by Ralph Leonard
Wednesday, 16
September 2020
Reaction
15:38

Why are we racialising Beethoven?

As a person of colour, I don't feel 'excluded' when I listen to the 5th Symphony
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.

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Patrick Harris
Patrick Harris
2 years ago

Thanks for this response. I was appalled to read the Vox article. Once artists are dead, all culture that survives becomes to an extent ‘establishment’ by its very nature. However, culture, and in particular music is accessible to everyone; in Beethoven’s case the music is even accessible to young children.

To try and say that ‘women, lgbt, and people of colour’, i.e. almost the entire world population feels excluded from this is simply ridiculous and divisive.

frances heywood
frances heywood
2 years ago
Reply to  Patrick Harris

The people who wrote the Vox article, and their followers, are culturally and historically ignorant. Unfortunately they are not alone. So blinded by their stupidity, rage, and envy, they would probably denounce great black musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, and the great black sopranos such as Jessye Norman (if they knew of these people) as Uncle Toms and coconuts. They believe that classical music is elitist. Just as in Mao’s cultural revolution.

lgmourraillev
lgmourraillev
2 years ago
Reply to  Patrick Harris

You are right. This is bull sheet.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago

‘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.’

These works are no more or less accessible than they have been for at least 150 years. Pre-internet, and despite a distinctly non-elite background in the middle of nowhere, I had absorbed most of the musical, literary and artistic canon by my mid-20s. In fact, one could argue that with the decline of libraries and the collapse of educational standards it is now harder to do this. After all, the internet is pretty useless if you don’t even know what you’re looking for.

Funnily enough I recently read a book of Beethoven’s letters. In truth the letters were mainly rather boring, although I was amused to learn that doctors applied hot bark to his arms in an attempt to cure his deafness.

Patrick Harris
Patrick Harris
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I like your point “the internet is pretty useless if you don’t know what you are looking for”. Very true!

Ian Wigg
Ian Wigg
2 years ago
Reply to  Patrick Harris

I would disagree. It can be fascinating (and admittedly terrifying at times) if you treat the internet as an unimaginably large textual/audio/visual library and wander around at random. Diving down rabbit holes, following sometimes random diversions. You can unearth the most wonderous and unspeakable creations of mankind. If you start the journey by knowing the destination you’ll take the shortest, easiest route. If you start the journey by following the wind your journey will be infinitely longer but infinitely more satisfying.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

“In fact, one could argue that with the decline of libraries and the collapse of educational standards it is now harder to do this.” Another example – I’m just old enough to remember when BBC2 and Channel 4 regularly showed foreign-language films – already, by the time I was watching in the 1990s, in late-night slots, but they were routinely publicised with good reviews in the Radio Times and you could record them on VHS for later viewing. So in my teenage years I became swiftly acquainted with Jean Renoir, Luis Bunuel, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Yasujiro Ozu, etc, etc. Within a few years these broadcasts had mostly vanished and been replaced by continental football matches… Now, of course, the films themselves are readily accessible again on blu-ray, via streaming services or on niche channels… but it’s much harder to learn about them in the first place, if you’re not actively looking.

In 1972, the great Italian film director Roberto Rossellini was commissioned by RAI (the Italian equivalent of the BBC) to realise a docudrama about Blaise Pascal. RAI kept careful records of viewing figures and audience response. As it happens, Rossellini’s Pascal film was only moderately well received by its audience, but RAI judged it to have been a success anyway, since in the weeks after its broadcast there was a perceptible spike in sales of books about Pascal. That was the criterion a European public broadcaster used to judge the success of their projects, less than half a century ago.

jacquilayton29
jacquilayton29
2 years ago

A couple of months ago it was reported that Beethoven was black. Mozart is already black as black actors play Amedus, so you don’t have to worry about listening to them, they’ve already been stolen from white culture. Cultural appropriation works in only one direction.

henrysporn
henrysporn
2 years ago
Reply to  jacquilayton29

in the other direction, it’s cultural imperialism (by the West, of course). It’s a lose-lose proposition.

joe_falconer
joe_falconer
2 years ago

Why are we racialising Beethoven?

The answer is that the mob needs to feed – its as simple as that.

yazlalani4
yazlalani4
2 years ago

Thank you for writing this article. “As a” woman of colour I grew up on classical music, starting piano at age 4 and learning to play Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt etc…and the Beatles. All masterfully composed music. All white men. But to me, this point is not relevant or disarming. Most music that has moved me has been composed by white men (classical “greats”, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, 90s grunge bands, 80s hair bands etc.) I like what I like. I don’t care to investigate the identity politics behind my personal tastes.

Paul M
Paul M
2 years ago
Reply to  yazlalani4

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 don’t have to run it through hoops to come to that decision.

Andrew Russell
Andrew Russell
2 years ago

Vox: Not so much scraping the barrel of high culture as applying a power drill to the bottom of it. There are delirious levels of narcissism involved in such reactions, constitutive of Nietzschean ressentiment at its most infantile.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago

Great article.

For others”Š””Šwomen, LGBTQ+ people, people of color”Š””ŠBeethoven’s symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism.

There is so much wrong with that statement.

Firstly it assumes that (the extraordinarily diverse) Women & LGBTQ+ are all one hive mind of thought. Secondly it then projects that (hypothetical) group’s grievance as some sort of fact that seeks to undermine classical music in general. Finally, we are talking about art, which is open to whatever perception or interpretation you allow. Trying to tar it as anything “ist” is both reductionist and plain stupid.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
2 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Indeed – and as regards “LGBTQ+” (if we must use the current terminology), for many centuries, the arts have actually been a haven for gay people, who have long been disproportionately represented among artists and creative interpreters. Tchaikovsky or Britten, for example, found classical music to be an outlet for their sexuality, which audibly informs the textures, moods and attitudes of Eugene Onegin or Peter Grimes.

Susan Imgrund
Susan Imgrund
2 years ago

Couldn’t Beethoven score a few points in the Identity Politics Top Trumps for being deaf?

jason.livermore
jason.livermore
2 years ago
Reply to  Susan Imgrund

You mean differently abled. 🙂

nicktoeman4
nicktoeman4
2 years ago

If we all stick within our own cultures we will become a very fractured society.

ds111222
ds111222
2 years ago

The article is refreshingly sane, striking the right chord and music to my ears!

anatole.pang
anatole.pang
2 years ago

Do you know what Beethoven is doing now?

Decomposing.

Stephen Murray
Stephen Murray
2 years ago
Reply to  anatole.pang

The old one’s are not necessarily the best. Beethoven probably heard that one before.

anatole.pang
anatole.pang
2 years ago

The Dutch composer and bandmaster Willem Breuker said: there’s no such a thing as classical music or pop music … or whatever.

There’s just good music and bad music.

simelsdrew
simelsdrew
1 year ago

As someone who was taught to play classical music on a piano, this criticism of Beethoven’s music and clssical music in general is gibberish.

jasniirizarry23
jasniirizarry23
2 years ago

This makes me so mad when people call Beethoven black but he is not black people understand that people’s just being racist Including the Black people the Black people Are being idiots In TikTok In the Internet and everywhere 😡 people and black peoples saying Beethoven is black they need to get a life and learn history and respected 😡😡 .

Kirk B
Kirk B
2 years ago

Vox should recall how that great elitist Leonard Bernstein hosted a fundraising party for the Black Panthers back in January, 1970. The term radical chic arose from that event.

richard.carriere1387
richard.carriere1387
1 year ago

Wow. What a great article and well articulated. Thank you!!