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: How can classical music be made less white? Nine Black artists suggest changes. Which ones will work best?

July 19, 2020
3 Comments

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 attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

With all the attention given to and urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement — and other demonstrations and protests against personal and systemic racism as well as white privilege — it comes as no surprise that questions are being raised about the overwhelmingly white world of classical music and how to change it.

Most of the local classical music groups The Ear knows of have posted statements of solidarity.

If he recalls correctly, they include the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), the Middleton Community Orchestra, the Willy Street Chamber Players and many others.

But beyond declarations of solidarity with people of color, the music groups face deeper issues that require action, not just words, and remain more difficult to solve: How to attract more Black  classical musicians? How to foster more Black composers? And how to attract more Black audiences?

Diversity and equity are long-term issues, and quite a number of possible solutions loom.

Would performing more pieces, both historical and contemporary, by Black composers (below) work?

Would hiring more Black resident musicians help?

Would booking more Black guest artists and soloists help? (Below is the young and upcoming British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.)

Would changing the music curriculum in schools help? (Some important Black composers are explored in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Would generating more support to and from the Black community help?

Last week The New York Times did a fine piece of work in addressing these issues.

The reporter and music editor asked nine different accomplished Black conductors, instrumentalists, singers, critics and administrators in classical music about how to solve the inequity. The interviews were condensed and edited into very readable statements.

Here is a link to that story: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/16/arts/music/black-classical-music-opera.html

Please read it.

Then let us know which suggestions you think should be attempted first and which solutions are most likely to work.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: During global protests against racism, a longtime fan of the Madison Symphony Orchestra writes a letter to ask for more diversity and African-American composers

June 9, 2020
4 Comments

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 attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

During the ongoing global protests and demonstrations against police brutality, racism and white privilege, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) will hold its annual meeting next Tuesday, June 16, at 3:30 p.m.

The meeting is NOT open to the public — as erroneously stated in an earlier version — but just to season subscribers (not single ticket buyers) and members of MSO boards. The meeting will be virtual and held online via Zoom.

During the meeting, a statement about diversity and inclusion will be read, according to the MSO. 

If you have questions, you can call Alexis Carreon at (608) 257-3734.

With both the symphony and current events in mind, a longtime MSO subscriber has written the following letter to Manager of Individual Giving Jeff Breisach.

Please read the letter and then let us know what you think.

Do you agree or disagree?

What else would you like to say about the role of MSO in adapting to concerns about racism, injustice and privilege?

Do you have any suggestions?

“Dear J. Breisach:

“Please share my following concerns with those planning the annual meeting of the Madison Symphony Orchestra:

“In light of the recent historic events, I hope MSO will add an item or two to deal with the economic and racial injustice prevalent in Madison, as well as elsewhere in our nation.

“Specifically:

  • Empty seats should be made available as Rush Seats ($1 or $5) the day of the concert to open our halls to those facing economic disparity. Such disparity rests on a long history of racism and poverty injustice in our town and in our land. Our hall should always be full and should have a more multi-ethnic, multi-age audience than is currently the case. As our audiences stand, we are one of the most racially and economically privileged events in Madison. That must stop.
  • We need more racially diverse composers included in our regular programming–at the very least during the month of February, but even better throughout the year. And I’m not just thinking of “Porgy and Bess” tunes. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (below top) also comes to mind as a composer we need to hear more often. Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges — Joseph de Boulogne (1745-1799, below bottom) — is another. (Editor’s note: You can hear the Romance for violin and orchestra by Coleridge-Taylor in the YouTube video at the bottom.) There are more. Having a local black chorus in for Christmas is not enough!

“It is time for MSO to acknowledge its history of white privilege and take some steps to more widely acknowledge the richness of a diverse local audience and classical music history.

Sincerely,

Carol Troyer-Shank

“PS: I have been a MSO ticket holder in the economically denigrated balcony for more than 20 years.

“PS2: The architect and designers clearly thought about making more money — not about safety of attendees — when they designed a balcony to squeeze in more people instead of to allow ease of movement for lower-cost ticket holders. Shame on them! So, of course, all those seats should be filled every time. Even at $5 a ticket, the MSO would gain enormous improvement in their local image.”

 


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