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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Feminist musicologist: Beethoven the rapist

Beethoven is my favorite composer. I have all of the symphonies and all of the piano sonatas on my MP3 player along with various other pieces. So I was amazed when I read that a feminist musicologist, Susan McClary, considers the Ninth Symphony was a "musical hymn to rape."

Or so Robert Anton Wilson claims in his book, Cosmic Trigger 3: My Life After Death.

McClary wrote, "The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music… which finally explodes in the throttling, murderous rage of a rapist…”

Wilson commented, "Although I write a lot of satire, I didn’t make this up. You can find McClary’s analysis in Minnesota Composers’ Forum Newsletter, January 1987. She also doesn’t like Western classic music in general, because of its 'phallic violence' and 'pelvic pounding.'

"I insist I did not invent McClary or any of her ravings. Honest to God. Some Femigogues just happen to sound like satire when you quote them verbatim."

I didn't think he made it up, but I did wonder if there was more to the story. Perhaps he was quoting some long-forgotten fringe figure. Wilson was not always generous in his later years in his references to feminists.

But when I did a little research, I found Wilson was not being unfair at all. Susan McClary is considered a prominent feminist musicologist, and she's in the Cleveland area, where I live. She is a professor of musicology at Case Western Reserve University. She is married to a heavy metal musicologist who also is on the faculty. (You can't make this stuff up.) I don't know if she considers Beethoven more sexist than, say, Whitesnake.

If you read the entry on her on Wikipedia, you'll see that her Beethoven-as-rapist thesis has been solemnly debated, with musicologists who actually know something about Beethoven rejecting it.

A genuinely scholarly, feminist analysis of classical music would be useful, because perhaps it would explain why there are so few famous composers who are women. Maybe somebody has done it, somewhere.

As it happens, I ran across the McClary passage as I was reading Ted Gioia's new second edition of his The History of Jazz. It is a marvelously erudite and judicious work. Gioia obviously works hard to be fair-minded, often taking time to defend musicians who he believes have been unfairly attacked. Guess which musicologist is the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant?


michael said...

I love Robert Walser's book Running With the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal. I wrote him a fan letter, and he never wrote me back. I wonder if his fellow academics shunned him for writing so favorably and with knowledge of metal guitarists?

And he's the guy married (still?) to McClary. Walser sees metal fans as mostly downtrodden, so maybe they are part of the underclass - academically unwise to pick on them? - while white men who love Beethoven listen to him while contemplating their joyous hegemonic dominance over the Good people?

The Beethoven-rape thing made it in the press (newspapers) back in, what was it? 1993? I remember it well. I've read a bunch of articles lately about CEOs being "out of touch," but a committed academic ideologue can run with the best (i.e, worst) of 'em, eh?

Finally: I thought RAW was not fair to feminists for awhile either, until I kept checking into his facts. Arlen was a big-time feminist, but a pro-sex one. There's the difference. The academic feminists and the Ms. magazine feminists, 2nd wave: Andrea Dworkin was allowed by Steinem on those pages? What a stupid move! (And I haven't seen it yet, but a recent HBO documentary on Steinem has been accused of glossing over this period of unbelievable stupidity: allowing Man Haters to publish their stuff their: set the good cause of Feminism way back. By the mid-1980s, incoming female freshmen in the universities checked off "yes" to the Betty Friedan-era ideals of Feminism, but when asked if they themselves were a "feminist" they rarely said yes. And when later asked why, it's because they didn't think their brothers or their fathers were evil, as the Feminists at that time seemed to want them to think.

michael said...

Sorry to intrude:

Some might find this bit of Wiki of some interest:

Eric Wagner said...

Dr. Johnson likes to quote "We all get the Timothy Leary we deserve." Similarly different people perceive the Big B very differently. I keep coming back to him and getting my mind blown...legally.

michael said...

@Royal Academy: yes! McClary seems a far greater artist than she ever realized: she listens to LvB and is so "taken" by his expression that....Etc.

michael said...

To be fair: if we follow the link I have above, I think she realized quite soon after that her academic feminist rhetoric spilled unexpectedly out of the Academy, and she had to answer to...non-academics. She quickly modified her public stance towards the LvB piece.

If Andrea Dworkin's assertion that ALL heterosexual male-female intercourse "is rape" was retracted, i haven't seen it.

Eric Wagner said...

My film class started watching "Chinatown" yesterday, and today we saw the scene where Noah Cross tells Jake, "You think you know what you're getting into, but you have no idea." Jake replies that they told him that about Chinatown. Seeing that after seeing this blog about Beethoven this morning made me think about Schroedinger's Cat, still my favorite book ever written, and its use of Beethoven and "Chinatown" to suggest the unimaginable depths and heights of human experience.

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