As if having his music reduced to ringtones wasn’t insult enough, the great Ludwig van Beethoven himself has now become a political football in the cancel culture debates.
Global scrutiny on the composer has heightened in this, the 250th anniversary of his birth, and increasing wokeness in academia and arts institutions everywhere has promoted suggestions ranging from punting Beethoven’s music from the concert hall to recognizing the white supremacy of his fifth symphony.
(You know the one. Da da da dahhhh!)
Orchestras and operas around the country are grappling with their own supposed histories of systemic racism, real and conjured, to assuage social media mobs. There’s great tension between smaller musical organizations seeking to promote social and racial justice in their music, and larger institutions that often profess to do the same while programming familiar works by Beethoven and his ilk to maximize ticket sales and pay homage to the heyday of the orchestra.
But really, the “cancel Beethoven” debate isn’t so much about Beethoven or his Symphony No. 5 — once adapted as intro music for the decidedly non-elitist show “Judge Judy” — but about whether classical music more generally is too exclusive and aristocratic.
The question centers on whether the expectation to dress up and sit quietly and clap only at the right time is about reverence for the music, or social coding to distinguish between the in vs. out crowds.
True, the dim, quiet concert hall seems to be the way most fans wish to enjoy their Mozart, Mahler and Mussorgsky, according to polling.
Also true, the rarefied atmosphere of the concert hall can be off-putting and stuffy.
Many of the most famous works we hear today premiered to raucous mid-movement applause and jeers and conversations and even snacking. Classical concerts were once the pop affairs of the day, more akin to modern small-venue band showcases or dinner theater than the reflective, silent affairs they evolved into during the 19th and 20th centuries.
There should be a time and place for discussing whether concert etiquette actually serves the event or if it has become too suffocating without declaring Beethoven’s music a symbol of white supremacy. Likewise, discussions about what music orchestras should play should and do revolve around a variety of factors including community interest, ticket sales, variety of style and more.
But the polarization of society today is such that even great Western composers and symphonies must be sacrificed in the name of battling systemic racism.
Orchestras should remain open to new ideas for concerts and concert formats, but they shouldn’t heed the cries of politically motivated justice warriors, particularly when there are more pressing safety and solvency concerns as they strive to survive the pandemic.
They should recognize the need to adapt and evolve but also celebrate Beethoven. In other words, they should have that German chocolate 250th birthday cake and eat it, too.