Why Beethoven wasn’t the original punk rocker of classical music

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Last summer, the “Beethoven Was Black” meme was all the rage online, a trope that drew the iconic composer into a 21st century discussion of race and social justice. But there’s another curious classical music trope in circulation, which is actually hard to avoid: Beethoven was a punk.

A quick search for information on iconic composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt or Stravinsky inevitably produces articles and blog posts proclaiming them the “original punk rockers”, connecting them to the infamous modern pop music phenomenon associated with bands. like the Ramones, the Sex Pistolets and The Clash.

What is happening here?

Punks characters

Who are the supposed punks in the classical music world? It seems, for many commentators, any composer who went against the grain in one way or another was a punk.

British radio station Classic FM, for example, provides a short list of classical music punks it begins, improbably, with the medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen. Her very varied singing melodies and her arrangements of daring texts apparently make her a “figure of protest”.

The list also includes Tchaikovsky, considered a punk under the emotional outpouring of his symphonic music. 20th-century French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez also makes an appearance because whoever sought to shaping the future of modern music from scratch by vehemently rejecting the past.

In an article for The Guardian, scholar John Butt cites the Reformation, initiated by the composer and schismatic monk Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, as “” classical musicpunk rock moment. “Rocker and poet Patti Smith said Mozart was a punk rocker because his music exemplified the”the pursuit of the new, to make space, not to be confined or defined. ”

Likewise, in his 1986 hit “Rock me Amadeus”, Austrian pop star Falco called Mozart an 18th century rock star – “ein Punker”, beloved by all women for his alcoholic punk rock recklessness.

In “Rock Me Amadeus” Austrian pop star Falco portrays Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a rebel.

The harshly dissonant music of early 20th-century Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg is “punk rock,” according to journalist Rebecca Mazzi, by dint of non-conformist rejection of musical traditions.

Beethoven the punk

But Beethoven – again, as a cultural icon who seems able to absorb meaning and interpretation from all directions – seems to be the example of a proto-punk. An ironic Weekly entertainment item Connects Beethoven to Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious: both “ransacked hotel rooms” and composed of “anti-monarchy songs”.

Music critic Colin Fleming calls Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony “punk-rock” thanks to its fast tempos, loud passages and general “pugnacious and punchy” character. The BBC says the annual Proms concert may be one of “the oldest punk rock concerts on the planet”, Featuring music by Beethoven that audiences and 19th century musicians often found“ difficult ”.

Even academia cannot resist the lure of this trope, it seems: A German press release for musicologist William Kinderman’s very recent book on the political nature of Beethoven’s music describes the composer as “Rebell and Punk. “

Punk started in the mid-1970s in the United States, settling in the United Kingdom only to disappear at the end of the decade. This notion that Beethoven, along with other big names in the canon of classical music, was a punk invites to deconstruct it. A key issue is the idea that punk – a very short lived musical movement (and arguably, a lucrative and intelligently managed form of outrage) – somehow exemplified the ‘pursuit of the new’, as Patti Smith claims. .

Singer-songwriter Patti Smith, shown here performing in the Netherlands in 2018, called Mozart a “punk rocker”.
(Shutterstock)

Punk traditions

Punk rock is, on the contrary, decidedly regressive. He appeals to the ear with his noise and his provocative and often obscene texts, and not by daring musical innovations. It’s fast rock’n’roll, nothing more. Punk relies on traditional instrumentation – guitar, drums, bass – and traditional rock chord structures.

He rejected the excesses of the other musical genres of the 70s – in particular progressive rock and disco – by becoming more stripped down, but also more roots: punk is, in essence, a movement of rock revival rather than a reimagination. or an anarchic remodeling of music.

Ethnomusicologist Evan Rapport has argued that punk’s true roots are in fact in the blues, and makes the provocative claim that the the tendency to link punk to the European avant-garde constitutes a whitewashing of history which seeks to obscure the origins of punk in black music, just like the discourse concerning black composers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The great classical composers, certainly from Mozart onwards, were admittedly idiosyncratic and individualistic, but whether they were radically anti-authoritarian punks is highly questionable. They may have composed music that at times upset their contemporaries, but they also wrote for the box office, courted patrons, sought popularity, and were not artistic anarchists: on the contrary, most understood each other. – even the most irascible, like the arch-modernist Schoenberg – to be part of a larger and more continuous cultural tradition.

Stravinsky, the original punk rock?

Despite the lack of a true affinity between classical music and punk, Beethoven as a punk rocker appears to be part of an effort to assert the continued relevance and sensuality of classical music, even as organizations and Venues are struggling to stay afloat, and audiences continue to decline. It is true, alas, that most of us no longer have the right ears and the right brain for this music, which requires special attention, musical memory, familiarity with a vast lexicon of expressive gestures, and understanding. of how large-scale musical structures are constructed.

Making connections between surly three-minute punk songs and Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony in the hopes of simulating interest in the classics and putting bums in concert hall seats ultimately doesn’t help listeners sound out. the depths and to navigate the richness and intricacies of half an hour-long orchestral work.

a black and white photograph of dancers
A group of dancers posed in the original production of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, showing historical Russian folk costumes and a Nicholas Roerich backdrop. The first performance sparked a riot in Paris in 1913.
(The sketch magazine)

If we have to draw any connecting lines between punk and classical music, I guess we could turn to Igor Stravinsky. The Paris premiere of his 1913 ballet The Rite of Spring is deemed to have started a riot, and is hailed as a turning point in the development of musical modernism.

This service, like the legendary first Sex Pistols concert in 1976, has since become a myth: in each case, many more people claim to have been present than they actually were. Maybe the “classical music is punk” trope should start and end there.

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