Beethoven to the Guillotine?

Posted October 23, 2020
By Daniel Lelchuk

In recent years, certain factions of the “socio-culturally aware” class have been sifting through history with the fine-toothed comb of 21st century moral superiority, snagging a host of prominent figures and indicting them for not meeting the rigorous standards of this particular moment (not year, or season, but moment, as the goalposts change by the minute).  It doesn’t matter if the offender is Robert E. Lee, confederate general, or Robert Frost, New England poet, whose eponymous library at Amherst College is being threatened by petition due to his alleged racism—the movement to cleanse our history steamrolls on with incredible lack of nuance or, in some cases, even facts. Which leads us to Beethoven.  

As a full-time orchestral cellist (and host of the recently launched podcast Talking Beats with Daniel Lelchuk), I never would have guessed that I’d have occasion to defend not his music but the very idea of Beethoven. I love talking about music, I love passionate debate, and I savor the opportunity to discuss recordings, performance trends, and favorite repertoire with colleagues or audience members. But recently, by way of an article and podcast mini-series in Vox, it has become necessary to actually come to Beethoven’s side—Beethoven as a cultural entity, as a symbol of the human and the democratic in music. 

Earlier this Fall, Vox published an article titled “How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music.” “Since its 1808 premiere, audiences have interpreted [its opening progression] as a metaphor for Beethoven’s resilience in the face of his oncoming deafness,” write Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding. But “for some in other groups—women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color—Beethoven’s symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism.” 

The article was widely mocked on social media—in part because the authors offer no real evidence for their claim. That’s odd, given that they are purporting to redefine the cultural meaning of what is arguably the most well-known, widely performed, and beloved composition known to humankind. Hundreds of millions of people have fallen in love with this symphony over the past two centuries—many of them inspired by the fact that Beethoven created it while succumbing to deafness. I wrote a piece for “Quillette” called “Then they Came for Beethoven,” which was widely shared on social media and the internet. In the ensuing time, I have heard from many people across the world, from Chile to California, Texas to Bulgaria, thanking me for writing it. In reading many of the letters I received and speaking to more and more people on my podcast, I came to realize there was more to write, as I considered various aspects that were brought up—particularly, that of freedom of artistic expression.

In non-pandemic times, I perform classical music for diverse audiences all over the world. Beethoven’s music is precious to me. It’s bizarre to hear these two men talk in a way that has no connection whatsoever to Beethoven’s actual work. Instead, these pop music writers wish to compel new program content--effectively restraining the free expression of artists and the freely expressed musical choices, interests, and desires of the public—without offering any creative ideas other than pushing Beethoven into some odd “guilt by association” circle. 

 As obviously unfamiliar with orchestras in our modern world as the “expert” writers seem to be (i.e. thinking there are mysterious gatekeepers enforcing non-existent dress codes, hinting that the rich and powerful make big societal decisions in smoke-filled back rooms at intermission of the symphony, etc.), their roundabout criticisms speak to a larger, more interesting issue—the availability and role of classical music in contemporary North American society. 

They find it convenient to blame orchestras for not adventurous-enough programming, but offer little else, and avoid one of the important elephants in the room—general societal awareness and knowledge of what we call classical music. When one steps back and looks at funding, one sees that the United States spends a shockingly low amount of money supporting its cultural institutions. Why is the budget for the National Endowment of the Arts a paltry $147.9 million, or .004% of the US GDP, while Germany just added $140 million to their culture budget, bringing the total to $2.2 billion? It seems if orchestras are to have the freedom (should they wish) to present sufficiently bold or new or little-known repertoire, perhaps adding a zero to our national arts budget would be a nice start. 

But to get back to Beethoven, I believe the point is that Beethoven was not just a musical revolutionary but also a revolutionary in shaping the relation of a musician with his audience. Bizarrely, Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding accuse Beethoven—whose democratic ideals are well-known to anyone familiar with his life story—of empowering colonialism. Says one, “I can almost even see the sort of stride of empire, colonialism, industrialism, all those things that have sort of that same built in narrative of triumph and conquering.”

Really? That’s what you imagine when Beethoven’s 5th begins? I would be scared to imagine what flits though his mind during a performance of Wagner’s Parsifal.

 Beethoven made music the event. Not music as accompaniment to grand opera, not music as background to a soirée, and certainly not music for the wealthy and powerful. Beethoven held real concerts for the public, as opposed to his predecessors who, partially by virtue of their employment, were compelled to hold private musical events at the residence of an aristocratic patron. With Beethoven, music was no longer a form of entertainment but was an event, an inclusive cultural event. Before him, a musician was the protégé of a patron, a refined servant working in private homes, such as Haydn and his employment by Prince Esterhazy, or Bach and his employment by the Church, for that matter. Beethoven revolutionized that condition, and that’s how the new way of listening to music was born—the concert presented for the public. That new way of listening is our way—music for the sake of music, which is partially what makes a symphony concert so different from an opera. To me the democratic, anti-aristocratic dimension of Beethoven’s very existence makes accusations of elitism all the more misguided. 

All this being said, I wonder if these writers are making a devious attempt at attacking free-expression; a pseudo-intellectual power grab, as it were. I say pseudo because there is nothing actually intellectual about their offering, couched in thought as it may be, and also because none of this should be intellectualized in the first place if it is to have any chance in the general public.

It has long been obvious to me (just look at the courses liberal arts colleges and universities are offering in their music departments)  that much of the field of musicology has left behind any pretense of affection and foundational commitment for the core composers of the repertoire. 

Looking at the courses offered in the music departments of a number of well-known liberal arts colleges and universities, it’s glaringly obvious that the field of musicology is sacrificing music—the study of music—for a political-social statement that, ironically, many musicians might join on with if the intent weren’t to eviscerate the repertoire that has sustained generations of multi-everything music lovers.

What I see Sloan and Harding doing comes straight from an authoritarian regime playbook—creating discord so those in power can manipulate an unsuspecting public. They do this first by claiming you should view Beethoven skeptically and maybe shouldn’t love his music unconditionally, without scrutinizing it for violations of acceptable intention. Second, by insinuating there is some sinister elitist/colonialist/white power backstory to his music, they are sowing confusion for the sake of their artificially manufactured political agenda. Will they be calling for burnings of the score of Beethoven’s 5th in their next article?

History shows us it is a very slippery slope, and an all too familiar pattern. As a lifelong musician, a Beethoven lover rather than a Beethoven scholar, I find it frightening that ideology would trump artistic passion. But in the Sloan/Harding world, passion and beauty play no role; no, these wokest of white males, pretending to be inquisitive experts but really just waving a flimsy political flag would not only like to restrict our musical diet, they would like to force us to adopt theirs. It is a vulgar attack on free expression and intrinsic beauty couched in fake moralism.  

I am always happy to praise the universality of Beethoven, and of music more broadly—and never more so than right now, when music is about the only thing we have to fall back on for collective joy. I have been playing cello since I was five years old, and I remember the first time I played Beethoven’s 5th complete in concert—as a high-school freshman with my youth orchestra in Boston. Since then, I have been fortunate to play it many times, in many parts of the world, to audiences of every background. The thrill of the music that I felt that very first rehearsal, up in the woods of Maine at our pre-season retreat—that thrill has never left me. When people ask me if I ever get tired of playing the 5th, I answer—truthfully—that each time I play it, it leaves me more invigorated. 

Whenever I think of our capacity to love music—even on first hearing—I remember the time when I was in Qatar, playing with my orchestra. We were rehearsing the overture to Wagner’s Tannhaüser. The Orchestra had put a clip of the rehearsal online, and I was watching it that evening when a Filipino hotel employee came to my room to offer turndown service. He didn’t speak English well, but we fell into conversation. I pointed at the iPad I was using to play the video, and put on the part of the overture where the brass are playing a huge, soaring theme, and the violins are almost fighting back, playing a thicket of notes, like an uprising against the brass—a thrilling passage. The worker told me he’d never had the chance to hear any classical music in his life, yet found himself in tears by the end of the passage. I don’t know if he ever heard a single note of classical music since our meeting. But where the power of music is concerned, that one brief moment speaks for itself. 

Sloan and Harding have found their moment: the current culture is filled with woke cognoscenti, armed with litmus tests, who seek to apply political terms like “anti-democratic” or “elite” to serious culture. They pretend they are equipped with the intellectual gravitas to dismiss the likes of Beethoven, which strike me as actually elitist. Music is the most democratic of the arts. The language of music is linguistically inclusive, I could put it, and is available to everyone. Music has no fixed story. It has infinite stories, as the possibilities of fantasy and enchantment are endless. One need not look further than the experience of the Filipino man I described. Ironically, in his position working in that authoritarian Gulf state, he is deeply marginalized; but listening to Wagner with me he was as much a privileged insider as I was.

When I interviewed Walter Isaacson for the first episode of my recently-launched podcast, I asked him if we needed to do a better job defending the integrity and value of the humanities. His answer was optimistic: The humanities “naturally defend themselves.”

Especially during his 250th anniversary celebration year, given his power to inspire and his universal appeal, Beethoven was the last cultural icon I expected to see besieged. Yet here I am, a lone cellist shaking my stick, or bow in this case, in the wind. With most orchestras silenced, music is left without its greatest defender: music. So let’s take a break from the nonsense and go listen, while we still can.