Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of the National Interest and a senior writer at the Absolute Sound.

Is it time to cancel Ludwig van Beethoven? As the 250th anniversary of his birth looms large this December, a chorus of critics has emerged to bemoan his fame. It began when Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding declared in September in Vox, “Wealthy white men … embraced Beethoven and turned his symphony into a symbol of their superiority and importance. For some in other groups — women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color — Beethoven’s [fifth] symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism.” Now, in Slate, Chris White, an assistant professor of music theory at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, admonishes classical music buffs to adopt “fullnaming” and to stop calling Beethoven by his last name. This alarming practice, we are told, simply fortifies “centuries of systematic prejudice, exclusion, sexism, and racism.”

Oh, dear. The truth is that Beethoven represents anything but white privilege or elitism or any other boo word you want to apply to him. His beliefs were as radical as his music. Beethoven lived in the heart of a modern police state in Vienna that was established by authoritarian Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich. An admirer of the French Revolution, Beethoven espoused the values of the Enlightenment, cherishing virtue, reason and universal brotherhood. Indeed, his life and work suggest that if Beethoven were alive today, he would be voting for Joe Biden with a rousing overture or two tossed in on his behalf.

Just take a listen to his lone opera, “Fidelio.” The opera is set in a Spanish prison filled with opponents of the ruling regime. (Given the repressive regime under which he was living, he had to rely on a foreign venue to lodge implicit criticisms of his own society about freedom and injustice.) In it, Leonore successfully frees her husband, Florestan, from a dungeon by disguising herself as a man in a wrenching final scene that has become synonymous with freedom. After World War II, it was performed in Vienna to celebrate the demise of the Third Reich.

Despite the “van” in his name, Beethoven was no aristocrat. He was a striver. Unlike Mozart, whose piano playing entertained the crowned heads of Europe as a toddler, nothing came easily for Beethoven. At bottom, he was a local boy made good, working his way up from the small city of Bonn, an outpost of the decaying Holy Roman Empire, to the imperial city of Vienna.

No doubt Beethoven had aristocratic patrons in Vienna, preeminently Prince Karl Lichnowsky. But Beethoven never truckled to the aristocracy, as did one of his mentors, Franz Joseph Haydn, who toiled at the provincial and remote Esterhazy court as musical director. Rather than dine with Lichnowsky, Beethoven, who was a notorious slob, would regularly go to a local tavern, declaring, “Am I supposed to come home every day at half-past three, change my clothes, shave and all that? I’ll have none of it!”

Another measure of his fervor for equality and emancipation can be gleaned from a meeting he had in July 1812 with famous German poet and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the Bohemian spa resort of Teplice. Legend has it that when they encountered royalty in the street, Goethe stood aside and swept his hat low. Not Beethoven. Afterward, he sneered: “Goethe delights in the court atmosphere far more than is becoming to a poet. Is there any point in talking about absurdities of virtuosos, when poets, who should be regarded as the nation’s first teachers, forget everything for the sake of this glitter?”

Nowhere did Beethoven’s passion for liberty express itself more powerfully, of course, than in his music. Beethoven was responding in part to the Habsburg monarchy’s institution in the 1790s of censorship, internal passports, a network of spies, and the imprisonment and execution of dissidents. As Maynard Solomon has noted, Beethoven and other leading composers responded to these constraints with music that “expressed a utopian ideal: the creation of a self-contained world symbolic of the higher values of rationality, play, and beauty.”

It’s no accident that Beethoven’s music has been enlisted on behalf of movements for freedom. His “Eroica” symphony, originally written in praise of Napoleon, helped to inspire French insurrectionists in 1830. In 1956, his “Egmont” overture, which was based on Goethe’s play, became the unofficial hymn of the Hungarian revolution. It celebrates a 16th-century Dutch nobleman who was beheaded for treason against the Spanish crown.

Beethoven’s greatest paean to liberty, of course, was the Ninth Symphony, which was first performed in May 1824. In December 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted it in Berlin, changing Friedrich Schiller’s stanza from “Ode to Joy” to “Ode to Freedom.” In his discerning book “The Ninth,” music historian Harvey Sachs argues that Beethoven was a kind of philosopher-in-music: “Central to his existence … was the longing to help mankind raise itself up out of the muck of ignorance and pain.”

So don’t be fooled. Beethoven’s message isn’t elitist; it’s timeless. No matter what his detractors might say, the moment hasn’t arrived for Beethoven to roll over.

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