Why Tear Down Our Heroes? We Need Them Now

 Saturday night, I went to Finney Chapel to hear Beethoven’s first two symphonies. It was exhilarating — hearing fresh, committed performances of revolutionary music. The student performers were on the same wavelength with each other and with our wonderful conductor, Professor of Conducting Raphael Jiménez. The audience was listening in rapt attention, cheering at the end of each revelatory piece.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, this is old music, part of the “hegemonic institution of the canon,” written by a dead white male, Eurocentric, a remnant of pernicious 19th-century patriarchy, an oppressive… okay, stop (“Beethoven’s Dead — Can We Move on Now?” The Oberlin Review, Feb. 28, 2020). Why do we need to attack great achievements of the past? They are part of the fabric of our culture, and there is no reason they can’t coexist with contemporary reality. There is no need to destroy past heroes to make room for new ones.

About Beethoven: He was no god — he was a flawed human being, cantankerous, ill-kempt, and disorganized. Yet, at his core, he was a noble soul, dedicated to the art of music, an affectionate friend, a jolly companion, and above all, a seeker of truth and transcendence in his chosen vocation. Beset by impending deafness, he wrote in the Heiligenstadt Testament in 1802: “… what humiliation when anyone beside me heard a flute in the far distance, while I heard nothing, or when others heard a shepherd singing, and I still heard nothing! Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and well-nigh caused me to put an end to my life. Art! Art alone deterred me. Ah! How could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?” 

Saved by his art, Beethoven continued to evolve as an artist, always pushing the envelope, always striving for deeper ways to express ideas that sustained him: reverence for nature (Sixth Symphony, Op. 68, “Pastoral”); illness and healing (String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132); bondage, freedom, and the power of love (the opera Fidelio, Op. 72); and religious faith (Missa Solemnis, Op. 123).

Let us celebrate Beethoven’s hopeful message of resilience, aspiration, and transcendence; his relevance today, 250 years after his birth; and the bracing beauty of his creations, free of ideology or preconceptions. And, if anyone else has heroes they wish us to emulate, let them proclaim them, and we can celebrate them as well.