How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony starts with an anguished opening theme — dun dun dun DUNNNN — and ends with a glorious, major-key melody. Since its 1808 premiere, audiences have interpreted that progression from struggle to victory as a metaphor for Beethoven’s personal resilience in the face of his oncoming deafness.

Or rather, that’s long been the popular read among those in power, especially the wealthy white men who embraced Beethoven and turned his symphony into a symbol of their superiority and importance. For some in other groups — women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color — Beethoven’s symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism. One New York City classical music fan wrote in the 1840s, for example, that he wished “all women shall be gagged by officers duly licensed for the purpose before they’re allowed to enter a concert room.”

Before Beethoven’s time, classical music culture looked and sounded quite different. When Mozart premiered his Symphony 31 in the late 1700s, it was standard for audiences to clap, cheer, and yell “da capo!” (Italian for “from the beginning!”) in the middle of a performance. After Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony debuted in the early 1800s, these norms changed — both because the rising industrial merchant class took ownership of concert halls and because of shifts in the music itself.

As we explored in episodes I and II of the Switched On Pop podcast series The 5th, the musical complexity of Beethoven’s symphony required a different kind of listening. The Fifth’s four-note opening theme occurs and recurs in variations throughout the symphony, slowly shifting from minor to major keys and mirroring Beethoven’s experience with deafness. The Fifth’s creative rule-breaking — subverting the classical sonata form in the first movement, for example — requires close listening to fully grasp.

In Mozart’s day, each movement in a symphony was self-contained, like a collection of short stories. Beethoven’s Fifth acted more like a novel, asking audiences to follow a single story that unfolded over an entire four-movement symphony. New norms of concert behavior developed in turn. Sitzfleisch, or “sitting still,” became the ultimate desideratum for showing one’s understanding of the new language of classical music. Over time, these norms crystallized into a set of etiquette rules (e.g., “don’t clap mid-piece”) to enhance the new listening experience.

In the third episode of The 5th, we explore how Beethoven’s symphony was used to generate the strict culture of classical music — and the politics that undergird those norms of behavior.

Though concert etiquette that evolved in response to the Fifth may have had the goal of venerating the music, it can also act as a source of gatekeeping. “Polite society” first emerged as a set of cultural standards developed during the mid-18th century as bourgeois class signifiers. In Beethoven’s time, new social etiquette extended into the concert hall.

Today, some aspects of classical culture are still about policing who’s in and who’s out. When you walk into a standard concert hall, there’s an established set of conventions and etiquette (“don’t cough!”; “don’t cheer!”; “dress appropriately!”) that can feel as much about demonstrating belonging as appreciating the music.

For classical music critic James Bennett II, Beethoven’s popularity and centrality in classical culture is part of the problem. “As you perpetuate the idea that the giants of the music all look the same, it conveys to the ‘other’ that there’s not a stake in that music for them,” he says.

New York Philharmonic clarinetist Anthony McGill, one of the few Black musicians in the ensemble, agrees that Beethoven’s inescapability can make classical music appear monolithic and stifling. He likens the inescapability of the Fifth Symphony to a “wall” between classical music and new, diverse audiences.

“If you pretend like there’s no other music out there, that Beethoven is the greatest music that ever will matter,” says McGill, then orchestras will alienate new listeners, since “we’re not promoting any of the composers alive today that are trying to become the Beethovens of their day.”

Find out how Beethoven’s Fifth went from symbolizing freedom to a more complicated legacy — and how the symphony’s original meaning might be recovered — in Movement III of The 5th, available now.

Subscribe to Switched on Pop wherever you find podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Update, September 16: This article has been updated to clarify some of the historical views of the Fifth Symphony and problems of representation in classical music.


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