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Home >Opinion >Columns >In this time of crisis, classical music has been our saviour

In one of my earliest contributions to this newspaper, I wrote about Zubin Mehta’s Beethoven concert in Srinagar (“Zubin Mehta’s concert in Srinagar was avowedly political", 9 September 2013). My argument then was that much of Western classical music and art has been either inherently political, or used for political ends. Whether it was Mozart railing against aristocratic privilege under cover of “Le nozze di Figaro" (1786), a comic opera, or Beethoven extolling the virtues of freedom and brother-(and sister-)hood, most notably in the Ninth Symphony (1824), and his only opera, “Fidelio" (1805), artists have understood the inherent potency of music, both in commenting on the human condition, and in creating ideals to which we as humans aspire, and compared to which the world as it exists falls short.

In their turn, activists, politicians and artists themselves have understood the power of music to be the background score of a political, social or other message—Beethoven, again, being a popular medium. His Ninth Symphony has served as everything from the music for a birthday concert for Adolf Hitler (1942) that was used for a Nazi propaganda newsreel, to the music used to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) by the conductor Leonard Bernstein and musical forces assembled from both West and East. His “Freedom concert", as it came to be called, played on both sides of the divide, became totemic of the fall of Communism and the possibility of world peace.

But, how can we understand this music in our present moment? Today, in the context of a global emergency, the covid-19 pandemic, that has become intimately linked to the “Black lives matter" movement that came to the fore in the United States, and worldwide, in the early summer of 2020, it is hard to dissociate ourselves from the fact that Beethoven is as established a canonical artist as there is in all of Western civilization. The fact that this is the 250th anniversary of his birth, and that many celebrations worldwide had to be cancelled or drastically curtailed due to lockdowns emanating from the pandemic, only sharpens the question.

The word “cancel" is apposite here. Should Beethoven, and the other greats of the classical pantheon, be “cancelled", because their works are tied to a regressive era in political history? Or simply because they were European white males? Is classical music itself somehow culpable, as its enjoyment is the bastion of an elite and privileged minority? This would be an unfortunate and facile response.

The reality is that classical music has become more democratic than ever, as a strange silver lining of our present crisis. Now, whether you live in Manhattan, New York, or Manhattan, Kansas, or indeed anywhere in the world connected to the internet (and we should acknowledge, this is not everyone), you can enjoy the same live or recorded streams, whether from Berlin, Oslo, London, or anywhere else. As Attila, a music-loving friend, put it to me: “The pandemic has stripped classical music of its ‘night at the opera’ mystique." He is right. Whether it is Wagner played in car parks in Berlin or Detroit, operas played at drive-ins, or the German pianist, Igor Levit, drawing a hundred thousand or more views on his Twitter “house concerts", classical music has never been less elitist than it is now. It is ironic that it is technology, which many feared would destroy our civilization’s core values, that has instead abetted our salvation. Today’s internet has allowed a level of connectedness across space and time that has never before been possible in human history.

It is noteworthy that Beethoven continues to be the universal genius who has provided catharsis and healing in a time of crisis for so many. As my friend put it: “When we have all been pushed into the liminal state that has been our shared lockdown, it’s interesting to see what has touched so many"—and that is, so often, Beethoven. He added: “Beethoven is a therapy in which we can rediscover what it is to be human again. If people can discover that in Taylor Swift, they are lucky."

This has been very personal for me. My very first classical record was of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, purchased for me by my father in 1977—which happened to be another Beethoven anniversary year, the 150th anniversary of his death. That record, which I played over and over until it almost wore out (and which I still treasure), opened up for me a world of ideas and imagination. With that thrilling music as a soundtrack, anything was possible, I thought as a young person. And, while Beethoven was supplanted by Mozart as my go-to composer as I grew older, he was always there, in the background. Jump ahead to this year of crisis. After several months of lockdown angst, and the inability to engage psychically with serious music, art, or literature, it was the Beethoven Fifth which, this time, provided catharsis and healing, and re-opened the possibility of meaningful, soul-nourishing engagement with art and ideas. Hopefully, for the arts, this crisis will be like a crucible, to burn away the dross, and leave behind what is pure.

I’ll leave the last word to my friend: “And maybe there is a question to be asked: what does the culture that has so succeeded during the pandemic reveal about ourselves? It is a mirror."

Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist.

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