Triggered by Beethoven: the Cultural Politics of Racial Resentment

2020 was meant to be a year of celebration for Beethoven who was baptized 250 years ago (his exact date of birth is unknown) in Bonn on December 17, 1770. COVID-19 prompted the cancelation of commemorative concerts of Beethoven’s music, but the pandemic didn’t quell efforts by anti-White activists to attack the composer’s reputation and dominant place in the cultural pantheon of the West. Rather than a year full of performances of the great composer’s sonatas, string quartets, concertos and symphonies, 2020 saw repeated attacks on Beethoven for the crime of being a White male genius and for embodying the European musical tradition.

Beethoven is the most-performed composer in the repertoire, and his anniversary year was planned to be no exception. Before the widespread cancellation of concerts, 15 to 20 per cent of the repertoire programmed by leading orchestras was music by Beethoven. Widely regarded as the greatest composer of all time, Beethoven is inescapable because he remade almost every genre of concert music that matters. The concerto and symphony in his hands became driving musical narratives of heroic struggle. His late string quartets open a profound window on to the soul. Unlike his predecessors who were craftsmen who supplied a commodity to a paymaster, Beethoven ushered in the age of Romanticism by insisting on his creative independence and the absolute importance of self-expression: “What is in my heart must come out so I write it down.” This was manifested in his refusal to take a secure, salaried position like his one-time tutor Joseph Haydn who was the master of music for a feudal landowner in what is now Hungary.

Beethoven’s heroism in overcoming the worst thing that can happen to a composer — worsening deafness from young adulthood — to compose some of the greatest music ever has awed generations and become emblematic of triumph over adversity. All the stories of Beethoven’s misanthropy, his eccentricity and wildness, date from the decline in his hearing, which often caused him acute physical pain. Only his art prevented him from taking his own life: “It seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.” While Beethoven’s confidence as a pianist and conductor gradually diminished with his creeping deafness, his imaginative powers as a composer grew stronger and stronger, and he cast a daunting shadow over his successors: Brahms did not feel confident tackling a symphony until he was in his forties.

Beethoven excelled at his trade because he was born with a gift and worked at it as hard as it is possible to work. Swafford notes how his sketches and manuscripts reveal that:

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