New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Getty Images
Jonathan S. Tobin
Think some things are so beloved and essential to Western civilization they can’t be canceled? Think again.
If there’s anything we should have learned from months of “mostly peaceful” Black Lives Matter street protests, statue toppling and online mobs seeking to silence anyone who dissents against leftist narratives about “racism,” it’s that no one, living or dead, is safe from the attentions of woke fascists. Even Ludwig van Beethoven.
Beethoven’s work is not only at the core of the standard repertory of classical music; some of his most popular works have also become part of popular culture, their melodies recognizable even to those who’ve never heard an orchestral concert.
For the last 200 years, Beethoven’s compositions have also been symbols of the struggle for freedom against tyranny. The “Ode to Joy” from the conclusion to his Ninth Symphony remains the definitive anthem of universal brotherhood. It is no coincidence that the opening notes of his Fifth Symphony — whose rhythmic pattern duplicates the Morse Code notation for the letter “V” as in “V for Victory” — were used by the BBC for broadcasts to occupied Europe during the Second World War.
But to woke critics, Beethoven’s music has taken on a new, darker meaning. To musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding, stars of the “Switched on Pop” podcast produced in association with the New York Philharmonic, the Fifth Symphony is a stand-in for everything they don’t like about classical music and Western culture. As far as they’re concerned, it’s time to cancel Ludwig.
On Vox.com, the pair blame Beethoven’s music for what they consider to be a stuffy elitist classical culture that bolsters the rule of white males and suppresses the voices of women, blacks and the LGBTQ community.
Beethoven’s music was so profound and different that it did begin the trend of adopting rules of behavior at concerts, like being quiet during performances and holding applause until the conclusion. But the idea that such music is the “soundtrack” for “white privilege” and oppression is imposing a contemporary woke narrative on Beethoven that has nothing to do with his music or the way it’s performed.
This isn’t the first such attack on Beethoven. In the 1980s, a musicologist named Susan McClary caused a stir with a bizarre claim that analogized the Ninth Symphony to the “rage” of an impotent rapist. But while serious thinkers dismissed McClary, that kind of delusional leftist thinking has gone mainstream in 2020.
The BLM protests have inspired other assaults on the music world, such as New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini’s demand for racial quotas in orchestral hiring that would increase the number of black performers but also limit opportunities for Asians, who are disproportionately overrepresented among modern musicians. Elsewhere, the late opera star Richard Tucker’s son David was pushed out of a family foundation that aided young singers, simply because he criticized BLM rioters and praised President Trump.
There’s something to be said for loosening up some of the informal rules of attending a classical concert. But Sloan and Harding write as if they haven’t been to a concert in 40 years: Modern concertgoers come in all sorts of attire and, if anything, many need to be instructed to turn off their phones and show more respect for fellow audience members and performers alike by shutting up.
They also haven’t noticed that orchestras and opera companies have spent the last generation falling over themselves trying to promote music written by black, Hispanic and female composers.
Some of this new music is good; a lot isn’t. But if audiences still prefer Beethoven it’s not because they’re embracing a symbol of white supremacy. They want more Beethoven and the other great white European composers, like Brahms and Mahler, who followed in his footsteps because they love it.
Indeed, without these white male immortals, orchestras like the NY Philharmonic, which were already struggling before the COVID shutdowns, would have even more trouble filling seats.
The attempt to cancel Beethoven ought to be a wake-up call for the music world and even those who aren’t classical fans: The war on Western civilization will leave nothing sacred untouched. If Beethoven can be canceled, nothing is safe.