The cultural commissars are increasingly worried that the upcoming 250th birthday of Beethoven in December might distract from celebrating all things black. Thus from Slate:
Beethoven Has a First Name
It’s time to “fullname” all composers in classical music.
By CHRIS WHITE
OCT 24, 20206:00 AM
There will be a time when we’ll go to concerts again. We will buy our tickets, shuffle shoulder to shoulder down the aisle, and find our seats. The lights will dim, and the conductor will walk onto the stage to introduce the program. They might talk about Beethoven, Schumann, and Bartók. And they might talk about Alma Mahler, Florence Price, Henry Burleigh, and Caroline Shaw. Many of us, used to the conventions of classical performance, will hardly notice the difference: “traditional” white male composers being introduced with only surnames, full names for everyone else, especially women and composers of color.
The habitual, two-tiered way we talk about classical composers is ubiquitous. For instance, coverage of an early October livestream by the Louisville Orchestra praised the ensemble’s performance of a “Beethoven” symphony, and the debut of a composition memorializing Breonna Taylor by “Davóne Tines” and “Igee Dieudonné.”
It’s almost as if more people have heard of Beethoven than of Dávone Tines or Igee Dieudonne (who is a white guy). And it’s almost as if the Eroica Symphony is “better” than this 3 minute composition by Davóne Tines and Igee Dieudonné.
If you’re a music teacher who’s been demonstrating some concept with a piece by Ludwig van Beethoven or Wolfgang Mozart, these resources will guide you to an alternative piece of music by, say, Elizabeth Cotten (the guitarist responsible for the “Cotten picking” performance style).
Similar dynamics are increasingly evident within other musical fields, including music performance. The Metropolitan Opera, upon canceling its 2020–21 season, also announced that it would begin its next season with Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the first opera by a Black composer to appear on the Met’s stage.
Terence Blanchard’s depressing movie scores have pretty much destroyed Spike Lee’s career since he fired his dad, who scored Lee’s first few movies back when everybody thought he was going to turn into somebody good.
Encouraging as it is, this trend is butting headlong into the Western European musical canon. For a lot of intersecting reasons, music critics, academics, consumers, and performers in the mid-19th through early 20th centuries thought about music history as the story of a few great men producing great works of art. (Of course, this tactic is very common in how we tell our histories in many domains.) Tied up in the respect and ubiquity afforded to these men is the mononym, or a single word sufficing for a person’s whole name. These canonized demigods became so ensconced in elite musical society’s collective consciousness that only one word was needed to evoke their awesome specter. Mouthfuls of full names became truncated to terse sets of universally recognized syllables: Mozart. Beethoven. Bach.
If you want to argue that referring to the classical giants like Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach by one name is unfair, you ought to start with the Other Bachs, Johann Sebastian’s sons. J.S. Bach, although influential upon his peers such as Mozart and Beethoven, fell out of public popularity for almost 80 years following his death in 1750, during which some of his sons were more famous composers. Finally, in 1829, the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn arranged and conducted a famous performance of the St. Matthew’s Passion in Berlin, and the elder Bach has been a huge figure ever since.
On the one hand, then, initiatives toward diversity and inclusion are placing new names on concert programs, syllabi, and research papers, names that might not have been there 10 or 20 years ago—or even last year. But these names are appearing next to those that have been drilled deep into our brains by the forces of the inherited canon. This collision between increasing diversity and the mononyms of music history has created a hierarchical system that, whether or not you find it useful, can now only be seen as outdated and harmful.
As we usher wider arrays of composers into our concerts and classrooms, this dual approach only exacerbates the exclusionary practices that suppressed nonwhite and nonmale composers in the first place. When we say, “Tonight, you’ll be hearing symphonies by Brahms and Edmond Dédé,” we’re linguistically treating the former as being on a different plane than the latter, a difference originally created by centuries of systematic prejudice, exclusion, sexism, and racism. (Dédé was a freeborn Creole composer whose music packed concert halls in Europe and America in the mid-19th century.)
Edmond Dédé was a black guy from New Orleans who enjoyed a reasonable career on the conducting side in France in the late 19th Century, although it’s misleading to say he packed concert halls as a composer. It’s more like every few decades somebody in New Orleans would put on a concert of his pieces as a show of civic pride by the creole of color community.
More to the point, interest in Dédé at present seems negligible. I can’t find a YouTube video about him or of his music with even 2,000 views. There are countless 19th century composers who were fine talents but who are forgotten today.
In contrast, the most popular Brahms video on YouTube has 7 million views.
I would imagine Dede felt Brahms was a much better composer than him.
The hierarchy of classical music composers isn’t actually a conspiracy, it’s based on who the greats think was great. As I wrote in my 2003 review of Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment:
The best single confirmation of Beethoven’s greatness might be Brahms’s explanation of why he spent decades fussing before finally unveiling his First Symphony: “You have no idea how it feels for someone like me to hear behind him the tramp of a giant like Beethoven.”
Back to Slate:
Going forward, we need to “fullname” all composers when we write, talk, and teach about music. If mononyms linguistically place composers in a canonical pantheon, fullnaming never places them there to begin with. When we say, “Tonight, you’ll be hearing symphonies by Johannes Brahms and Edmond Dédé,” we’re linguistically treating both composers as being equally worthy of attention. And while fullnaming might seem like a small act in the face of centuries of harm and injustice, by adopting a stance of referential egalitarianism, fullnaming at least does no more harm. …
But by using everyone’s full names, we can focus more on their music rather than on the past cultural practices that elevated straight white men at the expense of everyone else.
Musicians, academics, and teachers have a lot of work ahead to confront the racist and sexist history of classical music. Fullnaming composers, especially those who have been elevated to mononymic status by this complicated history, will challenge us to at the very least afford the same respect to all of the individuals whose music we talk and write about. When we do return to the concert halls, let’s return to concerts that play Ludwig Beethoven alongside Florence Price, and Edmond Dédé alongside Johannes Brahms.
Sorry, but Beethoven’s full name isn’t “Ludwig Beethoven,” it’s Ludwig van Beethoven:
Amusingly, saying the long names of the Big Three—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Ludwig van Beethoven—just makes them sound even more awesome than saying only their last names.
I’m looking forward to Professor Chris White’s essay about how referring to “Marx,” “Foucault” and “Derrida” is racist and sexist, especially considering how unjust that is to “Adam Smith.”