Thursday, May 9, 2013

Beethoven and rape. What?

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will conclude their season this weekend with the perpetually popular "Symphony No. 9" by everyone's favorite deaf, disheveled German.

In graduate school, I took a seminar on Beethoven's ninth symphony taught by a reception historian. We looked at all the ways communities and people used the iconic music to illustrate or symbolize something. The spectrum is quite wide for a well-known work like the ninth.

Feminist musicologist Susan McClary, for instance, felt that Beethoven's joyful symphony told a more violent story--one of rape. In a 1987 issue of the Minnesota Composers Forum Newsletter, McClary wrote, "The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying movements in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release."

That's not what you hear?

Here's some context: different parts of a musical piece function like characters. The key a piece of music is in--or the note that sounds most like home--is one team. There's also a second team, and the different components of each team follow certain conventions in their interaction (like people!)--for instance, the chief key usually starts the piece, and it certainly ends it. Somewhere between the beginning and the end, that key persuades members of the opposing team to the other side. This is a crude explanation, but the point is that music (not all music, but this is narrative music) has a drama that's determined by the way the chords work together.

McClary is arguing that the second team is not being persuaded, and the first team is forcing the exchange.

And here's the thing: she's not wrong. You can see the music that way--it's true that the chords interact in a way that mimics rape. But in order to agree with her, you have to be willing to put on her glasses.

When McClary published her assessment of the ninth symphony, many people thought she had taken up residence in a cuckoo clock. That's not what I believe, but I don't choose to see it the way she sees it. It's valid, but I'm not interested in that particular reading (sometimes I wonder if she saw the film "A Clockwork Orange" and decided not to put on Stanley Kubrick's irony glasses).

That's what's so great about narrative music: you can hear so many different things in it. It's incredibly versatile. Maybe the reason Beethoven's ninth symphony is so popular is because of its versatility. Yes, it's beautiful, but lots of beautiful music is stranger to the ears that know the ninth. Its relevance to so many stories, and therefore lives, could be the factor responsible for its iconic status.