Just as it looked like the radical neo-Marxists taking over the newsrooms and journalistic enterprises of America had finally exhausted themselves and run out of things to cancel for failing their undefined and dangerous purity test, it turns out, no, Ludwig van Beethoven must march to the social justice scaffold — he’s a symbol of white supremacy and has to go.
Writing for Vox, Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding argue in a recent article and meandering accompanying podcast that white men turned Beethoven’s majestic and transcendent Fifth Symphony into a “symbol of their superiority and importance.”
Furthermore, the article contends that for women, LGBT persons, and “people of color,” Beethoven’s Fifth somehow represents the “exclusion and elitism” that pervades the history of all classical music:
Today, some aspects of classical culture are still about policing who’s in and who’s out, and it all started with Beethoven’s Fifth. When you walk into a standard concert hall, there’s an established set of conventions and etiquette (‘don’t cough!’; ‘don’t cheer!’; ‘dress appropriately!’) that’s more about demonstrating belonging than appreciating the music.
Yes, classical music concerts have long-standing conventions. So do most associations, group activities, and institutions in the country. Rules for how to act at concerts, like nearly all ceremonial traditions, arise for a reason. Etiquette rules that accompany traditional classical concerts have nothing to do with racism, “superiority,” or “exclusion,” and everything to do with the respect and reverence due to a special event.
Concert Etiquette Isn’t About Exclusion or Racism
Music concerts are the culmination of many months of demanding preparation. In an effort to provide both performers and audience members an enjoyable experience, standardized etiquette was adopted for how to comport oneself.
Save for certain prescribed transitions, silence helps preserve the most important thing an audience member contributes to a classical performance: a deep, immersive experience that aides in the suspension that one is at a concert.
This is also why the “house” is darkened before the first note is struck. Ideally, the atmosphere created in the concert hall allows you to forget you’re there — it enables you to enjoy the music to its fullest extent; to notice every nuanced slow crescendo, every heroic French horn motif, and every carefully placed half-rest.
Following this tradition, not just for classical music concerts, but for all concerts in the performing arts — be it the ballet, musicals, or plays — communication technology is respectfully asked to be turned off.
Other lessons involving respect and rewarding hard work are taught through traditional concert etiquette. For one, it is important to attend the entire concert out of an appreciation and recognition of the efforts and dedication of all those involved. If entering or exiting has to take place while the concert or show is underway, it should be done during applause, in between movements, or at scene changes.
Like at the movies, conversation and movement during concerts distract from where attention belongs. Observing etiquette guidelines contributes to the success of the concert and makes it more enjoyable for everyone involved.
The main graphic accompanying the Vox article features images symbolizing the prohibition of candy, baseball hats, shorts, bullhorns, and hands clapping. Vox doesn’t explain if the prohibitions of these things are always indicative of white supremacy, or if it’s just when they’re banned from classical music concerts that the combined brew becomes evil and toxic.
Building Respect and Reverence
The attack on etiquette isn’t entirely new for the increasingly neo-Marxist left. This past July, the Smithsonian was presenting documents claiming things like punctuality and “being polite” were signs of “whiteness.”
In their podcast, Sloan and Harding lament that classical concerts are the sole remaining American institution that typically insists on starting on time. The horror. The absolute fascistic horror.
Concert etiquette teaches respect, restraint, and reverence — three things we need more of in our society, not less. Indeed, children, in particular, develop habits early, and classical concerts can be both an excellent training ground for teaching manners and etiquette to the youngest members of society as well as a special reward.
The discipline learned by attending formal classical concerts is invaluable, and the self-control taught is similar to the virtue of having children stay up with the parents at “Adult Church,” instead of being sent downstairs to kill time until the sermon ends. They may be bored at first. They may fidget or squirm. But, with parental patience and enough time, they’ll develop manners and a level of maturity that will set them apart from their peers.
Dressing formally for classical concerts acknowledges that you’re attending an important event — not just that, an event that was difficult to prepare, relatively uncommon to witness, and exceptional in the excellence you’re about to witness. Yet the Vox piece would have us do away with the little bit of decorum we have left in increasingly small segments of society.
It’s laughable the article seems to believe present society isn’t informal enough. Levels of decorum and reverence have been declining in most churches, households, and schools for a while — something, frankly, that’s far more problematic than the noticeable loosening of formality at classical concerts.
Recognizing Beethoven’s Accessible Greatness
Sloan and Harding quote Anthony McGill — a clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic — who argues that classical music alienates new listeners when it “pretends like there’s no other music out there.” As McGill sees it, “We’re not promoting any of the composers alive today that are trying to become the Beethovens of their day.”
This is simply untrue. Most classical concerts don’t just feature a symphony or another longer-form work and call it an evening. Typically — and this has been a convention for decades — concerts will open with a number of shorter, often newer, fresher, even experimental pieces, before breaking for intermission, with the main event to follow in the second half of the concert.
Many symphonies and their members relish the opportunity to perform new, avant-garde works, especially when they are commissioned for artists local to the region. New music from emerging classical artists is often granted its own special showcase along with other atypical fares, such as 12-tone, atonal, or post-modern music. The caricature Vox paints of classical orchestras and the theatres that house them running through nothing but Beethoven’s catalog is cartoonish in its simplistic ignorance.
If anything, a solid argument can be made that orchestras should stick even more to performing works between the Baroque and late-Romantic periods in order to keep the classical music featured as accessible to newer audience members as possible. Between the combined works of the top ten composers of that duration, a decade’s worth of concerts could feature a variety of musical brilliance without repeating a single piece.
Furthermore, as a bridge between the music of Mozart and the music of Mahler, Beethoven’s works hit a “sweet spot” of approachable music that widens potentially interested audiences.
Without a doubt, the concert etiquette and reverent atmosphere of the classical concertgoing experience is worth preserving and promoting; and yes, Beethoven’s music is so good it should remain in constant performance until the end of time.
Ultimately, however, this isn’t about giving Beethoven too much love. It’s about the fact that the annals of the greatest classical composers are almost exclusively dominated by Caucasian men (and Clara Schumann) — and that just drives Vox and the new radical leftists into fits of hysteria.
Come to think of it, if you ever find yourself driving by a leftist media outlet, there are worse things you could do than playing Beethoven’s Fifth…and cranking it up to fff.