Friday, June 29, 2018

a Canadian composer calls for a rest to Beethoven's Ninth and suggests Canada spotlight Canadian composers as an antidote but ...

here's the thing that is puzzling about this sort of bromide against Beethoven's Ninth.  Let's quote from the author, of course:


Franco-Argentine scholar Esteban Buch analyzed these intersections and the good-evil paradox in an insightful book, Beethoven’s Ninth: A Political History. Buch argued that the Ninth was the right piece of music at the right time — socially, politically and aesthetically.

But from today’s perspective we know that unilateral calls to world brotherhood in joy have a flip side, which is tyranny. We appreciate now more than ever that joy is accessible to everyone only if some people are taking antidepressants.

We live in a time no more peaceful than Beethoven’s. Our conflicts today pit the great traditions and ways of thinking of the 19th century against a (hopefully) freer, more spontaneous, more shared, more inclusive 21st century.
We have the 19th-century ideal of strength in unity — expressed in the “Ode to Joy” — scraping up uneasily against a 21st-century ideal of strength in diversity. The change in perspective makes some people afraid and angry. It makes others hopeful and optimistic.
Article Continued Below

Until we see whether we can achieve a paradigm shift or whether we fall back into something like the genocidal chaos of the mid-20th century, I think we should press pause on Beethoven’s Ninth.

I, personally, would be satisfied to never hear it again.

Am I saying we should destroy an icon? Of course not. We should treat it as any other piece of fine art — and take time to appreciate how difficult it actually is to parse.

Besides, shouldn’t we be encouraging — and showcasing — Canadian composers who might be able to galvanize us into attention with something homegrown?

If the healthy alternative to unhealthy German nationalism as it has been reflected in and imputed to Beethoven's Ninth is Canadian music how is this not trying to replace the tyranny of collective identity with a plea for unity in diversity that is a distinction without a difference?  The alternative to German nationalism being Canadian nationalism seems to merely replicate the mistake with a new set of blinders.  Nationalism emerged in reaction to what some people felt was a restrictive cosmopolitan catholicity (and didn't the Counter Reformation have "some" role to play there?). 

It's not that I don't want new Canadian composers to get promoted but maybe grab Douglas Shadles Orchestrating the Nation to see how Beethoven's Ninth and Wagner's operas were a problem for American symphonies getting heard. The critical double bind was inescapable

Now I have picked up the book and have been going through it (skimmed it a few years ago and am trying to give it a more careful reading).  The short version is that if music didn't emulate Beethoven it was considered too lightweight but if it did emulate Beethoven it was considered derivative. The formula was repeated with Wagner and that meant that a relatively large chunk of American symphonic music just wasn't regarded as worthy enough for critics to take it seriously.  It was all the worse for you if you were a black woman like Florence Price--even if critics couldn't say anything bad about the work it might just not be profound enough or American enough or something, even if the work got a popular and warm reception at the ground level. 

It would be no surprise that a comparably difficult pedagogical and critical situation applies to our northern neighbor. 

It's not that I'm even a huge fan of the Ninth overall. I love parts of it.  That first movement is fun.  The finale is ... choral and vocal types don't necessarily like the Ninth all that much.  Give me Tallis and Byrd any hour rather than Beethoven's Ninth or any of Beethoven's choral music!  I'd even take Mozart sooner and I'm not a huge fan of Mozart.  Haydn is my favorite Classic era composer and he was a choral singer, something I'm not sure Beethoven got around to. 

I love the late quartets and piano sonatas of Beethoven and I even lie a lot of the symphonies just fine.  It's just that North Americans have been bristling in the shadow of the Ninth for more than a century and just calling for a laying aside of the Ninth seems foolhardy.  We can't be sure that the symphonic literature is seeing a bit of a twilight.  Given the expense of keeping up an orchestra and putting on symphonic seasons it's possible that just as choral and vocal music was an "in" thing in the Renaissance that was displaced by instrumental music by the 19th century we may be witnessing a tectonic shift, a return back to the song as the prevalent musical mode of expression of choice. 

That might even be partly why Beethoven's Ninth or symphonic works with chorus can stick around. 

It's that final sentence quoted from the article that makes the whole argument seem like dubious moral posturing.  If the healthy alternative to the alleged toxic and tyrannical legacy of German nationalism as a call to universal brotherhood is to be replaced with a Canadian celebration of diversity then it's still nationalism.  Even Herder could have argued that Canadians could seek to express the universal values and truths of human experience in a Canadian sort of way.  If anything the polemic against the Ninth in favor of a Canadian canon just seems to replicate the problem that is purported to be in the German canon.

Drastically reinterpreting a canonical work so as to replicate what is thought to be its essence as applicable to a different time and place is fine, isn't it?  That's how we got Kurosawa's Ran, right?

I am all for finding ways for us to liberate ourselves from the shackles of 19th century pedagogy and ideology infused with German idealism but just saying we should drop the Ninth seems stupid.  It's literally only going to be a symbolic victory.  As it stands with hip hop being the global top seller I would think the question of whether to keep the Ninth in the symphonic tradition is moot compared to what is actually measurable as popular music.  Those ships have sailed as of a while ago.  We could certainly, perhaps, argue that we can program the Ninth a bit less often but that's not the same thing.

We might do better to directly contest the whole program of German idealism as a kind of nebulous art religion.  If we did that we might not just contest the Ninth as a god among that art religion but lay a groundwork for questioning the art religion as applicable in other ways.  If we set aside the idea that art "has" to be a kind of divine experience then there won't need to be a Ninth or a substitute for it of more Canadian construction or American or, you  get the idea I hope.

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