Why people are debating if Beethoven is elitist

Iana Murray
Sunday 20 September 2020 09:00
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Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is one of the most recognisable pieces of music of all time.

But two writers have come under fire for criticising the symphony, arguing that white men embraced it and turned it into a “symbol of their superiority and importance.” On their podcast mini-series exploring Beethoven’s iconic symphony, musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding explore the history behind the piece of music and how it radically changed the politics of concerts.

You can’t really infer that without reading the article though, and after reading the headline, “How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music”, people decried that the left is “cancelling Beethoven” and accusing him of racism.

Beyond the accusations of “wokeness” gone awry, people have also rejected the idea that it’s elitist to like Beethoven. After all, it’s so ingrained in today’s culture that most people probably can’t remember a time when they didn’t know the 5th Symphony. It has even transcended classical music entirely and can be found in any genre, including most memorably, disco.

Had people listened to the podcast, they would know that Sloan and Harding talk about this exact point at length. Their point is less that Beethoven’s music itself is elitist, but that it inspired a change in etiquette that has perpetuated elitism in concert halls.

Before the premiere of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, audiences would yell and cheer like they were at a rock concert. Nowadays, they’re expected to stay quiet and conform to a dress code. Conversely, this argument suggests that concert etiquette and politeness are exclusive to rich people. But clearly, anyone can enjoy the sounds of classical music, especially Beethoven.

The podcast also explores how the 5th Symphony raised Beethoven to a god-like status that all composers aspire to be. But this also resulted in women, LGBTQ+ and composers of colour being excluded. Classical music critic James Bennett II also explains in the podcast episode how concert culture feels exclusionary:

I would never want to go to someone's home and be like we're gonna go listen to this music by the way, change your clothes, sit on your hands, and don't get up to go to the bathroom. And when you have all of this stuff together with everyone acting a certain way around the music as expected. It seems like it's part of a club.

There’s something to be said about the lack of diversity in orchestral music. As the New York Times reported in 2018, orchestras are among the least racially diverse institutions. But that conversation has been lost under all the noise of protecting poor, old Beethoven. Unfortunately, when most people just read the headline, people immediately jump to conclusions.

Are Sloan and Harding trying to cancel Beethoven? No. In fact, they wrote another article praising Beethoven’s 5th Symphony as a deft metaphor for achieving success in the face of adversity.

But in many ways, criticism is interpreted as cancellation.

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