Daniel Barenboim, my favorite classical musician, once said about my favorite classical composer: “Beethoven’s music is universal… no matter where in the world— it speaks to all people.” Usually, it’s not my habit to disagree with Daniel Barenboim when it comes to the subject of music. But this notion of Beethoven’s “universal” greatness seems to be an idea that needs to be challenged.
This argument of mine won’t go into the possibility that Ludwig van Beethoven was Black or African, a speculation which is sometimes (unnecessarily) brought up. “Ancestry.com” didn’t exist back then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, and probably shouldn’t exist now. But, in terms of culture, and politics and history (out of which grow the first two), nationality is not a question of “race.” If you identify with the history, politics and culture of a people— not as an individual, but as a social being, or as a member of your community— then you are part of that community, regardless of which percentage of African or Indigenous DNA you have. So if you identify with “America” and “whiteness”– its history, its politics and its culture (or the lack thereof), it doesn’t matter that you are 1/16th Cherokee or Black. You’re still white.
Also, this argument here won’t be that classical music is a European or white thing. Such an argument seems to be based on the white supremacist belief that a people– or a nation, a community– cannot absorb and further develop the culture and ideas of the larger global community. This argument is similar to the belief that Marxism– or dialectical materialism– is a European or white thing, and therefore isn’t meant for the revolutionary movements of Indigenous peoples or Africans. That’s like saying only a white person can recognize the existence of gravity. What we know is: Karl Marx, as a German cisgender man in the 19th century, was limited by or to his particular view of the world, which was European and which was, in fact, racist. However, this contradictory view– based on Marx’s identity as part of his class and his national history– didn’t invalidate his theories of socialist revolution, because the Marxist argument states that the totality of truth contains its negation. If this were not the dialectical and material reality, then societies wouldn’t be able to grow and develop; and nature itself could not change, thereby changing humans who are part of nature and are, therefore, engaged in a constant struggle within and against nature, both transforming and transformed by a shared environment.
This reality– of struggle, change, transformation– is universal to all the peoples of the globe; yet the cultures, histories and national identities which grow out of this natural process (according to the objective laws of nature) are far from universal. So it’s a white supremacist view to believe that Beethoven’s music “speaks to all people.”
What that argument (that Beethoven’s appeal is universal) seems to imply is: if Beethoven music doesn’t speak to you, then you must not be a person— you must not be “cultured” or “advanced” enough to enjoy this universally great expression of humanity. And that’s white supremacy. But we also want to avoid (that is, if we are politically progressive) the white supremacist argument that Beethoven’s music is only for white people or Europeans. It’s quite possible for a person outside Europe to love Beethoven– even more than the European, who may hate him– and to understand and play his music far better than the European person, or the white in one of Europe’s settler colonies, such as the United States. In this sense, Daniel Barenboim is right: after Beethoven finished composing a symphony, this music immediately belonged to everybody, and not just to Beethoven, or Germany, or Europe.
However, Beethoven’s music also doesn’t exist in isolation from the material and historical circumstances which produced it, and which have allowed it to be performed throughout the world since its composition. And these circumstances involve a divided reality which is anything but universally experienced. Beethoven’s music reflects tremendous divisiveness, or extremely violent antagonisms within the global economy. Does this mean we can’t (or shouldn’t) enjoy Beethoven’s Ninth, or any of his symphonies and works? Of course not. But before we argue that Beethoven’s music is universal, it seems we ought to recognize that it was composed, performed and (most of all) commodified in greatly divisive conditions of genocide, colonization, slavery and capitalist exploitation.
At the time Beethoven was alive (from December 16, 1770 to March 26, 1827), the world was violently divided into two parts: Europe (especially western Europe, including Germany) and the rest of the world, in Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, Australia, Asia and the islands of the Pacific. The resources of Africa and the Americas were flowing in one direction– toward Europe and toward the political category of “whiteness.”
Of course, the young Ludwig in Bonn, Germany was not a white colonizer, like the “American” occupiers of North America (and then Hawaii). Ludwig would grow up to compose music that– for all its global appeal— was German, or European, not “white.” There’s no such thing as “white culture.” Whiteness depends on the parasitic theft of culture, or the genocidal and capitalist erasure of one’s past (their cultural or historical personality) for both the colonizer (European) and the colonized (African, Indigenous). The political category of whiteness means only one thing: unequal power, acquired through extreme violence by Europeans against the populations of the world outside Europe.
Yet, at the time of Beethoven’s birth 247 years ago, Ludwig was born into conditions in Germany which were still dependent on this unequal relationship of global power. Either directly or indirectly, the resources (and the lands and work) of Africans, and Indigenous peoples of the Americas, and the global majority (“people of color”), sustained Ludwig van Beethoven’s ability to compose his works. Were they culturally authentic works and valuable as art? Sure– and they still are. But to argue that Beethoven’s music is universal is to ignore the violently divisive conditions of the globe, on account of the imperialist and capitalist system of power, which led to their creation. And, no, we’re not saying Beethoven was some kind of horrible racist. What we’re saying is: if a white supremacist system– global capitalism– is the material and historical basis for your works of art (as a European), then it’s difficult to argue that these works are universal. Fela Kuti’s people didn’t invade Europe, thereby allowing him to create beautiful, life-affirming music. And, for that matter, Leontyne Price is not complicit in genocide against Indigenous peoples or the ongoing oppression of her people, the Black community. That complicity belongs to Europeans– or to whites. And while capitalism still remains in place, on a global scale, culture alone won’t bring “us” together. For there is no “us”– there is the colonizer and the colonized.
So if you look at the performance of Beethoven’s music anywhere in the world today (since listening to Beethoven, if you are able to do this, could sway your judgment) you might ask: does this performance reflect universal “human” values, or does it, in fact, reveal just how divided the world is under the capitalist system of power? Because, if you want to go and listen to Beethoven’s music in a concert hall today, in the United States at least, you’ll find this performance is only “for all” when “all” means “all people who can afford an expensive ticket to the Beethoven concert.” If you don’t have the dough for a ticket, you’ll be thrown out on your ear– some kind of “universal”! And who tends to have the most money on this stolen continent? European colonizers. Whites. So you probably can’t even get into the concert hall unless you benefit from a history of genocide, capitalist exploitation and colonization waged against Africans and Indigenous peoples.
However, let’s say you have the money for a ticket and you make it inside the concert hall, and you try to find your seat (up front: rich people; way in the back row, second balcony: you). Now you settle in, ready to enjoy some of Beethoven’s great music. And you open the program– suddenly a hostile army of sponsors marches into your face, Delta, Wells Fargo, US Bank, Exxon Mobil, United Airlines, JP Morgan Chase. In other words, airlines and airports that attack Black trans women, grabbing all in their hair, with TSA employees’ violent hands on their bodies; airlines who throw Muslim women off their flights for silently reciting dhikr; banks and bankers (front row) who invest in pipelines on occupied Native territory, and whose wealth was built on slavery and genocide; and, finally, giant oil corporations that support the murder of women and children in Africa and the Middle East. Tell me, how is this great music we’re about to hear so universal, you may ask.
But, hold up a sec, someone says, and then they argue: that’s not the music itself; for that, you need to look at Beethoven’s score, not the ticket prices, or the seating arrangement, or the sponsors in the program, or the cost of beverages in the lobby during intermission. Yet Beethoven’s music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Not only was the score written in specific historical conditions– conditions of global terror imposed by Europe’s system of capitalism– but it is performed, and consumed as a commodity, in conditions shaped by these same antagonistic forces of class. So, even if you buy a CD of Karajan conducting Beethoven’s Third Symphony (which version?!), or you stream this symphony on Spotify, then your behavior is still empowered by a political, economic and social system which primarily benefits Europeans, or whites … and not just if we’re rich, cisgender, heterosexual and Christian.
This is not an indictment of the individual (Beethoven or the white Beethoven fan), but the class– the political category– of white people and whiteness, as part of a global system of power which violently divides the world, empowering the white minority to exist, to feel, to think, to speak, and (consequently) to state our belief that Beethoven’s music is universal. The very act of making this statement of our belief is a reflection of violently acquired, unequal power– a belief based in white supremacy.
And we could take this argument just one step farther: the score of a symphony composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, and the arrangement of the musicians in the orchestra, with a leader– a conductor– in front (usually a white, cisgender man like Karajan) is a reflection of European values imposed on people and planet, or on this invented ideal of humanity. The players, like an army, must follow the leader (no, not Rakim, not this time), and play in exact unison, the same way over and over, as his magic wand, or baton, controls and shapes the performance– and the performers?– according to his dominant image. Yes, the results are beautiful. Beethoven’s Seventh: the immense power, the rhythmic intensity. I’m here for it. But this whole arrangement– this hierarchy of power– just oozes patriarchy, and a Western obsession with objective (or “objective”) precision, “perfection,” and uniformity … or universality. The underlying claim (that is, the threat) seems to be: since Beethoven’s music is universal, you better play it exactly the way it is written, over and over again; otherwise the white cisgender conductor named Herbert or Karl or George is going to tear you to pieces with his dreaded glare; and, otherwise, some British critic at Gramophone Magazine will say the performance is muddled and rah-there a mess, or some snob on Amazon.com (who may or may not play an instrument) will call Daniel Barenboim a lousy conductor (or mediocre pianist).
In other words, this judgment that Beethoven’s music is universal is part of a larger belief that the white person– at the center of the universe– is empowered to make that judgment, and many others, in the first place. As in: at the top of the heap, a heap of imperialist spoils. “Rap isn’t real music– it all sounds the same and has too many violent lyrics.” Have you listened to the Coriolan Overture lately? Now that’s violent.
But Beethoven’s music is universal only if you need it to be. And why do you need it to be universal, instead of merely enjoying it like Miriam Makeba, or John Coltrane, or the Marvelettes? You need to say “Beethoven is for all,” because you are a giant multimedia corporation that owns Decca, or EMI, or Deutsche Grammophon, or (soon) all three, and one of your recording stars flies around the world with his orchestra– from Vienna, to London, to New York, to Los Angeles, to Tokyo– creating greater wealth for your investors. Very convenient. Meanwhile, if there’s a Berliner Philharmoniker that’s a “world-class symphony,” and there is not a “world-class symphony” in an African city, this must indicate that the latter (the orchestra, and the city, and Africa) is not quite up-to-par, “culture”-wise (or white-supremacy-wise). And, even if the Accra Symphony Orchestra surpassed the Berlin Philharmonic– in its precision, its discipline, its donors and its season ticket holders– who is still in control, and who sets the standard? Europeans. Whites.
So it’s a little game we like to play– a sideshow to the larger scheme of global domination– because, in “America” at any rate, this ability to judge who is good, better, best … and worst (James Levine, to be honest) … is a nice replacement for, well, actual culture. For that, we need another Elvis to steal the spotlight from Big Mama Thornton. Actually, that’s not culture either. If whites want to create culture, we need to destroy whiteness. That means, our mass struggle to destroy global capitalism– which created the political category of whiteness– will lead to the creation of a culture. Not a universal culture– just a culture which isn’t stolen on account of the violently genocidal (and vile) power of imperialism, capitalism, “America,” and whiteness.
“Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!”