by Ralph Leonard
Wednesday, 16
September 2020

Why are we racialising Beethoven?

by Ralph Leonard
Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

It is customary for aspiring progressives and radicals to ‘problematise’ works associated with Western ‘high culture’. You see this with campaigns to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ in universities or assertions that working-class kids won’t ‘get’ Shakespeare because the quaint nature of these works are exclusionary, unrelatable to their ‘lived experience’ as marginalised peoples, and expresses the worldview of white, bourgeois, heterosexual men  —  their oppressors.

Recently, Vox published a podcast as part of a mini-series by its affiliate music podcast, Switched on Pop, marking the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig Van Beethoven and attempting to meditate on his musical legacy. In the third episode, the hosts looked at his 5th Symphony and its legacy vis-à-vis the relationship between elitism, race and classical music. The synopsis made a big deal over how masterpieces have been used by rich white men as “a symbol of their superiority and importance”, followed by a strange sentence that reads:

For others — women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color — Beethoven’s symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism.
- Vox

Without speaking ‘as a’, but as someone who would be classified as a ‘person of colour’, when I listen to Beethoven I don’t feel excluded. I don’t feel like I am being condescended to. I, like many listeners of many different backgrounds, marvel at this numinous piece of music as one of the best ever composed by a human being. In fact, I feel condescended to when issues like this are inappropriately racialised.

Now, there is something to be said about the relationship between the classics, class and elitism. It is true that there has been a rule-bound uptight elitist culture that has surrounded classical music. It is also true that elitists will appropriate great arts to justify their prejudices. That is because traditional elites have always seen themselves as the gatekeepers of culture and civilisation. They want to keep the best works humanity has created for themselves.

But one of the great things about modern society is how technology, the global market and the internet has made the great pieces of culture like Beethoven accessible on a scale never before seen, bypassing traditional elite networks. The point is that it’s not the music itself that is exclusionary, but cultural institutions and venues which should be reformed to be made less so.

Instead of crassly politicising culture in the service of a tendentious agenda, we should view the great works of Beethoven as part of the common cultural treasure of the human race that we should pass on to future generations for cultivating their own enlightenment.

Join the discussion

  • September 21, 2020
    Not if he had his back to the speaker ;-) Read more

  • September 20, 2020
    Totally agree with you Yasim. Music has given me so much over my life via listening to and playing instruments. That's it, no more scrutiny is required. This kind of article is a case of "just because you can write it doesn't mean you should" You hear music and think I like that or I don't. I... Read more

  • September 19, 2020
    be careful what you wish for. Read more

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