Beethoven fan sputters with rage

In the Wall Street Journal, David Gelernter is very upset about Kids Today.

For most young people, music is a minor consumable, like toothpaste.

Okay. That’s debatable, by which I mean wrong, but moving along.

Here’s where it gets real. Emphases in original:

Musicians and music majors aside, my students at Yale—and there are no smarter, more eager, more open students anywhere—just barely know who Beethoven is. Beethoven. “He composed music”—that is the general consensus.

To know nothing about Beethoven? That is cultural bankruptcy. That is collapse. It goes far beyond incompetence, deep into betrayal and farce.

“Why should we know anything about Beethoven?” The question was asked in all seriousness by a sophomore just a few months ago. When I dredged up old, tired clichés, he listened carefully—and seemed convinced! What could be sadder? He was only waiting for the smallest bit of encouragement.

I told him (approximately), “You must know Beethoven’s music because no one has ever said anything deeper about what it means to be human, to look life and death in the eye, to know beauty at its purest and most intense—if you can take it. Because Beethoven asserts his own mere human self against the whole cosmos and makes it listen; he addresses God face-to-face, like Moses, whether God listens or not. And so people all over the world study and listen to and perform his music with reverence.” Clichés, but they were news to him.

No one has ever said anything deeper! NO ONE. Beethoven makes THE VERY COSMOS listen. He GETS UP IN GOD’S FACE. Can you take it? You can’t. You can’t even take it. This is you trying to take it:

Anyway, Gelernter goes on to discuss some specific ways that Spotify and iTunes could present classical music better. Which they indisputably could! The information ontology of music metadata is designed for pop songs. It’s awkward at best for classical music. The online music services could do a better job with their metadata all the way around.

And that’s where the sensible part of the article ends. When Gelernter gets into his specific educational solutions, his argument goes off the rails. He suggests a listening package aimed at first graders, which includes Schubert’s song “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” and he includes this parenthetical:

(if you want to know what the song means, we tell them sternly, learn German!)

Has this guy ever met a first grader, much less taught one? Has he ever said this to someone? Did it work? If a teacher said that to me, I would immediately stop paying attention for the rest of the semester.

The next level is easy. The music stops occasionally and asks simple questions. Is the key here major or minor? Did we just hear a cadence? What instruments do you hear?

Nothing supports a sublime listening experience better than having it be interrupted periodically so you can be asked pedantic questions.

We also have the means of building a great music city in the cybersphere, a central market where serious music comes from all over the world—in performance, in manuscript or in new or old printed editions, in scholarly and popular studies, photos and videos and biographies.

People should not, in the year 2015, be using the word “cybersphere.” But yes, this would be cool. I mean, it more or less exists already, through the combination of Google and Wikipedia, but it would be nice to have a well-organized central portal.

But this is the thing. The obstacles to the kids knowing and liking Beethoven are not technological. Kids scour the internet for information that they consider to be pertinent. The discipline they bring to bear on the study of Minecraft is humbling to behold. If a kid wants to dive deeply into Beethoven, it has never been easier to do so. The problem isn’t that kids don’t know how to use Google. The problem is that the kids don’t care about Beethoven. Or is this actually a problem?

I like Beethoven’s music fine. Some of it I love. This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.

But Beethoven can be, well, exhausting. Even in the piece above, once we go into the fast part, I find it be kind of strident and over the top. It gets to be like reading ALL CAPS IN BOLDFACE WITH A LOT OF EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!!! The long strings of perfect authentic cadences are oppressive after a while. I guess I like emotions in music to be more cool and laconic, more like Miles Davis, less like Wagner. I like more ambiguity and mystery. I definitely like more rhythm. I’m glad to have been exposed to the Beethoven quartets, and I’m glad to have put some time and attention into them, but I don’t feel the need to keep them in the regular rotation.

It would be great if everyone had the opportunity to engage with Beethoven and the rest of the brilliant dead white guys. But inflicting this music on kids as if it’s bad-tasting medicine is poor pedagogy and even worse marketing. Kids respond well to enthusiasm. They don’t respond well to authority for the sake of authority, or humorless hectoring, or being told to go learn German when they ask a simple question. Music teachers, if you want your students to like what you like, it’s not hard. All you have to do is not be an overbearing pedant about it.

8 thoughts on “Beethoven fan sputters with rage

  1. Ironically, you can find the same attitude in fans of classic rock, 80s music, 90s music… Just read YouTube comments on any contemporary pop / rock. It’s not about Beethoven per se. Most people’s musical tastes ossify once they’re past 25 or so. I am eagerly awaiting the decade when someone says “Young punks don’t even know Dr. Dre anymore”.

  2. Gelernter can be summed up in 80 characters. “Waah! Kids these days don’t like the music I like! The world is ending! Waah!”

  3. I couldn’t find any information in the cyberspheres at all about old german plumbing…

    beethoven seems to be deified by some folks as the classic example of the genius model of creativity, as opposed to the scenius model that eno describes. it’s a very fixed mindset – “there is beethoven, and then there is the rest of us.” it’s the last thing i’d want somebody teaching first graders. this is “real” music. (and thus all this other stuff is not…)

    it’s too bad the classics are ammunition for this kind of cultural warfare.

    thanks for the post!

  4. It would behoove Herr Gelernter (ironic last name) to read “Why the Whole World Doesn’t Love Chamber Music” by Christopher Small. It explains the issue beautifully. I usually tell my students Beethoven is worth knowing about so that you can steal ideas from him; even if you don’t like the aural effect, the techniques and structures are still worth mining.

  5. I think a lot of people get their introduction to classics via the movies. For myself, my first memorable exposures to Beethoven were in “The Longest Day” (5th Symphony) and “A Clockwork Orange” (9th) – both very much “in your face” movies. More contemplative, but still powerful and one of my favorites, Ives’s “Unanswered Question” shows up in “Run Lola Run” and “The Thin Red Line”. (Check out Leonard Bernstein’s lectures on You Tube inspired by this music if you haven’t already).

  6. Learning German just isn’t enough really. I think they should have to really understand what it meant to be German at that time. Also, they should live in much more drafty apartments and only use spices that are grown within a hundred miles or so of where they live. Also, old German plumbing. There’s absolutely no way to understand the music of Beethoven without having to use old German plumbing on a daily basis.

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