Beethoven’s Dead — Can We Move on Now?

 With Beethoven’s 250th birthday coming up, there are innumerable plans to celebrate the prolific composer worldwide. Among other activities, Oberlin Conservatory students will perform the legend’s complete symphonies and string quartets in his honor. While this is a grand undertaking, and the intentions are noble, the result is exclusionary for many. At an institution known for progressive programming and an awareness of exclusionary power structures in the classical music world, this is rather disheartening.

I write this not to undermine the impact Beethoven has had on classical music. Thanks to his music and his influence with an avid Beethoven fan in the administration of the Paris Conservatoire, orchestra rehearsals became standardized and intensified. The conductor as we know it was born, and the caliber of orchestras worldwide increased to the level we have grown accustomed to. Music in the 19th century has become all but synonymous with the sublime and anxiety of influence (specifically in reference to Beethoven). He has almost certainly become the most performed composer around the world, year after year. But for this revolutionary’s birthday, is overplaying his music the best celebration we can do?

Concert programming is not a simple task; it is not just about finding and playing pretty music. Yes, Beethoven wrote some great music, but he also influenced generations following him. I’ll tell you a secret: There is a lot of other great music out there, and not all of it is written by dead, straight, white, cis men. In fact, discovering more would be a wonderful project in itself.

It is important that we ask ourselves: What are we celebrating when we celebrate Beethoven? Why do we place his music on a pedestal and deify him? It isn’t because he wrote the most beautiful music or the most exciting, but because he was revolutionary, took risks, and challenged the standards in the music world. What was once revolutionary gradually becomes conservative. It is hypocritical to claim Beethoven is relevant today because his music was revolutionary 200 years ago.

The hero worship invoked in the statement that music would be completely different had he not existed is self-evident. While it is true to say that it would have been different, who is to say that it wouldn’t have been better? How much did the focus placed on Beethoven silence voices that could have exceeded him had they been given the chance? While, yes, it is possible that the development of European art music could have been severely hindered had he never existed, to treat him as a god is simply wrong.

This hero worship is the fault of a system that endorses the Myth of Genius and the Great Man Theory. These are, at their heart, the same issues that have led to the rise of fascism and numerous dictatorships. While it is perhaps a bit extreme to compare Beethoven to a dictator, there are parallels worth acknowledging. The two conditions required for the maintenance of a dictator’s power are: 1) There must be a sufficient majority that believes in the necessity of maintaining existing power; and 2) There must be a strong enough deterrent against dissent. While the consequences of contesting Beethoven’s rule are not so dire, if one were to renounce Beethoven’s music, it would be analogous to ending one’s career (of course, this only applies to those who play instruments for which he wrote). To refuse Beethoven’s god-like reign would be to refuse a career performing classical music. And while I would love to live in a world where the creation of music is not contingent upon capitalism’s nod of approval, that is simply not the world we, as musicians, live in. We live in an age of subsistence musicianship. We do what we can because we must.

Returning to Oberlin specifically, I understand that this is a (largely) “classical” music institution and, as such, has a responsibility to prepare the students for a career playing mostly canonical Western music. But what should make this institution special is its ability to train musicians to expand and question the hegemonic institution of the canon at the same time. As such, this critique is only about Beethoven insofar as it is not about Beethoven. If we were to approach any piece of music with the same scrutiny we place on Beethoven, we would be able to learn just as much from those pieces, and they would be just as hard. Tradition is no reason to neglect and oppress.