Alex Ross on Beethoven

Courtesy of David Michalek

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From December 11 to 18, WHRB presented the Beethoven Orgy, a broadcast of Ludwig van Beethoven's complete works in celebration of his 250th birthday. As part of the program, WHRB's Ellie Taylor and Kevin Wang spoke to Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, alumnus of the station, and author of two books: The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, and his latest, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. We discussed Alex's life as a critic in 2020, his memories of the late David Elliott, and Beethoven's music and legacy.

These are some highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full audio via the player above.

Ellie Taylor: We had interviewed you here at WHRB a few years ago, but of course, things have changed dramatically since then. How has your 2020 been, and what does the life of a music critic look like during a pandemic?

Alex Ross: I don't have a huge amount to complain about, really. I still have my job, and I've been able to continue working and writing. So I'm luckier than most. But it is strange. It's been quite an adjustment. Since the middle of March, I've only been to three concerts that were live performances, so everything else has been streamed: listening to recordings, videos, and so forth. I just miss live performance. And I never quite feel as though things that I watch online, no matter how good the performances, really qualify as a concert, you know—as a sort of an event that becomes an occasion that lingers in your memory. On the internet, everything turns into a stream of data. It's so hard to take hold of it and and really experience it in a deeper way.

But on the upside, I have been able to virtually travel around and listen in on orchestras and ensembles not only across the country, but around the world. You could already do that anyway, with so many organizations streaming or broadcasting, but it's been especially acute, and I think kind of telling in this period, when, for most organizations, this is all they've been able to do. So their presence has more of an intensity to it, sometimes online. I've had a number of great experiences, and I've been writing about streaming events. I've been writing about books and recordings, more essayistic kinds of pieces. And I've been able to keep pretty busy as far as trying to publish my own book in a virtual way with a virtual book tour, which has also been very odd. But it seems to go over pretty well, and you just march onward and see what happens next.

ET: Let's turn to the subject of Beethoven, since this interview is part of our larger Beethoven Orgy. We are two hundred and fifty years out from Beethoven's birth. In what ways would you say that Beethoven's legacy has endured? Do you think that Beethoven's influence has changed over time?

It's an interesting question, whether it's changed. Relatively early after Beethoven's death, he moved to a position in the hierarchy of classical music and the canon of classical music that was more or less above everyone else, and he has stayed there. You know, of course, that Bach and Mozart and a few other composers seem to have the same godlike status. But Beethoven was just integral to the formation of entire institutions and to habits of concert-going. The emergence of the symphony orchestra as a cultural institution in nineteenth-century Europe and America, I don't think would have happened in the same way without Beethoven. It might not have happened at all—Beethoven was just so central to that institution, and then to the whole ritual that grew up around the orchestral concert, the development of the subscription audience, and the repertory in the training of orchestras. Beethoven has been so central to all of that. And I feel as though since the late nineteenth century, Beethoven has been this colossal fixture, and over the years, maybe his particular symbolic meaning has changed. During the two world wars, he was charged with national significance and patriotic significance in various ways, not just in Germany, but also in America, in England, in the Soviet Union. Everyone had their own patriotic Beethoven.

Beethoven was also a force for music appreciation and middlebrow culture—since the 1970s or 1980s, or even before that, being the pillar of the classical recording industry, and the idea that the CD itself was timed to fit Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which sounds like one of those apocryphal tales, but as far as I can tell, it's actually true. Ultimately, we worship the same Beethoven, more or less, as people did in the late nineteenth century. I think we keep coming back to him for very good reason. There's something infinitely re-listenable about his music, and however much you may sigh and say to yourself, "Oh, not the Fifth Symphony again, and the Seventh Symphony again, or one of the string quartets." Once it starts, you're transfixed, because the man was such an extraordinary musical storyteller and developer of ideas. That's what it's all about—this constant energy toward the development of ideas, so that there's very rarely something in a stretch of Beethoven that feels rote or autopilot. He's just always working harder than necessary with his material.

That's why we keep going back, and the everlasting problem with Beethoven, and with the classical repertory, is not the music itself, which is magnificent and deserves all of the attention that's given to it. But it's the balance between past and present, and how the past can become a kind of drug that alienates us from the present. We just dwell too much on the past, and then it tends to crowd out living composers. And this has been happening since the late nineteenth century. There was a feeling in the time of Wagner and Brahms and Tchaikovsky that audiences were increasingly skeptical of new music, and so devoted to the music of the past—Beethoven above all—that they were just dissatisfied with what was new. And so the struggle is to rejigger that balance and find the place for new music and more recent music, next to Beethoven. That kind of juxtaposition really can work wonderfully well, because I think there is something in Beethoven that makes sense, alongside new music. There's this constant creative instability and flux. Beethoven never becomes a museum piece, or completely belongs to the past. There's an energy that escapes into the present. So it makes good sense to program new music alongside Beethoven. My whole career as a critic has been to push new music as much as possible, because I know that the past can be such an addiction.

ET: Do you feel that there is an appropriate balance that has been struck between celebrating Beethoven's momentous works, and uplifting composers who don't get similar celebration? Or do you think we're still in a place where that balance hasn't been determined? If so, how do we get there? How do we get to a place where Beethoven is heralded as the great composer that he is, but other composers are similarly recognized?

It's just a matter of sheer numbers. And if you just look at the numbers, I still think that living composers occupy a fraction of concert programs. The percentage should always be higher. There are certain orchestras and certain concert series that have really worked very hard to increase that fraction of new music or 20th century music. I'm speaking to you from Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic is an orchestra that's made really great progress over decades, in terms of giving more attention to new music without abandoning the past and training their audiences over this long period to become as enthusiastic, or nearly as enthusiastic, about new music as about old music and about Beethoven. But in a lot of other places, this cult of the past remains very strong in an abiding sense of reluctance in the audience. It's just a matter of listening, again, and becoming familiar with the newer languages. And it's the kind of work that the audience needs to do, alongside the institutions. Institutions can't really force the audiences to like any of this music. Ultimately, it's up to the audiences to decide for themselves. But definitely in the thirty years that I've been a critic, I've seen progress on this score, and I've seen a more sensible balance emerging at certain institutions. I think, with enough work, it can be accomplished.

Kevin Wang: As for the many Beethoven celebrations that are going on this year, do you feel that they have reckoned appropriately with this legacy and have questioned the past? Or do you think that many of them have been, shall we say, more in the spirit of the big "BEETHOVEN" above Boston's Symphony Hall than perhaps you would like?

Well, it's funny, because so many of them have ended up not happening. There have been these enormous plans announced, and it's kind of this deluge of Beethoven. It seemed excessive to me, as much as I love Beethoven myself. And so much of it was cancelled. I make an exception for WHRB of course—for the Orgies, which are a long tradition and have a very different effect, because when you go so deep into the composer's work, and are looking at the little-known works alongside the famous ones, I think it's a very different feeling to it than if you're in a concert hall and you're just hearing you know, even more Beethoven than you usually do, for no apparent reason other than that the calendar says 250. What really bothers me is the automatic nature of these enormous celebrations that are just triggered by the calendar. So it's not like anyone actually has something new to say about Beethoven in any particular place, it's just this collective pressure: we just had better do Beethoven because this is the year. There needs to be a reason for this kind of concentration. And I think that the spirit behind Orgies has always been, you know, let's go deeper into this composer than really anyone ever has done on the radio. Let's have a sense of discovery, and in that, it turns into something quite different.

So it's that kind of programming by rote that I find objectionable. But I have seen some institutions that have found more of an agenda, whether it's programming new music alongside Beethoven, or finding more creative pairings and contexts, and showing some of the lesser-known figures in Beethoven's day who are worthy of exploration. Anytime you don't play the most famous pieces over and over again, anytime you get away from a "greatest hits" mentality, whether with Beethoven or any other composer, even just exploring the nooks and crannies of the lesser-known figures of the past, it just gives you a fresher perspective. It breaks up that that sort of "greatest hits" routine, which I think pushes everyone into a kind of passive mentality where we're here, we're playing this again, and everyone enjoys it, there's no particular reason why we're doing it—it's just kind of the way it has to be. And that's the most deadly outcome. So it's been a mix, from what I've seen. There have been some more creative approaches, and some really interesting new books have been coming out. I've been reading some of the latest Beethoven publications. There's always a fresh angle to be found—you just have to have to work a little harder to find it with such a famous figure is Beethoven.

ET: WHRB recently lost David Elliot, who served as a mentor to generations of Harvard students, including yourself. You were actually featured in the Boston Globe obituary for him this November, and you had mentioned a really fantastic story about the two of you. During the Nielsen orgy, you ran all over Harvard's campus to get a score to record an obscure piece that you could ultimately air later in the broadcast. And we were curious if you had any other fun experiences or broadcasts with David Elliot, that you'd like to talk a little bit about.

He was so wonderful, and he was so important to me. I seriously would not have become a music critic, and I would not have the career that I have today, if it hadn't been for David. There's no way to actually know counterfactually, but I just sense it. This idea of thinking about music, and listening to recordings critically and talking about music, just wasn't something I was focused on. When I arrived at Harvard, I was very serious about music, and I tried to be a composer. I played the piano and oboe and read a lot about music. But it just never crossed my mind that I would somehow make a career of commenting on music and speaking critically about music. And that's instantly what I started to do under David's instruction. With the whole mentality that he fostered at WHRB, where it just wasn't about kicking back and listening to our favorite records. It was about evaluating and contextualizing and telling stories through through programs.

And so I started writing these often interminable essays that I'd read aloud on the air, to the great boredom, I'm sure, of the few people who happened to be listening in the middle of the night. But it was just so important for me to be developing that faculty, and he encouraged it. I think he instantly saw my potential future in a way that I couldn't at all. It had never even crossed my mind. But I think that relatively early on, he saw that this guy could become a music critic. And so he started running record reviews in the program guide, and that was the first writing that I ever did about music. So it's a real swerve that took place. And it was also kind of subtle on his part. He was just never telling me what to do or pushing me strongly in one direction. It was cultivating my own urge, and creating the conditions where I just went crazy. I became so intense about researching my Orgies and my programs. And yeah, this incident where I just became obsessed with the idea that we had to play this Nielsen piece. That came from David, you know, because it wasn't that David told me how we had to play this piece. It was his kind of mentality—this meticulousness and thoroughness that he encouraged—that I internalized and made part of myself. In the end, no one would have cared if we hadn't played that one-minute long piece. No one would have noticed. But it felt important, and that feeling that even these tiny details are important informs everything that you do, eventually in much bigger ways.

That was what David was all about. He cared. He cared about the music, and the people, and above all the station itself, and the tradition of the station. What so many people have said, whether they were in the Classical Department or not, was that the station would not exist in the form that it does today, if David hadn't built it up, and encouraged this idea that we're not just coming in with our favorite records and playing them for our friends, who happen to be listening. There's an agenda, there's a mission, and each department at WHRB developed that sense of a mission. Maybe it was even in reaction to what was going on in Classical—feeling challenged, you know, by David's example and wanting to do something completely different. But the energy was the same. I have friends who had been at the Record Hospital who said that, at the time, they felt a kind of antagonism at the station toward Classical. But now, they realized, this was all part of this general feeling that that David cultivated—his urge to dig deeper and listen more carefully, and care more strongly about everything that we were doing, and in such a kind and gentle way. He never banged his fist and gave orders. He had this real gift, which the greatest teachers have—and he was a great teacher—to have the students come up with ideas that feel like completely the students' own brilliant genius ideas, but they're actually being inherited from him or from someone else. They're absorbing ideas. They're being led in a certain direction, but that ends up feeling as though we did it ourselves. That's such an incredible gift that the greatest teachers have, and David was the best teacher I had at Harvard.

The Beethoven Orgy was co-produced by Ellie Taylor and Kevin Wang, Directors of the Classical Music Department.