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Letters

Letter to the Editor: How to Rethink Classical Music

By Ellie M. Taylor and Kevin P. Wang
Ellie M. Taylor ’22, a Crimson Arts editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. Kevin P. Wang ’23 is a Government concentrator in Currier House. The two are co-Directors of the Classical Music Department of Harvard Radio Broadcasting.

To the editor:

In a recently published column (October 14), the author claims that Beethoven’s music has run its course. He argues that classical musicians and institutions should eschew the composer’s 250th anniversary in favor of “smaller celebrations of [...] other musical giants.” As directors of Harvard Radio Broadcasting’s Classical Music department, which will broadcast the complete works of Beethoven later this year, we are among his celebrants. And while there is something to be said for being wary of classical music’s fixation on Beethoven, we strongly disagree with the implication that there is nothing more to be learned from his music, as well as with the author’s notions of what would constitute a newer, fresher, more inclusive classical music canon.

Beethoven’s music has long enjoyed preeminence. It has been recorded for over a century, and performed, lauded, and debated for much longer. But rather than read this history as evidence that there is nothing new to learn, we might ask ourselves, not rhetorically but quite sincerely: why has Beethoven stuck around for so long? The answer, we suspect, is that generations of musicians, scholars, and audiences have found in his music not the same things, but different things — new themes and ideas, new interpretations and areas of contention. It strikes us as arrogant to presume that the correct interpretation of any music is a settled question. Moreover, it is plainly wrong to suggest that any listener already knows everything there is to know about Beethoven. In short, we need not resort to hyperbolic adulation in order to recognize Beethoven’s continued relevance.

We agree wholeheartedly that there is other music besides Beethoven. Indeed, we think that it is critical, for the sake of classical music’s longevity, to breathe new life into an often fossilized canon. But revisiting other warhorses — like J.S. Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos” or George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” — would be ineffective to Wilson’s own stated goals, as is observing a greater range of anniversaries. That unfortunately sediments classical music in the past. Composers today continue to create beautiful, thought-provoking music that challenges classical music’s assumptions and pushes its boundaries. Our programming at WHRB reflects this fact, and we have long called upon other institutions to do the same.

Moving beyond Beethoven must also mean intentionally elevating the works of historically marginalized composers. Who is being left out when calls for expanding classical music center entirely around white men? There are women composers, BGLTQ composers, Black composers, and other composers of color with limitless talents that deserve similar celebration. If genre expansion is truly the goal, as it should be, it is far more important to hear or perform Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s piano sonatas, Ethel Smyth’s orchestral works, or any of Jessie Montgomery’s stirring compositions and performances, to name just a few.

We heartily encourage classical music listeners, both new and old, to join us at 95.3 FM and explore classical music’s countless dimensions. Some of our current programs include “Horny on Main,” which features horn music; “Hearing Gender,” which analyzes a historically male-dominated genre through an feminist academic lens; and “Classical Innovations,” which focuses on contemporary and cross-genre compositions that rarely go over the airwaves. And of course, you can tune in to over one hundred hours of Beethoven this December. We guarantee you’ll hear something new.

Kevin P. Wang ’23 is a Government concentrator in Currier House. Ellie M. Taylor ’22, a Crimson Arts editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. The two are co-Directors of the Classical Music Department of Harvard Radio Broadcasting.

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