year’s festival? What composers and works will be highlighted?l

CBR: We chose the theme to honor the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and the musical connections in his plays and sonnets, which also reflect the world of Queen Elizabeth I.

Audiences will hear many works of famous Elizabethan composers including Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tallis, Anthony Holborne, John Dowland and others.

How does Elizabethan music differ from its counterparts in, say, Italy, France and Spain. What is the historical origin and role of the music from that era?

PR: The most familiar music from this time, the madrigal, is “borrowed” from the Italians. There were several Italian composers who came to England to instruct the English in their music. The most famous collection of these pieces is called “Musica transalpine” or Italian madrigals “Englished.”

The lute song also originated in Italy but was taken to new poetic heights by John Dowland and his compatriots.

The English composers did create a unique style of sacred music with William Byrd (below top) and Thomas Tallis (below bottom) as the greatest of these Elizabethan composers.

William Byrd

Thomas Tallis

What music and composers of the era have been most neglected and least neglected by historians and performers? What big things should the public know about Elizabethan music?

PR: Audience members may be less familiar with the vocal and instrumental consort music of this era. Many of these pieces were not intended for public performance, but were played as home or parlor entertainment. The pieces were designed to be very flexible and could be played with a variety of voices and instruments.

The reign of Queen Elizabeth I (below) with her active encouragement of the arts was a peak of artistic achievement in the long history of the British Empire. Music, poetry, dance and theater all thrived for more than 20 years and produced some of the greatest masterworks of Western culture, including the plays of Shakespeare.

Queen Elizabeth I

Can you tell us about the All-Festival concert program on Saturday night, July 16?

CBR: The All-Festival Concert will feature MEMF students and faculty performing a new program created exclusively for MEMF by Grant Herried (below), “Shakespeare’s Musical World: A Day in the Life of Elizabethan London.

Grant Herreid

The program is organized by times of the day with speeches from different plays of Shakespeare. Musical reflections include several wonderful pieces by Orlando Gibbons including “The Cries of London,” “O Come Let Us Sing Unto the Lord” and a setting of the “Magnificat” by Orlando Gibbons, “Music Divine” by Thomas Tomkins, a motet by Thomas Tallis, and other works by Thomas Weelkes, Thomas Morely, John Coperario and John Dowland.

Retired UW-Madison history professor John W. Barker will be giving the 6:30 p.m. pre-concert lecture on “Queen Elizabeth I: The Politician” in the Elvehjem Building of the Chazen Museum of Art.

MEMF all festival concert 2015

Are there other sessions, guest lectures and certain performers or performances that you especially recommend for the general public?

PR: We would like to encourage everyone to see all the concerts and experience the entire week. It’s like stepping back in time to a different era—a living history lesson complete with an authentic sound track.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

CBR and PR: Check out our website for more details about everything. There is a lot to hear, see, and experience! You can purchase tickets: online; at the Vilas Hall Box Office; at the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office (Memorial Union); by calling 608-265-ARTS (2787); or the door. For more information about the MEMF concert series and workshop, please visit our website: http://www.madisonearlymusic.org

 


Classical music: Streaming gains even more momentum. Korean carmaker Hyundai will abandon in-dash CD players and titan CD seller Naxos will launch a high-definition streaming service.

January 24, 2015
3 Comments

No doubt about it.

Streaming seems the sound wave of the future.

That’s what the news about sales and trends points to, anyway.

Streaming through such services at Spotify or various app stores and retailers like Amazon.com looks to be the inevitable next step from CDs, just as CDs followed tapes and tapes followed LPs and vinyl (78, 45 and 33-1/3 RPM)-– even though vinyl is making something of a comeback among audiophiles because of its superior, less harsh sound quality.

But consider some new developments coming out of Asia, which seems to be setting the trend for the dissemination of Western classical music more than Western culture or Western industry is doing in Europe and the United States.

Korean carmaker Hyundai will get rid of CD payers in its next year’s models. Instead the music connections will run through Bluetooth electronics that link up solely to MP3 players and iPods. (Below is a photo of the new dashboard taken at a recent industry show.)

Hyundai new car audio system

Here is a link to a story that has more technical details plus a defense of KEEPING in-dash CD players – below is Japanese carmaker Honda’s more traditional in-dash CD player and changer — and the virtue of listening to one entire CD:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/posts/la-et-ms-who-still-listens-to-cds-in-the-car-20150114-story.html

Honda in-dash CD player and changer

Then consider the fact that Naxos – the Hong Kong-based budget CD label that now dominates the CD industry – is about to launch a high-definition streaming service.

http://www.classicalmusicmagazine.org/2015/01/naxos-launches-hd-streaming-service/

Naxos Records logo

Penderecki Wit Naxos

Here is some background about the company, based in Singapore, that will service Naxos’ streaming site:

http://www.digitaljournal.com/pr/2422084

The Ear has very mixed feelings about this news. He listens to all sorts of formats in the car — radio, CDs and iPods.

What about you?

Would you buy a new car without an in-dash CD player, a car that relies only on wireless and streaming technology?

And how dissatisfied are you with the sound quality of CDs versus streaming or other formats?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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