Beethoven at the Brink
The enduring image of Beethoven, 250 years after his birth: His hair is untamed. His temperament is as mercurial as his mane. He is, both as an artist and a man, uncompromising and volatile; his whole personality wrapped up in the fateful knock of the first four notes of his Fifth Symphony, or the two bracing slaps that launch his “Eroica” Symphony. He is a man who, in the end, triumphed in the long-game of history despite being betrayed by women, family, patrons, politicians, and his own body.
“Speculation and stories fill in some gaps and, as they are repeated and the metaphorical mortar hardens, it can seem as if there is nothing further to say,” writes Laura Tunbridge in her recently-published contribution to the pantheon of Beethoven biographies, subtitled A Life in Nine Pieces.
Still, this scowling legacy is not entirely apocryphal. Nor has the archetype faded. The hero of the “Eroica,” fighting each obstacle with an escalating amount of violence, is picked up by Schubert, Wagner, and Mahler—with Wagner’s leitmotifs providing fertile ground for film composers (among many other factions). But, says musicologist Susan McClary, “where the ‘Eroica’ really comes to roost is in action movies.” She adds that one of the strongest examples she’s seen recently of the “Eroica” hero was Joaquin Phoenix’s headlining performance in last year’s “Joker.”
“You start with a compromised figure and then watch him battle it out until, no matter what happens, blood all over the place, you triumph,” McClary says over a video call earlier this summer, referencing the penultimate scene of the movie in which Joaquin Phoenix, blood smeared across his face in the iconic Joker smile, holds his arms over his head in triumph; dances on the hood of a police car for a growing, adoring group of rioters. In the background, Gotham burns.
This isn’t the version of selfhood that McClary identifies with Beethoven, but it is the one that she, echoing Tunbridge, agrees has persisted. “If only there were equivalents in popular culture of Op. 132,” she says wryly, referencing the alchemistic introspection of the composer’s late quartets. If we can learn anything from what endured of Beethoven’s legacy between the Eroica and his Op. 132 quartet, it’s that nuance has a much shorter shelf-life.
McClary represents the current field of musicology, which is one that relies on nuance. As Ian Giocondo wrote in a 2018 interview with her for VAN, a discipline once “limited by the rigid boundaries of empiricism and historical positivism” is now studied as a form that “moves in our own subjective realities… [and is] inextricably bound to its historical context and the human experience.”
It’s through this lens that McClary presents Beethoven’s works in her research and her teaching, though much of her career has hinged on one sentence that she wrote in 1987.
Published initially in the Minnesota Composers Forum Newsletter, “Getting Down Off the Beanstalk: Voice in Janika Vandervelde’s ‘Genesis II’” is a defense of the minimalist music techniques prevalent in the 1980s, particularly the overwhelming critique that haunted many of these pieces: “It doesn’t go anywhere.” A few threads seemed to connect for McClary in this essay. Using Vandervelde’s music as an example, McClary asks: What would constitute a feminist musical language? How can we make room for a different kind of temporality in music than the one implied when people say “It doesn’t go anywhere?” Does all music need to go somewhere?
What we regard as “going somewhere” in music today, McClary argues, dates back to the post-Renaissance tradition of music, which abandoned presenting “models of stable order in keeping with the view of the world the Church and courts wished to maintain,” and instead using cadence as an object of protracted desire reached through an inevitable recapitulation. The double-edged sword with this method is that the end is never as satisfying as the pursuit. “At the end, the imaginary object of desire remains elusive, and attaining its cadential surrogate necessarily disappoints. But that surrogate is finally all that tonal music (for all its undeniable ability to arouse) has to offer.”
In offering an almost parenthetical example of this elusiveness, of a dissatisfying conclusion to music that went somewhere, McClary cites the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. In the original version of “Getting Down Off the Beanstalk,” she describes the point of recapitulation as “one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” It’s a flood of desire that suddenly goes bad.
The metaphor didn’t come out of nowhere. At the time, McClary was teaching courses in the Women’s Studies program at the University of Minnesota, and became familiar with the poetry of Adrienne Rich, notably her poem, “The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last as a Sexual Message.” McClary also wasn’t the first person to read as violent the impulses in the first movement of the Ninth. Still, I feel guilty bringing this line up at all with McClary, as if one sentence written over 30 years ago is the only prize in a claw machine worth spending all of my quarters on. It’s a sentence that others continue to present out of context (just the day after we spoke, it was quoted in a New York Post piece under the headline “Canceling Beethoven is the latest woke madness for the classical-music world”).
McClary felt compelled to explore this side of the Ninth after teaching it enough times to see a pattern of students crying, even leaving the room. “This violence is triggering all of these things, and I thought, This really needs to be dealt with,” she explains. “You don’t just sort of say, Well, this is great music, too bad for you. And so, I use the image of a rapist who is not able to achieve satisfaction, and so just goes into strangulation mode.” The experience of sexual violence is one that, on some level, many can relate to.
Still, in 1987, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the metaphor had a seismic impact in the close-knit world of musicology (even before social media). Pieter C. van den Toorn published a 25-page rebuttal in The Journal of Musicology in 1991, “Politics, Feminism, and Contemporary Music Theory,” accusing McClary’s “crusading ideology” of tyranny.
“The interests of feminism are best served, it seems to me, in practical, down-to-earth terms,” van den Toorn writes, urging an art-for-art’s-sake return to reading works like the Ninth as purely formalistic, in the school of music theorist Heinrich Schenker. “The arguments about sex and music are largely a form of propaganda, an attempt to advertise blanket claims of special disadvantage and oppression which, in contemporary life in the West generally, are dubious and farfetched.”
A 12-page response to this article, by Ruth A. Solie, was published in the subsequent issue of The Journal of Musicology. Uninterested in defending McClary—“she needs no such help from me”—Solie was more keen to explore “the claims, assumptions, and commitments that have led van den Toorn to launch such an immoderate and global attack.” In turn, van den Toorn published a 252-page book Music, Politics, and the Academy, in 1996.
But the salvos were not relegated to academia, nor were they all, if not measured, then at least peer-reviewed. “I received a lot of death threats and rape threats in the wake of [the article’s publication],” McClary says. Many of these responses came from ardent Beethoven fans, defending a composer revered for his humanism. McClary readily notes “the irony of responding to my saying, There’s an image of rape here, by saying, We ought to just tie you down and rape you…” At a certain point, the threats became so numerous that the police intervened, relocating McClary.
McClary’s is not a unique situation. As musicians, theorists, and academics continue to reevaluate the canon in context, there are still plenty of van den Toorns on the other side of the widening chasm. Worse, there are still plenty of death threats. (Having reported my own share of these to my former precinct in Brooklyn, I can say that the look that dawns on an officer’s face as they realize they’re filing all of this paperwork over a debate surrounding classical music is its own form of subjective context.) Recently, McClary tells me, one conservatory student had to move their family out of state following a bid to form a Black student union.
“When Beethoven becomes more important than human life, then we’re in a really bad place,” she says. “When the absolute authority of whiteness and maleness feel threatened, they regard it as their duty to fight back with everything they can. And that’s the place we find ourselves.”
A colleague of McClary’s, music theorist Philip Ewell, agrees. “‘Beethoven’ is like a metonym for the toxic combination that often happens when whiteness combines with maleness in the history of the United States,” he says on a recent video call, clarifying that the combination of whiteness and maleness does not always equal toxicity. “But at times, especially in terms of power and impact, whiteness plus maleness has more or less always equated with power. And, when that power gets challenged, it really can lash out in horrible ways—up to and including violence, rape, and murder.”
For Ewell, 2020 was dominated by the responses he received for a November 2019 plenary delivered at the annual meeting for the Society of Music Theory. The approximately 20-minute talk, “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” was subsequently published this year as an extended article in the Society’s journal, Music Theory Online. But it was the talk that drew the ire of many of Ewell’s colleagues for its thesis that the dominant style of music theory taught in the United States is inextricable from systemic white supremacy. Aptly enough, this style originated from Heinrich Schenker, who was also a noted white supremacist (he even supported Hitler, despite his Jewish background, and longed for a music-world equivalent to “exterminate the musical Marxists”).
“When Schenker wrote about music, he also wrote things about culture and politics. That’s where you find all his horrifically racist and sexist writing,” Ewell said in an interview with the CUNY Graduate Center. “Schenker was very clear that these two things should be taken together in a unified world view. He was essentially saying, ‘Please don’t separate my musical ideas from my ideas about people and race and gender etc.’ But in order to promote his ideas in the US, that is exactly what white people did. They swept all of the bad stuff under the carpet.”
Yet, in the tradition of what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes as “racial structure,” the bad stuff of Schenker is baked into what the United States kept as the “good stuff.” While Schenker has fallen out of favor in European schools, his theory has dominated American music education and prioritizes a European harmonic style more or less bookended by Bach and Beethoven. For Ewell, this leaves music theory presenting as “a racial ideology in which the views and ideas of white persons are held to be more significant than the views and ideas of nonwhites.”
A snowball effect took shape in the wake of Ewell’s talk last year. The peer-reviewed Journal of Schenkerian Studies, published out of the University of North Texas, ran 15 responses to Ewell’s talk in its annual issue, even allowing one to appear anonymously.
“I understand full well that Ewell only attacks Schenker as pretext to introduce his main argument: that liberalism is a racist conspiracy to deny rights to ‘people of color,’” wrote JSS co-publisher Timothy L. Jackson, who concluded that “Ewell’s denunciation of Schenker and Schenkerians may be seen as part and parcel of the much broader current of Black anti-Semitism.”
In David Beach’s response, he suggested that Ewell “stop complaining about us white guys and publish some sophisticated analytical graphs of works by black composers.” Ewell, meanwhile, maintains that he was never contacted by Jackson or any of the JSS editorial team to add his own comment.
“The initial goal [of the plenary and the publication] was essentially putting out there these ideas, exposing some of the structures and institutions which have so disadvantaged those who are not both white and male,” Ewell tells me via video call from his home in New York. “So that we can begin—begin is the key word—to have a discussion about how and why these structures are unfair, unjust, and need to be dismantled.”
Though dated 2019, the responses were circulated online this summer in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and a subsequent re-examination of racial injustice in the United States.
Off Twitter, a 45-minute video essay produced by YouTuber Adam Neely, “Music Theory and White Supremacy,” (originally titled “Music Theory Is Racist”), which cites and interviews Ewell, was posted to YouTube this September. As of this writing, it has been viewed over 907,000 times. Its like-to-dislike ratio is roughly 7:1. On the other side, Jackson and the JSS were painted as the real victims in outlets like the National Review and Fox News. An open letter to UNT administration, signed by a consortium of graduate students from the school’s Division of Music History, Theory, and Ethnomusicology and calling for a full public account of the editorial process of the 2019 JSS issue, free public access to said issue in the interests of transparency and accountability, a public condemnation of the issue, and dissolution of the JSS, was referred to by the National Review as a “witch hunt.”
Jackson himself wrote an editorial for the National Association of Scholars in which he compared himself to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and denounced “the Twitter mob,” which he accused of trying to “silence open discourse and scholarly debate.” Other responses supportive of Jackson pointed to Ewell’s personal blog, including one post he had written in April (unrelated to his SMT talk but covering similar topics). In deconstructing the use of overpraising, subjective terms like “master” and “masterwork,” Ewell titled the post “Beethoven Was an Above Average Composer—Let’s Leave It at That.” Perhaps to the surprise of no one, this was quickly mischaracterized to fit a narrative that Ewell was trying to “cancel” the canon.
This isn’t the sum total of responses to Ewell’s work over the last year, which he saw as overwhelmingly positive (he doesn’t put much stock in the anonymous YouTube responders who based their comments on the title of Neely’s video and nothing more). But the smaller percentage of vitriol is still significant: “When whiteness is challenged by blackness, that’s when whiteness loses its shit,” Ewell says.
The experiences of McClary and Ewell are not unique to their respective fields. Whether it’s the increased time spent indoors, reliance on digital communications, the algorithms that demonstrably steer us towards more radical viewpoints (on either side of the ever-widening chasm), a tipping point in social justice, or an overwhelming disillusionment with the governments and systems of power in the wake of a global public health and economic crisis, 2020 has given us plenty of opportunities to witness the perceived threats of dissent, and the violent consequences thereof.
Still, we are at a point of recapitulation. When McClary included “Getting Down Off the Beanstalk” in her 1991 essay collection, Feminine Endings, she revised her paragraph on the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth:
The problem Beethoven has constructed for this movement is that it seems to begin before the subject of the symphony has managed to achieve its identity: We witness the emergence of the initial theme and its key out of a womblike void, and we hear it collapse back twice more into that void. It is only by virtue of the subject’s constant violent self-assertion that the void can be kept at bay: cadence in the context of this movement spells instant death—or at least loss of subjective identity. Yet the narrative paradigm the movement follows demands the eventual return to the beginning for the recapitulation.
If the “Eroica” preserves in amber a younger Beethoven’s optimism towards Napoleon and the Enlightenment, the Ninth represents Beethoven attempting to resuscitate some of that optimism. But this is Beethoven at the end of his life, disillusioned by the promises of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution; let down by the reality of Napoleon that emerged from the idea of Napoleon; and, following the Napoleonic Wars, subjected to additional censure by Metternich and the Congress of Vienna.
“And it falls apart,” says McClary of that attempt to return to an earlier, more optimistic time. “It is not the great affirmation that everybody wants it to be; it is a struggle all the way to the end of the last chord.”
The first movement of the Ninth doesn’t open on a fateful knock or revolutionary slap. Instead, it’s a series of open fifths—played as whole notes from the horns and as anxious ostinati from the second violins and cellos—that create a murky and grim atmosphere; an abandoned emotional Chernobyl. The first violins eke out a melody, also a sequence of descending fifths, before the entire orchestra sets off on a long trajectory to recapitulation. In other Beethoven symphonies, this return is a sense of comfort, home territory. But in the Ninth, going home is a sobering prospect. Home, here, is horrifying. What does it mean, McClary asks, to go back to nothingness?
“It requires a much higher level of violence than the ‘Eroica’ or the Fifth, because he knows the pitfalls,” she says. “He has to demonstrate the violence that is involved in those kinds of [orchestral] moves. And right at the end, you keep getting very close to possible closure, and the floor keeps falling out from under you.”
It’s not the Beethoven 2020 wanted; but it’s the Beethoven 2020 deserves. ¶