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How Beethoven Became an American Icon

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Ever since Beethoven’s music arrived on the shores of the United States in 1805, the composer has become a constantly morphing icon. In his expansive new book Beethoven in America, Michael Broyles argues that the composer gradually became democratized -- a symbol not merely of the European classical canon but one who "transcends boundaries of aesthetic preference and ethnicity."

Feminists and black radicals, filmmakers and architects, poets and rappers all grasped something in the emotional power of Beethoven’s music. Broyles, a professor of music at Florida State University, said that probably the watershed moment for Beethoven came in the 1960s, when the counterculture appropriated Beethoven’s music and persona towards all sorts of ends.

One of the more surprising chapters in your book concerns the notion that Beethoven was black. It gained currency in the 1960s, as a number of African Americans, promoting black pride and black separatism, argued that Beethoven had African ancestors. How did this come about -- and did it catch on?

It has a vague credibility. It is not such a prominent issue now as it was in the sixties and seventies. It was really representative of the time. In the sixties you had the emergence of the black power movement and black separatism – all of this going on. It was a very turbulent time. Before that, [Jamaican-American scholar] Joel Rogers had investigated the question of the African background for much European culture. He had come up with the theory that Beethoven may have been black. Now Rogers was a good scholar – he was a journalist but a good investigator. He never actually did say that Beethoven was black.

He based that on a couple of things: One, Beethoven’s appearance in a couple of images that have come down to us. He took one that had been shaded in different ways depending on which copy you look at. Probably his strongest argument was Beethoven’s family was originally from Flanders (today Belgium) and in the 16th Century this was ruled by Spain and there was a lot of Spanish army in Flanders. There were a lot of Moors in the Spanish army. So it’s possible that Moorish blood may have gotten into Beethoven’s lineage.

Rogers died in 1966. How did the theory get revived?

Well, that as you can see is not something you can easily prove or disprove. It would be almost impossible. But that is what the black radicals of the sixties picked up on and people like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael changed it from a possibility to a certainty: Beethoven was black. I found it kind of ironic that here, these were people who were calling for a separate black identity completely removed from European culture, and what do they do, they chose a German musician who is at the very core of European musical culture. But there were lots of reasons for doing that. It was kind of like what Susan McClary did in making people wake up and take notice. It was also a way of enhancing the acceptability and pride of blacks within the culture. It was an interesting situation.

You mentioned the feminist musicologist Susan McClary. She famously advanced the theory that the first movement of the Ninth Symphony was a musical expression of misogynistic violence. You write that a similar theory was espoused by the poet Adrienne Rich.

McClary’s original idea which became one of the things that some of the public seems to have remembered was her notion that she sees the first movement of the Ninth Symphony as a metaphor for rape, which of course, Adrienne Rich did too. When people hear that – it’s so out there – they tend to remember it. Of course McClary had a much broader agenda. The whole question of the patriarchal nature of some aspects of Western music and the Western canon especially – and Beethoven being the core of the canon was prime for investigation. McClary saw sonatas as very much a male patriarchal thing. 

The 1971 film “A Clockwork Orange” also connected the Ninth Symphony with violence and misogyny. For a piece that is typically thought to symbolize universal brotherhood where was Stanley Kubrick coming from?

Hitler very much appropriated the Ninth Symphony at things such as the opening of the 1936 Olympics. So there was still some lingering memory of that. Then “A Clockwork Orange” re-associated it with evil. In terms of the character Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” I think it was intended to be a contrast between the ultra-violent nature of these young thugs and then Alex’s own worship of Beethoven. But the way it was used – what people came away with -- was the Ninth Symphony is associated with evil.

How did “A Clockwork Orange” set a template then for other filmmakers?

It had become such a classic at this time that the filmmakers were aware of the cinematic heritage of the Ninth Symphony. “Die Hard” is a good example. They use it at a moment of great triumph. The shots show the villain, Hans Gruber, as he successfully opens the safe. The lighting is such to put him in a very heroic position as if it’s a great moment of triumph. Of course, it’s a great moment of triumph not for the hero but for the villain. So you have that nuanced and conflicted use there.

This was a time when the split or chasm between classical music and other kinds of music was beginning to break down. Starting in the 1980s, there was a great expansion of the Beethoven repertoire in film. Up to that point, there are about a half-dozen classics – the Moonlight Sonata, the Fifth Symphony, the Ninth, the Pathetique, Fur Elise. But they begin to use many other Beethoven pieces the public may not be as familiar with as a reference symbol.

You write how Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” brought the name Beethoven into the popular music world and essentially placed rock ‘n’ roll on an equal plane with classical music. How so?

Certainly, the use of Beethoven’s name was important. And the title introduced him to rock music and probably to a lot of young rock musicians who might not have thought a lot about Beethoven. But the greater importance was the idea that rock music is not just another popular music but is something to be taken seriously, just like classical music. That it’s something that’s going to endure, that it’s not just another phase. I think that’s what Chuck Berry was saying. He never said ‘get rid of classical music.’ He just said pay attention to rock music.

Everyone knows Walter Murphy’s disco hit “A Fifth of Beethoven.” Did any appropriation truly surprise you?

What surprised me was how much Beethoven is used in heavy metal. I’ll be perfectly honest – I wasn’t that familiar with heavy metal music before this project started. But as I started exploring it I realized these heavy metal musicians were real virtuosi.

Why Beethoven and heavy metal?

It’s the emotional impact that Beethoven has. He can be quite driving and powerful and have a huge emotional impact on listeners. I think that’s what drew many of the heavy metal people to Beethoven – the Fifth Symphony especially and the opening. These are your power chords of heavy metal. Richie Blackmore (of the band Rainbow, below) used the “Ode to Joy” in his "Difficult to Cure" piece. Here he takes off on it and explores it in so many ways, using parts of the recitative. But it works very well on a big, powerful improvised, fuzzy heavy metal guitar.

So much has already been written about Beethoven. What do you hope your book will achieve?

You hear all the time that classical music is dead and so forth. What I was trying to say is that Beethoven is all around us, far beyond the classical music concert room and I think he’s going to stay. I started the book because people often asked me, 'what does Beethoven’s music mean?' You almost have to say, 'to whom?' Because it doesn’t have any one meaning. It has a lot of meanings. But I’m hoping this will not only cause people to think about Beethoven in a broader way but will cause journalists and scholars do further investigation.

Interview has been edited and condensed