Friday, November 4, 2011


WQXR has been doing, I'm going to go ahead and say it, a great job lately. Q2 is awesome. They've got a fancy new website. They've gone and hired some bonafide music journalists to write pieces for their site. I'm not happy about the quality of their signal (basically un-listenable in the area of New York I'm from), but I can't complain about much else (though the programming on their main station could be a bit better).

But then there's this.

As Lisa Hirsch raised yesterday: do we really, really need more Beethoven? The answer is, of course, yes: Beethoven is amazing, awe-inspiring, a constant source of new discoveries about life and music (full disclosure: my favorite composer). But do we really need more Beethoven awareness? And do we really want our dialogue about this to be: Obeythoven?

There is a strain of thought, that has been much parsed out in scholarship, about Beethoven; you might not know it if you're not a regular reader of musicology. The Beethoven Myth; The Beethoven Hero; the Cult of the German Genius. To simplify a bit: Beethoven dwarfs all other music, and in doing so, casts a shadow that not only pushes aside other composers but it makes us re-write all music history in relation to him. Huge swaths of great music become mere predecessors to him; other great composers who come after are defined entirely in relationship to him. For some reason, people seem to think they'll die after writing nine symphonies, because that's what Beethoven did (not really, though). Haydn becomes merely a father-figure, the step we had to take to get to the Greater Good of Ludwig.

Beethoven's story is a great story -- the triumph over poverty, the triumph over deafness, the triumph over Napoleon, the triumph over music -- but it's obscured by myth and legend, and ends up distorting our history and, much worse, causing many people to have less appreciation for other wonderful art. He dominates the scene too much -- I imagine that "world premiere" in Chicago got more press than many world premieres of actually new pieces ever have in Chicago.

And here's the thing: there is a ton, a ton, more to say about Beethoven. Don't stop recording his music, don't stop writing about his music, because we haven't even begun to delve beneath the surface here. One of the (but not the only) reasons he ignited the cult of German genius was because he was a German genius. I'm excited for Jeremy Denk's chat tomorrow because he is exactly the kind of person who has new things to say about Beethoven.

But do we really need a 24/7 live stream of his music and a concentrated awareness effort? This could be a fascinating project if we used Beethoven as a prism -- if that live stream gave us contemporary music by Spohr or Haydn, traced performance practice from Furtwangler to Norrington (a cursory glance of their playlist list of performers indicates fairly mainstream, modern orchestra taste), or even gave us some responses to Beethoven, whether 19th or 20th or 21st century. If you want to go stream Beethoven, you can do it virtually anywhere. There's no loss of free recordings. So why not take that 24/7 stream and use it to construct a narrative, to say something about what Beethoven means in 2011? And in light of the anti-authoritarian times in which we seem to be currently living, should the narrative really be to obey? How about to rebel? How about to engage?

ON THE OTHER HAND: I can understand exactly why WQXR chose Beethoven. There is a very, very limited amount of space in the broader cultural sphere for classical music. If we want to squeeze room for something very, very complicated into the unfocused attention span of popular culture, we need an enduring symbol that people recognize. If anyone in classical music has become a symbol in the past few centuries, it's Beethoven. And they have done a pretty good job with this ad campaign (though I question the use of the Obama-Hope-style posters; isn't it possible to do ads these days without just ironically tweaking someone else's idea? And isn't the Shepard Fairey thing a little old now?). I like the idea of a Beethoven workout mix; this is pretty funny. I appreciate them taking the time to think that classical music is something worth giving a viral marketing campaign to.

I'm just curious how broadly this will reach -- if the choosing-Beethoven-because-he-has-mass-appeal will actually have mass appeal. Otherwise, it is not a worthwhile endeavour, and I would much rather see an Adams Awareness, a Monteverdi Awareness, a Josquin Awareness, a Messiaen Awareness, and Ives Awareness, a Stockhausen Awareness, even a Brahms Awareness. This seems to suggest that they're in it for keeps. I'm guessing we will never find out if the money they spent paid off, but I wish them the best. Next time, though, Occupy Beethoven; Obey Ruggles.


  1. Back when the 'new musicology' was still quite new, I was given an undergrad course to teach entitled 'Beethoven and his Influence'. My first instinct was that it was something of a reductive way to approach C19th music, but as it turned out, it also became quite a good vehicle to investigate the cliches of music history and where they come from.

    I have similarly mixed feelings about using Beethoven as the archetype of classical music here: it is reductive, and it does tend to subsume all other classical music into the symbol of Beethoven in a kind of synecdochal elision. But it's hard to criticise it as a popularising strategy given how musicologists also cluster around him, everyone wanting to assert their views of the great man, thus getting their bit of vicarious greatness.

    Heck, even the folk who wanted to critique the cultural hegemony of the classical canon ended up writing about Beethoven. We might want to be counter-cultural, but we need to show we're as insightful as the next music theorist (rueful grimace).

    On the bright side, even while the cultural politics can drive you batty, it is fantastic stuff to listen to.