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The digital newspaper Vox has created a stir this week with a podcast claiming that Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is, for some reason, a particular “symbol of exclusion, elitism, and gatekeeping.” It’s not super clear why Vox singled out the Fifth for abuse, and my conscience is frantically reminding me that I am not to provide sustenance to trolls and nitwits who aren’t me, but this is certainly intriguing. Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding suggest that “women, LGBTQ+ people, (and) people of colour” may resent Beethoven, but they conflate two arguments to produce this conclusion.
One is just that Beethoven is a dead white male who is universally deemed an incomparable composer. The other is that concerts of classical music are kind of classist and snooty, and if you showed up with a piercing or anime hair or dark skin, you might get beaten up, or sneered at, or something.
The first accusation attracts an immediate guilty plea, and identifies a real problem: no one (of any colour or creed or sexual orientation) who takes up music composition in 2020 has any real hope of becoming the equal of Beethoven. Vox found musicians to complain about the suffocating centrality of Beethoven within their tradition of creating and performing, but this sentiment isn’t the exclusive property of minorities, or of musicians. It persecutes all indiscriminately. No young mathematician setting out on a career imagines that he is going to give Euclid or even Poincaré a serious run for their money.
No one in 2020 has any real hope of becoming the equal of Beethoven
(The Vox article did immediately attract comic barbs on social media about Beethoven having had a soupçon of African ancestry — a canard, if it matters, which began to circulate long after the composer’s lifetime, and whose degree of evidentiary support rounds readily to zero. Music composition was still a family business in Beethoven’s day, and this was true of Beethoven no less than for any Bach, so the genealogies of first-class composers are often well documented.)
The second charge in Vox’s indictment — that concerts of classical music discourage outsiders — is something that (surviving) symphony orchestras have been working their fingers to the bone to address, and not without obvious success. At this point there can’t be an ensemble of any size on this continent that hasn’t spent several summers going to battle in public parks, armed with trendy film scores and orchestral pop, to play for people in jogging outfits and tank tops.
And symphony performances in concert halls never were the only pathway to consuming live classical music. If you live in a big city and you are affluent enough to afford a pair of pants, churches and colleges will let you watch live concerts without any fuss. Assuming that it is important to see classical music performed live, growing up in Wyoming is obviously a much bigger problem than being lesbian or Hispanic in Brooklyn. But you wouldn’t get very far at Vox writing about how the existence of Beethoven is unfair to poor white folks in red states.
This is the best time in history to be a devotee of classical music if participation as a live spectator is not necessarily the summum bonum of music appreciation. (If we are talking about the performing clergy who keep the classical tradition alive, they seem like a pretty diverse bunch.)
It could be that the underprivileged and the oppressed just need to hear from Glenn Gould on the topic of concert performance, which he abandoned and denounced very entertainingly. He called live audiences a “force of evil” and once wrote an essay titled “Let’s Ban Applause.” This could be dismissed as idiosyncratic misanthropy, but Gould’s career demonstrates, if it proves nothing else, that you can reject the social aspects of music without being any less of a musician, or theorist, or celebrity.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020