Is Classical Music Exclusionary?

In VOX’s Switched on Pop podcast, Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding make a radical claim: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is exclusionary against women, as well as sexual and ethnic minorities. Although, like for many others, my first reaction to this suggestion was one of derision, I went ahead and listened to the podcast. Instead of finding any kind of insightful commentary, however, what I found was an underhanded kind of racism and misogyny coming not from Beethoven’s music, but from the anti-racist message itself. In a nutshell, albeit camouflaged in woke language, what their argument boils down to is that, in the end, straight white men are just better.

As Sloan and Harding’ present it, their basic point is the following:

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony starts with an anguished opening theme — dun dun dun DUNNNN — and ends with a glorious, major-key melody. Since its 1808 premiere, audiences have interpreted that progression from struggle to victory as a metaphor for Beethoven’s personal resilience in the face of his oncoming deafness.

Or rather, that’s long been the popular read among those in power, especially the wealthy white men who embraced Beethoven and turned his symphony into a symbol of their superiority and importance. For some in other groups — women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color — Beethoven’s symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism. One New York City classical music fan wrote in the 1840s, for example, that he wished “all women shall be gagged by officers duly licensed for the purpose before they’re allowed to enter a concert room.

If these two paragraphs make you think that they are making a lot of assumptions, you’re right. And it only gets worse once you listen to the podcast. In fact, one of the first things that they mention while commenting on Beethoven’s 5th is how they can “almost feel the empire and colonialism” when they listen to it. Exactly how colonialism feels is difficult to tell, but to them it feels like the 5th Symphony.

Colonialism, 1st Movement (Piano version)

Beyond the arguments dealing with how the music “feels” to them, and which are impossible to debate, the argument for the 5th Symphony’s “exclusionary nature” is twofold. First, they argue that Beethoven has sometimes been used as a symbol of racism, such as when the Nazis weaponized him as a propaganda tool, or when Rhodesia (an apartheid regime) used part of his 9th Symphony as their anthem. As they themselves concede, however, Beethoven’s music has also been used to symbolize the exact opposite forces, including the Allied victory over the Axis powers. What is more, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony itself was a symbol of resistance and opposition to the Reich, even played by inmates at Auschwitz in direct defiance of their tormentors. As University of Munster’s musicologist Michael Custodis pointed out to DW: “[t]he Germans were denied the right to appropriate composers like Beethoven” by the very people they were trying to subjugate. After all, unlike Wagner (who even wrote anti-semitic literature) Beethoven had expressed his support for liberal values, and so it wasn’t difficult for mainstream society to embrace his work in the post-war era. If anything, it seems like the “bad” uses of Beethoven by tyrants are significantly outmatched by the “good” uses by freedom fighters and liberal causes, so that singling out the propaganda uses appears more as a case of cherry-picking.

The second argument put forward in the podcast is a bit more interesting. They claim that Beethoven changed the face of (what we now call) classical music, turning into a formal, almost religious worshiping of the “genius” composer. This meant that concerts that used to be very lively, with lots of applause, cheering, and whistling (not unlike a modern rock show) slowly morphed into a very formal kind of entertainment. They argue, for example, that the German concept  of Sitzfleisch (“sitting flesh”) emanated from the way in which concertgoers were supposed to behave, remaining absolutely still while listening to the music.

Beyond semantic discussions about Sitzfleisch (which seems to be used to refer to being productive and focused, not to sitting still at shows) it’s true that classical concerts are often very formal, sometimes to an annoying degree. Concert etiquette rules are often excessive and obtuse, and seem to be more about showing that you belong to the “select few” that gets them, more than they are about actually bothering the musicians or other patrons. Because of this, they serve a gate-keeping role, making it uncomfortable for people who don’t know those rules to be at those shows. This is fairly uncontroversial, and orchestras, ballet companies, and others, have made great outreach efforts, so that more people can benefit from these amazing works of art.

The problem is that, without providing any evidence, the hosts argue that these etiquette rules seem to be designed to exclude women and minorities. How and why these rules of etiquette (such as arriving on time, or being quiet during the show) should disproportionately target women and minorities, however, is left unanswered. This is not a trivial omission, since their argument seems to assume that there is something inherent to these segments of the population that makes them unable (or, at least, less able) to follow these rules. Regardless of what you think about concert etiquette, the fact remains that there is nothing inherent to women and minorities that would make them unsuitable to follow these rules. It’s possible to argue that rules about absolute silence during a show are silly; but saying that those rules target women and minorities seems to suggest that there’s something about them that makes them unable to be quiet (unlike straight white men, who would apparently be able to do so without any issue).

As evidence of the misogyny embedded in classical concerts (thanks to the influence of Beethoven) the podcast quotes a section from a private diary, written in 1840, where someone mused that, if he had his way, “all women shall be gagged by officers duly licensed”, in order to avoid noises during performances, and that violators of this rule would be shot on sight. The comment was obviously a joke, and written in someone’s private diary 180 years ago, but it is nonetheless used by Vox as a way to demonstrate that classical music excludes women from its audiences. The fact that, between 1840 and now, women have neither been gagged nor shot at concert halls, nor have they been banned from concerts, did not seem to get in the way of their argument.

The episode’s coup de grâce, however, is not a diary from 180 years ago, but instead a modern-day story of racist aggression. At least that’s the way in which they frame it. As they explain it, an African American critic of classical music was once told at a show that his note-taking was very distracting for the person sitting next to him. This aggrieved person then repeated his complaint once the critic chose to continue taking notes, and said he’d contact his employer for his behavior. Though nothing in the narrative is even remotely racial (the other patron was not accused of making any sort of racist comment, and African Americans, to the best of my knowledge, are not stereotyped as compulsive note-takers), the podcast presents this event as a racist aggression or, at least, a racist microaggression. How asking someone not to take notes is supposed to be racist, is unclear. Why such a request would qualify as a racist (micro)aggression is similarly left unanswered.

The above is not to say that rules cannot be exclusionary. On the contrary; some of the formalities of classical concerts, as well as the aristocracy’s desire to keep it as their art, have resulted in excluding large segments of the population, particularly blue collar families. The problem comes from looking at these issues only from the perspective of gender and race, and which leads to making the kind of questionable assumptions made by Vox. There is certainly space to debate whether etiquette rules are valid and important (and I, for one, consider dress codes to be absolutely idiotic), but the manner in which Vox decided to play out their role as white saviors of the rest of us, reeks of the kind of stereotyping that racist and misogynistic stories are made of.

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