Why We Need Shakespeare and Beethoven
Detractors ignore why the classics are so vital to our culture.
Back in the mid-1990s, when the Republican-controlled Congress briefly considered cutting off funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, I remember seeing an editorial cartoon that portrayed Newt Gingrich taking an axe to Michelangelo's David, over the caption "Counter-Culture." It captured a historical snapshot of our political debate, one that was probably already antique at the time: a portrayal of conservatives as yokels and religious obscurantists, indifferent to art and literature, while the left was the party of education and cultural refinement. Though somehow I can't recall the NEA ever funding anything remotely like the David.
Today, of course, the situation has reversed. Not that conservatism under the influence of Donald Trump has become the party of highbrow intellectualism—far from it—but the left has become the party of a literal iconoclasm, tearing down sculptures and monuments that they imagine represent the old order. They are the new obscurantists seeking to purge our culture of some of its most important art and literature.
This is not exactly unprecedented. In her notes for The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand defined her villain Ellsworth Toohey, a distillation of the 20th-century totalitarian intellectual, in these terms: "He says that he is fighting Rockefeller and Morgan," the big industrialists of the previous era, but "he is fighting Beethoven and Shakespeare." Toohey's left-wing anti-capitalism is just cover for a wider attempt to subordinate the individual to the collective—and, in service to this goal, to deny the existence of any extraordinary individual. In the real world, this sort of outlook explained, for example, the old left's mania for folk music, because, as Alan Lomax put it, it was "equalitarian," providing us with "a people's culture, a culture of the common man." Beethoven was not a common man.
Under today's left, this desire to cut down the tall poppies is given a racial gloss, and today's "woke" Ellsworth Tooheys are now openly fighting Beethoven and Shakespeare on the grounds that they were white men and thus have been unjustly foisted upon us.
In our age, librarians are not the guardians of great books but their denouncers, so we find them leading the charge against Shakespeare.
A growing number of "woke" academics are refusing to teach Shakespeare in US schools, arguing that the Bard promotes racism, white supremacy, and intolerance, and instead are pushing for the teaching of "modern" alternatives.
Writing in the January issue of School Library Journal, Amanda MacGregor, a Minnesota-based librarian, bookseller, and freelance journalist, asked why teachers were continuing to include Shakespeare in their classrooms. "Shakespeare's works are full of problematic, outdated ideas, with plenty of misogyny, racism, homophobia, classism, anti-Semitism, and misogynoir," she wrote, with the last word referring to a hatred of black women ....
Jeffrey Austin, Writing Center director at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, agreed. "There is nothing to be gained from Shakespeare that couldn't be gotten from exploring the works of other authors," he said. "It's worth pushing back against the idea that somehow Shakespeare stands alone as a solitary genius when every culture has transcendent writers that don't get included in our curriculum or classroom libraries."
I don't know what's worse about this story. Maybe it's the teachers—all of them white, by the way—who only assign "authors and characters … [who] look and sound like my students," as if it is the job of teachers to keep their students within the confines of their existing lives rather than to expand their horizons. Or maybe it's the ones who do teach Shakespeare, but only if they can filter him through their trendy political obsessions, teaching Romeo and Juliet "through the lens of toxic masculinity analysis" or using Coriolanus "to discuss Marxist theory."
It seems strange to have to defend the greatness of Shakespeare, but perhaps people can get away with canceling him because we have taken his status for granted for so long. So let me just list three big reasons we study Shakespeare.
The first is the prodigious variety and creativity of his plots, which have been so endlessly stolen and reworked over the centuries—a few years back it seemed that every movie made for teenagers that didn't have a plot stolen from Jane Austen had a plot stolen from Shakespeare—that we forget he was the one who did them first.
Then there is the vast fund of words and phrases in English that Shakespeare created.
If you cannot understand my argument, and declare "It's Greek to me," you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is farther to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked, or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort, or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise—why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then—to give the devil his due—if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded, or a blinking idiot, then—by Jove! O Lord! Tut tut! For goodness' sake! What the dickens! But me no buts!—it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.
Shakespeare, more than anyone else, is the creator of modern English, and the reason we study him is because of his outsized influence in shaping our language.
But the final reason is the one that makes the attempt to racialize Shakespeare utterly ridiculous. Shakespeare is the most global playwright in history, endlessly translated, adapted, and appropriated by every culture in the world, outside of North Korea. No, strike that, even there.
Only a "woke" American could be so parochial as to imagine Shakespeare to be a restrictively white or English writer. So what purpose is to be served by pretending this is the case?
For an answer to that, let's look at the assault on Beethoven.
As a fan of classical music, this is the shoe I've been expecting to drop for some years now: the claim that classical music is somehow racist and must therefore be canceled.
For now, this takes the form primarily of an attack on music theory, on the body of knowledge that helps us to understand classical music. But you can see the obvious motive. If we can no longer understand or explain classical music, then we won't be in a position to promote it or defend it.
Hence the assault on a tiny little academic journal devoted to the study of early 20th-Century music theorist Heinrich Schenker.
There is no controversy over whether Schenker held racist views—despite himself being a Jew whose work and family were later targeted by the Nazis. (We live in a complicated word.) The question is whether this makes his theories on music invalid. That is precisely the claim made by musicologist Philip Ewell in a broadside arguing that "Schenker's racism permeates his music theories" and "accusing generations of Schenker scholars of trying to 'whitewash' the theorist in an act of 'colorblind racism.'" When the Journal of Schenkerian Studies tried to push back against these claims, it got canceled.
That last phrase from Ewell, "colorblind racism," is the curious one, because the upshot is that Schenker scholars stand accused not of broadcasting Schenker's racism but of attempting to separate it from the valid ideas in his musical theory.
If we are going to reject any idea ever developed by a racist as the fruit of a poisonous tree, then I suppose we had better get rid of Woodrow Wilson's entire "progressive" agenda, including the income tax, on the grounds that it was championed by an out-and-out racist and a defender of segregation. Somehow nobody (on the left at least) ever seems to want to draw that conclusion.
Yet it is far more plausible to say that political ideas should suffer guilt by association than it is to apply this standard to science or scholarship. If we found out Copernicus was a racist, would the sun stop being at the center of the solar system? The very notion is an absurdity—yet that is essentially Philip Ewell's argument against Schenker and music theory.
No, really. Here is his whole argument for Heinrich Schenker's music theory being racist: "As with the inequality of races, Schenker believed in the inequality of tones." So is an octave consonant and, say, a tritone dissonant, just because a music theorist thought black people were inferior? Would it be "anti-racist" to pretend to hear no difference between the two intervals?
You might as well claim that all numbers also have to be equal and thereby cancel the entire field of mathematics. This is not just an analogy, because as the Greek philosopher Pythagoras discovered 2,500 years ago, musical intervals are directly related to numbers. You can easily replicate his ancient experiments yourself. If you pluck a guitar string, for example, and then you hold the string down against the fingerboard at exactly half its full length and pluck it again, you will get a tone one octave higher. Pythagoras did this and concluded that an octave represents a mathematical ratio of 2:1. (In modern terms, we know that a pitch one octave higher is produced by air that is vibrating exactly twice as frequently as in the original pitch.) Two pitches with this interval between them are so consonant with each other that they are experienced as being the same note, just “higher” or “lower.”
Pythagoras then went on to identify the next simplest ratio, 3:2, which sounds to our ear as the next most consonant interval, what is called a “fifth” or a “dominant” interval, which is so ancient and widely recognized that it features in the simple pentatonic scales of folk music from around the world. The next most consonant interval, 4:3, is called the “subdominant,” and if you’ve ever been to church, you will recognize it instantly as the “amen” chord progression. And so on.
That’s all that “music theory” really is. Not that it’s just the mathematics of the notes. Starting with the rediscovery of Pythagoras in the Renaissance, musicians and scholars began to learn more about the relationships between musical pitches and used this both to create and to understand new forms of melody and harmony, along with developing new ideas about the structure of a piece of music, how to progress from one melody to another, and so on.
Finding out that one influential theorist was a racist does not invalidate thousands of years of accumulated knowledge of music, nor does it change the mathematical relationships between musical pitches, and it is preposterous to think that it ever could.
But to go back to Ellsworth Toohey, let's follow a piece of advice he gave us: "Don't bother to examine a folly—ask yourself only what it accomplishes." In this case, it's not about a musical theorist unknown to the general public. It's about bringing down the classical composer everyone has heard of: Ludwig van Beethoven.
So Ewell goes on to disparage Beethoven as an unfairly uplifted mediocrity. "To state that Beethoven was any more than, say, above average as a composer," or to say that "Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is a masterwork, born of the genius of a titanic composer," he writes, is to perpetuate "music theory's white racial frame, which works in concert with patriarchal structures to advantage whiteness and maleness." "Beethoven occupies the place he does because he has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for two hundred years."
So Beethoven was just a middling guy foisted upon us in order to keep down "persons of color."
The only way Ewell and the rest of the woke crowd can get away with it is because of decades of neglect of musical education in our schools. Music theorists may know better, and as a musician, Ewell definitely knows better. But he's depending on being able to dupe the public, who only know Beethoven as the guy who wrote the song that begins "duh-duh-duh-DUN."
The insult behind these claims—and the implied intimidation—is that we venerate the achievements of a Shakespeare or a Beethoven unthinkingly, out of mere prejudice or chauvinism, without knowing the reasons their work is great. So let's call that bluff by talking for a moment about what's great about Beethoven.
"Duh-duh-duh-DUN" is how most people remember the opening notes of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony—three forcefully delivered short notes, followed by a long, sustained note one one whole third lower. This is not the opening melody. It's what is called a "motif," a fragment of a melody, something too short and simple to be a melodic theme on its own, but which can be extended or combined with other motifs to become a theme. And that's precisely what Beethoven proceeds to do with it.
This, by the way, is the main difference between classical music and popular music or folk music. You will find that most popular songs have perhaps 15 to 20 seconds of actual, unique music—usually, just enough melody to sustain a single line of the lyrics. That melody is then repeated over and over again, with only the lyrics changing (if you're lucky). Maybe there's a brief hook or refrain, and maybe there's a bridge, a second melody briefly introduced for contrast before returning to the opening melody. But popular and folk music tends to rely on repetition. That's what makes it seem less complex and demanding to listen to, and it's what makes classical music seem more "serious" by comparison.
Classical music is generally built on the opposite approach. Once a melodic theme is introduced, it is meant to be varied, modulated, transformed, inverted, and contrasted. So in the Fifth Symphony, once Beethoven introduces the "duh-duh-duh-DUN" motif, he immediately repeats it one whole step lower. Then he turns it into a full-fledged melody based on the repetition of the motif at progressively higher and lower pitches, first going down, then going up, then put into counterpoint against itself in a kind of call and response. Then the whole process is repeated and extended.
After a little while of this, the opening motif is repeated, at about 0:51, in a “horn call” that carries the same rhythm but extends it—three short notes followed now by three long notes—and spaces out the pitches at wider intervals. The pitches of these notes are then taken as the basis for a second melodic theme, and you will notice that this one sounds much happier. The symphony as a whole is in the key of C minor, and carries the ominous, slightly dissonant tension of a minor key, made all the stormier by Beethoven's urgent, brooding rhythms. But this second theme appears in the key of E-flat major. This is the "relative major" of C minor, which just means that if you take all the same notes as a C-minor scale and play them in a different combination, it sounds like a major scale. It's a neat trick for seamlessly changing from an ominous to a happy mood, and back again.
Beethoven then brings back the “duh-duh-duh-DUN” motif, but this time in a mood that is not brooding but triumphant, ending (at 1:33) with a variation in which the final note, the “DUN,” reaches up rather than down.
This sense of triumph is cut short by a return of the original, ominous version of the motif, and this establishes the basic idea for the rest of the first movement—a contest between the ominous and the joyous, a sense of impending doom that is transformed into a sense of triumph. After another section of variation and development, the initial theme is broken down, reduced (at 4:02) from four notes to two, then to only one, and the heartbeat of the movement nearly flatlines, only to be revived by an adrenaline shot of the opening motif.
If this were a movie, this is the point at which our protagonist, after a series of early victories, suffers a series of setbacks. It looks like he might finally lose, but with the help of some soul-searching (represented here by a quietly introspective oboe solo), he manages to rally for one last superhuman effort.
That's exactly what happens here. The happier second theme makes a triumphant return, at 5:38, now in C major, briefly changing the dominant mood of the whole movement from a minor key to that of a major key, leading to a triumphant version of the "duh-duh-duh-DUN" theme that keeps on going this time and rises to new heights. But then the second theme evolves into a form that is darker, more brooding and defiant (at about 6:55). The piece ends with the opening motif returning, but this time stated (at 7:49) in a form that is neither despairing nor triumphant but assertive and indomitable.
Notice how Beethoven starts with the initial motif—a short, bare fragment of a melody, so mindlessly simple that anyone can remember it—and takes it through so many variations, modifications, and transformations that it can capture a whole gamut of emotions: from dread to joy, from despair to triumph, from stormy defiance to confident assertiveness.
And what does it all add up to? It's helpful to know the context of Beethoven's life. He wrote the Fifth Symphony from 1804 to 1808, years in which he was beginning to lose his hearing and was giving up his career as a concert pianist, turning his energies fully to composing, and that suggests what the Fifth Symphony is about.
Beethoven's secretary, Anton Schindler, later said that the opening motif represents the hand of fate knocking on the door, and his story became so popular that this is known as the “fate motif.” But most historians agree that Schindler is not a reliable source, and musically, I'm not buying it. The Fifth Symphony is not about fate. It is about Beethoven’s defiance of fate—his determination to triumph over his circumstances. He is the one who knocks.
To take such a simple motif and weave it, not just into a complex musical tapestry, but into a profound yet personal statement—that is the achievement of a musical genius.
This is precisely why Beethoven is under attack. Ewell says that part of his purpose is to expose the "myth of the artistic genius." Beethoven has to be knocked down a peg.
But the broader motive is the same as Ellsworth Toohey's: to herd us all into a collective and make us think about everything in terms, not of the individual, but of the group. Just as with the supposed “anti-racists” who want us to see “hard work” and “rational thinking" as "white" values, so Ewell lists the following among his catalog of “euphemisms for whiteness": “authentic,” “civilized,” “classic,” “function,” “fundamental,” “genius,” “opus,” “piano,” “sophisticated.” Oh, and also “science,” “theory,” and the calendar, because I guess the Gregorian calendar is colonialist. We are not allowed to think of anything independent of the political dogmas of the moment or outside of a “racial frame”—and this is billed, in the final insult to our intelligence, as “anti-racism.”
This is also, obviously, condescending and infantilizing toward the supposed objects of its concern, conceding as it does the denial to black people of civilization, sophistication, and the ability to appreciate or learn from Beethoven and Shakespeare—in defiance of all actual evidence. But disparaging the common man under the guise of being his champion is the whole point, which takes us back to the idea Ayn Rand was trying to embody in the character of Ellsworth Toohey. He tears down greatness in order to “make man feel small.” He fights Beethoven and Shakespeare (and Rockefeller and Morgan) because he wants people to think of themselves as small and weak and thus to allow themselves to herded into undistinguished collectives in need of a ruler—someone like him.
In that regard, notice what this “woke” analysis accomplishes for its contemporary Ellsworth Tooheys: It allows them to elevate themselves by tearing other people down. They do not have to discover a new continent or unlock the secrets of the universe; they do not need to found a free nation or fight a war to free other men from bondage; they do not need to write a play or a poem or a symphony, or develop their own theories of music; they need merely point out the flaws of the people who did all of these things.
All they need to be better than the best is to display their mastery of the latest catchphrases.
To state it in those terms is to expose the absurdity. And here we need to remember another piece of wisdom from Ayn Rand: “The uncontested absurdities of today are the accepted slogans of tomorrow.” The collectivist doctrine of “anti-racism” is the uncontested absurdity that is rapidly becoming our culture's accepted slogan.
Perhaps the best antidote to that, the best way to combat the absurdity, is simply to keep ourselves grounded in the great works that the “woke” intellectuals want to cut down. Keep on reading Shakespeare and listening to Beethoven, keep our minds broadened by focusing on the broad vistas they illuminate and the potential for human greatness than they reveal. By contrast to that, the political dogmas of the moment will seem as petty and narrow as they really are.