Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Our Polyrhythmical, African Beethoven

You have to be very, very excessively loony to provoke Tom Service at the Guardian. Usually he is a reliable supporter of every wacky idea of political correctness, but even he has his limits. And they were breached recently by a group called, and I kid you not, "Beethoven Was African". Tom's article is titled "Does Beethoven's music reveal his African roots?" Now of course the article does not answer the question the title poses, they never do, but it is kind of amusing. The prose is so wayward it is hard to find a summary, but the subhead is as good as any:
A new album by the group Beethoven Was African aims to prove that the polyrhythms of the composer’s music point to west African heritage. But does their quest open up a more important debate in classical music?
Oh yes, because, while Tom fails to mention this minor detail, we have absolutely no evidence, written, recorded or anecdotal as to the exact nature of the polyrhythms used in west Africa in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Here is the claim made by the group and Tom's counter:
“Ludwig van Beethoven had a precise and almost absolute knowledge of polyrhythmic systems and patterns from the Gulf of Guinea region, on the west African coast. Although they are unwritten, I would even say that these traditional patterns … were fundamental to his work as a composer. Beethoven has achieved the perfect synthesis between polyphonic modes and tonal system, developed in Europe in the centuries that preceded his era, with polyrhythmic system and patterns from west Africa.”
Which is, I would humbly suggest, a patently ludicrous assertion: how could Beethoven, in 19th-century Vienna, possibly have garnered this “precise and almost absolute knowledge” of west African polyrhythmic traditions, even if he had wanted to?
 Yep. We do have a composer who was very influenced by this very African musical tradition, Steve Reich, but since he is not black, but Jewish, this is of no interest to anyone.

The very sad and unfortunate truth is that Beethoven has been so dominant a musical personality that everyone wants to make hay from him in one way or another. The ideological tremors caused by his music still are reverberating through the classical world. So, sure, let's imagine he was black. But even as Tom is pooh-poohing the idea, he still manages to slime the classical world generally. He refers to a paper on the issue of the blackness of Beethoven by Nicholas T. Rinehart and quotes him in this passage:
...our attraction to the notion that Beethoven was black is a symptom of classical music’s tortured position on race and music: “This desperation, this need to paint Beethoven black against all historical likelihood is, I think, a profound signal that the time has finally come to make a single … and robust effort [to reshape] the classical canon.” Rinehart says we must reimagine the entire history of western art music.
In a similar vein is this comment in his conclusion:
the significance of the idea that he might have been black is that it is a symptom of classical music’s ossified canons
As I have said so many times, agreeing with Richard Taruskin, the so-called "friends" of classical music are often our worst enemies.

The idea that there is a rigid "canon" of classical works that is decreed somehow by unnamed agents and that this canon needs to be reshaped and reimagined because it is "ossified" is one of the smelliest bits of conventional wisdom out there. Let me clarify: the so-called canon is nothing but the most popular and most loved and most performed and most discussed pieces of classical music. There is the more popular canon, containing pieces like Handel's Messiah and Vivaldi's Four Seasons and there is the slightly more serious canon, meaning pieces that would be programed in an orchestra's masterworks series instead of their popular series and this includes the most well-known symphonies and concertos and tone-poems. The most-performed operas fit in here as well. Then there is another canon of those works that are less widely popular, but much appreciated by serious music lovers such as the great pieces of chamber music and piano music. Then there is a more esoteric canon consisting of those works that are the most highly praised by music scholars and this would include more obscure chamber music and contemporary music.

So there is no one canon and the only people making up lists are those who collect data on performances and that just reflects people's tastes. It is, finally, a matter of taste and there is popular taste and the taste of the more informed listeners and that of musicians and scholars. These canons differ even as they overlap. The Four Seasons of Vivaldi, for example, are enjoyed by pretty much everyone. So when someone is claiming that all of this needs to be reshaped or reimagined, what they are really saying is that their views, and the views of their politically correct friends, are the ones that ought to prevail.

To which I answer: bite me.

The real problem with all this nonsense is that Beethoven's music, as I pointed out on numerous occasions, is rhythmically fascinating and all this blather about west Africa just obscures our ability to understand what he is actually doing. The rhythms are some of the most interesting aspects of a lot of his pieces and yet they are rarely focused on by theorists. I devoted a whole post to the last movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata, op. 111 which is an extraordinary example. Let's have a listen. Here is a live performance by Daniel Barenboim:


David said...

Bryan, another "spot on" posting. Thanks for providing a voice of reason in a sea of sound and fury signifying nothing.

I wonder, when the canon is "de-ossified" will Pachelbel's C____ lose its place in the canon?


Bryan Townsend said...


The Canon by Pachelbel is one piece that I would not miss too much... But I'm sure that the wedding industry would suffer!

Rickard Dahl said...

It's hard to say how more absurd political correctness can become. It's not only classical music that suffers from this fascist ideology but also many other realms of Western society. Political correctness has a high influence in the academia, especially in the humanities. One of the recent things is the idea that the academic texts are "too white" or "too male" and that there needs to be more equal representation of "authors of color" (yes, they use that sort of language) and female authors. A simple concept these people (commonly referred as SJW (Social Justice Warrior)) don't grasp is the idea of meritocracy and the people with the most important contributions being represented rather than what suits their diversity agenda.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, I think that they grasp the idea of meritocracy, they just don't see it as being a benefit to them personally. They would prefer to choose who wins and who loses according to their criteria.

Dessa said...

Steve Reich, Born 1936 VS Bethoven Born Comparison

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Dessa,

I'm not exactly sure what your point is?