Beethoven ‘cancelled’? Why people are debating whether the Fifth Symphony is elitist

21 September 2020, 18:28 | Updated: 21 September 2020, 18:30

Beethoven 'cancelled' for being 'elitist'?
Beethoven 'cancelled' for being 'elitist'? Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Two classical music podcasters have sparked an explosive debate: is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony a “symbol of elitism and exclusion”?

Da-da-da-DUMM. Beethoven’s most hummable tune, his great Fifth Symphony, is one of the most famous pieces of classical music of all time.

Were Ludwig Van alive today, the royalties he’d see trickling in from tote bag prints, film soundtrack appearances (hello, Saturday Night Fever), not to mention your gran’s tinny ringtone, would likely put him ahead of Lloyd Webber on the musicians’ rich list.

And were it not for the coronavirus pandemic forcing concert halls to close, you’d be hard pressed to find an orchestra who hasn’t found room for those four opening notes in their 2020 programme, as the world celebrates 250 years of Beethoven.

Besides being completely ingrained in today’s culture, Beethoven’s music also manages to still mean something to people today. The tense struggle of the opening, endless switching between minor and major, and that final moment of triumph, make it relatable to pretty much anyone inhabiting this brave new world.

But a musicologist and a songwriter, stars of Vox’s ‘Switched on Pop’ podcast produced with the New York Philharmonic, have been criticised for their new reading of Beethoven’s Fifth, which argues that white men embraced the work and turned it into a “symbol of their superiority and importance.”

Specifically, an article penned by presenters Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding titled How Beethoven put the classism in classical music, has got the Internet a little fired up.

Read more: Was Beethoven black? Twitter debates German composer’s true heritage >

“Wealthy white men embraced Beethoven and turned his symphony into a symbol of their superiority and importance. For others – women, LGBTQ+ people, people of colour – Beethoven’s symphony is predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism,” Sloan and Harding write.

The pair go on to explore how Beethoven’s most famous symphony influenced new concert etiquette that still shapes our live classical music listening today.

But the headline alone, it seems, triggered people into decrying that Beethoven is, in fact, being “cancelled by the left”.

An article by New York Post columnist Jonathan S. Tobin claims “cancelling Beethoven is the latest woke madness for the classical music world”.

Even Ben Shapiro, politician and would-be music critic, weighed in. No prizes for who can guess which side of the debate he came down on.

Having listened to the podcast, it seems Sloan and Harding are more trying to open a debate about the changed habits Beethoven’s symphony inspired in the concert hall.

Before and during Beethoven’s time, cheering, clapping and generally having a rootin’-tootin’ time at the symphony was pretty standard. The German composer, too, expected spontaneous talking and clapping throughout performances, particularly when his pieces were premiered.

But this all changed during the 19th century, as applause became a more policed affair. Mahler and Schumann reckoned applause should be saved for the end, and disturbers of the peace discouraged from sharing their enthusiasm before the end of a work. This became the standard during the 20th century, ultimately contributing to an unwritten rulebook of no applause between movements.

Still, unpoliced applause was absolutely happening during Beethoven’s time. We checked this with John Suchet, Classic FM presenter and Beethoven expert, who firstly said: “Beethoven elitist? The man who set the words ‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder’ – ‘All mankind will become brothers’ to music? Ridiculous.”

Suchet went on: “As for starting the convention that you should not clap between movements, if the authors had done their homework they would know that there was so much clapping and cheering after the second movements of the 7th and 9th symphonies at their first performance, that they were immediately encored.”

Sloan and Harding argue that the Fifth serves as a reminder of exclusion and segregation in the concert hall, that “a new class of self-made white men […] used this symphony as a way to police who belongs to this caste and who doesn’t. If you know how to behave in the concert hall, then you’re welcome.”

The podcast also explores how the through-the-roof popularity of Beethoven’s music in 2020 means it is frequently programmed in favour of new music. Black classical music critic James Bennett II says: “As you perpetuate the idea that the giants of the music all look the same, it conveys to the ‘other’ that there’s not a stake in that music for them.”

New York Philharmonic clarinettist Anthony McGill, who has been outspoken in the Black Lives Matter movement, says the Fifth Symphony is like a “wall” between classical music and new, diverse audiences.

“If you pretend like there’s no other music out there, that Beethoven is the greatest music that ever will matter,” says McGill, then orchestras will alienate new audiences, since “we’re not promoting any of the composers alive today that are trying to become the Beethovens of their day.”

The podcast ends with the line “Maybe it’s time we break up with Beethoven once and for all…”.

Breaking up with LVB, the Romantic so beloved for writing the unofficial anthem to the fall of the Berlin Wall and whose Ninth Symphony dreamed that ‘all mankind will become brothers’, seems a bit extreme.

But as such a giant of the music world, there’s absolutely no reason we can’t have a debate about his impact on it.