Beethoven: A Running Dog?


Beethoven's reputation is what you might call secure--except, apparently, in China. Recently, under the scrutiny of the Music Institute of the May 7 Central Arts Academy, he has been found decidedly wanting. The new Chinese position describes Beethoven as a "19th Century capitalist composer" whose music reflects unhealthy ideals. Beethoven is said to be a counter-revolutionary political force, "just the right thing for a handful of class enemies inside and outside the country."

In January the Music Institute denounced Franz Schubert as well. Last week the dimensions of the target shrunk, as an article in Jenmin Jih Pao, the Communist Party newspaper, denounced the music of Ottorino Respighi. The work of this modern Italian composer is hardly a touchstone of Western music: he is a minor impressionist whose works are played more often than they deserve. Western critics might denounce him too, if anyone cared. The diatribe in Jenmin Jih Pao specifically cited Respighi's symphonic poem, Pines of Rome for stimulating "empty talk about changes in contrasts and emotions" which tries to "gloss over the class content.... so as to pull the wool over the eyes of the masses and deceive them."

The Chinese music critics could have found a more serious threat to socialist Chinese culture than Pines of Rome or, for that matter, Respighi's best-known other work, Fountains of Rome. But the Philadelphia Orchestra played Pines of Rome when it visited Peking last September, so by singling out Respighi the article underscored a general concern over free cultural exchange.

The earlier broad attacks on Beethoven and Schubert were more clearly directed at the music itself. The criticism goes beyond the notion that the class and status of a composer affects the music he writes. Social conditions obviously govern any artist's work, but in instrumental music it isn't always' clear that the finished product conveys any more than abstract emotion to the listener. Music is the purest form of art. When the writers of the late 19th century Aesthetic movement wished to avoid the moral questions posed by their own art they tried to imitate the social indifference of music. In a concert hall, on a record, even over a loudspeaker in a supermarket, music works on our emotions more than our intellects. And though the basic emotional response may be roughly the same for a wide range of people, the more specific nature of the emotion--and certainly any moral implication--depends on the preconceived ideas of the listener.

Thus while the opening movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony suggest some wild, overwhelming power to almost everyone, there is no way to say what the power represents. Beethoven described the opening theme as "fate knocking at the door." He dedicated another symphony to the memory of the great man he thought Napoleon had once been. Fate, individualism, the strength of a great man--these are the ideas a traditional 19th century mind brings to the work. But if these ideas were foreign to the listener the music could just as easily suggest the drama of collective action or revolutionary opposition to capitalism. Themes by Beethoven have already served both revolution and fascism: the Ninth Symphony, for example, served as a banner both for the Spanish Republic and for Alex of A Clockwork Orange.


The Chinese have not rejected all orchestral music. They still seem to admire the Yellow River Concerto, written by a committee of the Central Philharmonic Society of the People's Republic of China. (A recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra is available with Pines of Rome on RCA #ALL 1-0415.) To capitalist ears the piece sounds vaguely stirring and faintly romantic. A Washington Post critic suggested that "from the sound of it...the principal members of the committee were Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninoff, with some help from Edvard Grieg."

The Chinese don't see it that way. According to the official program notes, the brass introduction to the final movement (entitled "Defend the Yellow River") should conjure up an image of Chairman Mao's call to arms. A piano solo in the second movement "summarizes the long history of the nation and its people," but if the program didn't say so no one would ever know. Nietzsche, Wagner, George Bernard Shaw and many other critics have all written tracts trying to analyze some piece or another in historical or philosophical terms. All they have shown is that you can interpret the "meaning" of a piece of music almost any way you please.

A more cogent criticism of Beethoven is that, at least in his late works, his art is elite, accessible only to a few, and therefore that it helps maintain divisions within society. Late in his life, Leo Tolstoy wrote that "great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone." He condemned Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (though not his Fifth) because he felt it was exclusive. Tolstoy thought it would bring those people "specially trained to submit themselves to its complex hypnotism" together and divide them from the rest of mankind. In Tolstoy's day, the specially-trained people were the rich and those who served the rich, but the development of recording technology makes music economically accessible. Musical understanding divides--potentially--along the lines of interest, not wealth. There is no reason music should have to cause conflict in a socialist society.

Yet as long as China exists as a socialist state in a mainly capitalist world, any foreign influence can be damaging. If Western classical music in China leads to a more general influx of capitalist art and culture, the effects of the Revolution may begin to reverse themselves. The attack on Western music has been combined with a denunciation of Confucius and with militant policy statements condemning backsliding in collective agriculture and on relations between soldiers and civilians. Some sort of political confrontation is taking place; one of the few details now known is that Teng Hsiaoping, a capable economic administrator, has recently jumped into the lineup of Politburo members ahead of Chiang Ching, who has been a virtual despot in the performing arts since the Great Cultural Revolution. Chiang Ching, who is married to Mao Tse-Tung, had asked the Philadelphia Orchestra to play Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony last fall, and it is still not clear whether her position has changed or he role in the art has diminished.

The articles attacking Beethoven, Schubert, and Respighi urge people to struggle against the influence of the decadent works. Perhaps battling music in this way can help unify a country like a war or the struggle against Marshal Lin. And by denouncing a work played by a U.S. orchestra, the Chinese articles are indirectly denouncing U.S. cultural imperialism in general. But the works of Beethoven and Schubert are among the achievements most worth preserving out of all Western civilization. With so many insidious U.S. cultural influences working around the globe, it is an appalling misdirection of energy for Chinese Communism to mount such an effort against music.