Da Da Da Duuuuuuum.
The entire classical music world is gearing up for Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th anniversary in 2020. We’ll hear even more Beethoven than we would in a typical year, which is a feat in and of itself. After considering what’s coming, I started imagining what the opposite would be – would it be feasible to go a year without hearing any Beethoven at all?
Is that even possible? Wouldn’t it be more useful and helpful to spend A YEAR WITHOUT ART THAT IS HARMFUL TO WOMEN?
But that would be pure lunacy, wouldn’t it.
On one hand, avoiding concerts with his name listed on the program would be easy, but our cultural landscape is saturated with his music and icon. Could you escape every instance of “da da da dum” and the like used in popular search engines, commercials, television, NPR, toys, disco, or Chicago Bulls halftime shows? Would you avoid the elevator or refuse to stay on hold. Oscar winning films are out, as are non-Oscar winners (shoulda coulda had a nom) – and heck, he’s been depicted over 15 times just as himself.
There are many practical reasons why A YEAR WITHOUT BEETHOVEN is impossible. While it would be conceivable to avoid all concerts and media, would I commit to leaving restaurants, malls and theaters when the Beet drops? Probs not.
Could I do it? Could anyone? Even for one year? (Just for one year, guys, Beetsi is great and I would def have withdrawal.) (Though he never did get his picture on a bubble gum card.) (Oh wait, he did.)
No, a year without Beethoven would be nigh impossible.
Maybe the whole concept seems unnecessarily, but it’s worth examining as the classical music world digs in during the 2019/2020 season.
Chicago, for instance, announced that they’ll perform and record the entire symphony cycle, which is impressive, even if it’s been done before with Sir Georg Solti. Total, they’ll do 15 pieces by Beethoven. That’s out of 96 pieces, which include eight pieces by living composers, three pieces by women (two living – Jennifer Higdon, Missy Mazzoli – and Florence Price), and three by African American composers (one living – James Lee III – and William Grant Still and Price).
Seattle Symphony will do a Beethoven Festival in June 2020, including all nine symphonies and seven more pieces in either full orchestra and chamber series.
Here in Kansas City our local orchestra devotes a whopping 24.4% of the Classical Series to the man (and that’s just in six months, from Jan 2020-June 2020).
According to data collected (as of 2.24.19) by the Institute for Composer Diversity, orchestras in North America have programmed 191 works by Beethoven alone and 166 works by composers from underrepresented groups so far.
In 2016/2017, according to Baltimore Symphony’s By The Numbers data, there were 655 performances of 33 Beethoven works in North America vs. 434 total works by living composers.
Interestingly, this year, 2019, is a 200th anniversary for Clara Schumann, a 400th anniversary for Barbara Strozzi, and -fun fact- the 250th birth anniversary for Nannette Streicher, who hosted the young Ludwig at her musical salons and was a close friend and valued correspondent.
Of course, Beethoven was hugely influential in defining the genre. That is assured. The “Beethoven Problem” – the idea that every attempt at a new music is compared unfavorable to Beethoven’s work – had started at least by the 1870s (according to Walter Frisch) and continues to thwart composers through the years, recently examined by Doug Shadle, in Orchestrating the Nation.
We hear as much Beethoven on a typical year as we hear all non-white/non-male/non-dead lumped together. For example, in 2018, KCSymphony performed four works by Beethoven over the course of its Classical Series and three pieces by living composers (this was during the Bernstein Centennial), all of which are white and male.
2019 is a noticeable pause re: Beethoven programming. It’s also a noticeable uptick in more diverse programming (though that has more to do with increased advocacy and social changes). January through June, we’ve got four pieces by living composers on the KCS Classical Series docket (there were five, but one was postponed), three of which by women (Sarah Kirkland Snider, Augusta Read Thomas, Anna Clyne). KCS’ Classics Uncorked Series is making an increased effort, too, with works by women (sometimes more the one!) featured on all four concerts throughout the season. Many local groups are looking more closely at their programming and exploring beyond the traditional canon — Te Deum, Bach Aria Soloists, Kansas City Chamber Orchestra, Kansas City Chorale, Musica Vocale, newEar, Mid-America Freedom Band, KC Women’s Chorus, and others — either diversifying rep for the first time or amplifying the efforts they were already doing.
Upcoming in 2019/2020, KCSymphony scheduled 11 pieces by Beethoven and 11 pieces by living composers, four of which are by non-white and/or non-male composers.
11 pieces by living composers in a season (two of which are commissioned world premieres) is an exciting step for us in KC.
[Hilarious side note: in the KCStar’s season preview, Neas wrote that the upcoming contemporary works “tickle the ear but don’t outstay their welcome.” I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but is he conveying that there’s no staying power to the contemporary works? There’s no heft, no consequence to these works? Don’t let these frighten you, gentle listener, it will all be over soon? Cool. That’s cool. That definitely encourages the listeners’ curiosity and growth of the genre. He did mention the titles “sound intriguing.” That’s cool, too. Everything is … cool.]
But what if we treated Beethoven the way we treat everyone else? We play a piece once a year, just like, it seems, African-American composers get one piece per February, and women composers can count on a nod each March. Token Beethoven – leave ’em clamoring for more…and make room from someone else.
When we focus on this one mega gargantuan success, we need to ask: what are we missing?
Don’t get me wrong: Beethoven is worth performing, worth remembering and worth celebrating. His work is fascinating and challenging and heart thumping and without a doubt foundational to the longevity to the genre. But as we struggle with the collision of genius and power and hero-worship and bad behavior, we can look to Beethoven as an example, professionally and personally, as a real, flawed person and unravel the mythmaking: dealing with an abusive, alcoholic, manipulative parent, his early responsibilities as guardian to his brothers, his difficult relationship with his nephew. We remember that his work was not universally adored when it premiered. He, too, was under the shadow of giants, his struggles as much as his triumphs: his suicidal thoughts, his financial troubles, his romantic defeats, his deafness. Class issues plagued him. War upended the Continent. He drank heavily. He was ill and yet compelled to work, to earn money. He fought litigation, had a custody battle. He was crude and ornery and funny and aggravating. He wrote an opera with a heroine, undiminished by the male characters. His work changed, challenged people. He changed, challenged people. He was human, not perfect.
Whatever the situation, his star is in no danger of fading. (People are still writing fan letters.) So to tout Ludwig repeatedly and more strongly than all the living composers put together seems short sighted, even in an anniversary year.
However, good news awaits!
KCSymphony’s increased living composer efforts, equal to the amount of Beethoven, results in nearly a quarter of what we’ll hear this season, even without including their many other series: Classics Uncorked, Happy Hour, Family, Pops, etc.
NYPhil announced commissions for 19 works by women to honor the passing of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United State (please, please, please let the women of the orchestra wear all white to perform, please, please, please). It should be noted that, at least in the 2019/2020 season, NYPhil is doing a standard-season amount of Beethoven, with the 7th and Violin Concerto (though maybe they’ll rev up in 2020/2021 season…).
Seattle, which also performs all the symphonies, pairs them with new work from living composer in four of those concerts, part of an initiative that brings 22 works by living composers–1/2 by women–to their audiences.
Across the state, Saint Louis Symphony presents 15 works by living composers (5 by women, 8% of the season) with a mere (yet average) four works by Beethoven.
Classical music has often, if not always, touted itself as an elite, cultural peak, and to that I say: be that. Show resilience, show relevance. Beethoven is here to stay, but if he dominates every season, year end, year out, when do we hear the voices of today? What chance do those voices have of entering public conscious? Advocate to donors and civic leaders and the public that our work is now, is here, and is not to be shied away from. Beethoven is part of its continuation, not the end game.