by Ralph Leonard
Wednesday, 16
September 2020

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.

Join the discussion

  • 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.

  • ‘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.

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