Breaking-Up with Beethoven

Go out to hear an orchestra concert tonight and chances are the orchestra will be playing Beethoven.  The most recent Orchestra Repertoire Report, from ’09 – ’10, details that 137 orchestras in America performed Beethoven’s music 457 times that season.  His ninth, seventh, and fifth symphonies were ranked first, second and third respectively among the top-twenty most performed works during that year.  Beethoven’s music also came in at fifth, eighth, eleventh, thirteenth, and twentieth on that list.  That’s a lot of Beethoven.

These days Beethoven’s music is performed so much that it has become the default for orchestras.  The conductor sometimes seem superfluous.  In the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini recently pointed out that “…it hardly takes a major maestro to elicit an excellent performance of Beethoven’s Seventh from the impressive players of the Philharmonic.”  Ta Da!

Over-programing Beethoven’s music dilutes his voice as a composer, and diminishes the public’s artistic expectations of orchestras.

Beethoven is after all one of the last composers that the classical industry has left to offer the free market.  He is among the few orchestral composers whom everyone knows, and I mean everyone.  It has made him into a public domain commodity.  A free brand name for the classical industry.  Need to sell seats to regulars?  Program Beethoven.  Need a festival?  Beethoven is your answer.  Need an ad campaign?  “Obey Thoven.”  Need to open a season?  Close a season?  New Year’s Concert?  TragedyVictory?  Protest?  Gala?  Olympics? — Beethoven is what we’re selling.

Programming Beethoven these days is a budgetary decision.  Oh sure, it also happens to be an artistic choice since he remains one of the greatest composers of all time.  Defining orchestras around Beethoven, however, keeps them from experimenting with creative ideas around repertoire and presentation that might bring in an audience.  It holds them back from performing and exploring composers like Williams, Korngold, Herrmann and Rozsa, as well as the less popular Stockhausen, Adès, and Rouse.

Alex Ross recently wrote that “…though Beethoven may be a monument to Western civilization, he no longer belongs exclusively to the west, nor does he speak for its current values.  At a time when younger generations around the world are saturated with corporate pop culture, Beethoven’s language of endless, restless, variation is alien to all whether in Berlin or Beirut.”  By focusing on Beethoven’s music year after year orchestras are defining themselves by a musical language that has become alien to younger generations.  For too long this kind of artistic mission has left live orchestral music increasingly irrelevant to the public.

Orchestras should take a break from Beethoven.

Taking a break from programming his music opens up space for orchestras to begin to think of themselves as performers of new music – and not just atonal music, by the way.  Imagine a few seasons of having the opportunity to fill that space with new music, as well as music from the last century that has been deemed “not classical enough.”  Imagine the power of presenting Beethoven again after he hasn’t been heard from in a season, or three.  Or five.

Some people will cheer the space created by Beethoven’s absence, and others will call for his return.  We need artistic leaders like conductors, and soloists, to have passionate public discussions about the art they love.  They should trumpet their artistic differences of opinion.  Few people care that we all agree that Beethoven is good stuff, even if we say it on Twitter.

So let’s give them something to talk about.  After all, wouldn’t orchestras enjoy hearing passionate debate about Beethoven’s absence, or my wanting to please hear more Jerry Goldsmith and Alex North?  Is that not better than passionate debate about how much money orchestra players make, and whether they should make more or less of it?

(originally published on