The Sunday Magazine

The carnal exploits and rebellious behaviour of music's bad boys — Bach and Beethoven

Music historian Ted Gioia argues that while classical behemoths like Bach and Beethoven should be admired, it’s also important to note that they were flawed. “When we treat them with too much respect, we lose the very essence that allowed them to be the great innovators that they are,” he says.
L to R: Portrait of Bach by E.G. Haussmann, 1748. Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Ferdinand Schimon, 1819. (Wikimedia)

There's no doubt now that Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig von Beethoven are geniuses of their time. But according to Ted Gioia, historians have not served them — and other musicians through the ages — well. 

Music historian Ted Gioia argues that music is drained of its vitality when its disruptive nature is overlooked. (Submitted by Ted Gioia)

While they have become exalted icons of western culture, the more colourful or less savoury parts of their biographies have tended to be whitewashed. Gioia, a music historian himself, argues that music is drained of its vitality when its disruptive nature is overlooked.

"It's great to admire these people. We should admire them. But what we need to understand is the reason they were innovators is because they were disruptive. They shook things up," Gioia told The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright in a recent interview.

"They were transgressive. They were subversive. And when we treat them with too much respect, we lose the very essence that allowed them to be the great innovators that they are."

Gioia argues that the true import of the accomplishments of musicians is obscured or completely hidden from history. He is the author of 11 books, the latest of which is aptly entitled Music: A Subversive History.

Here are some highlights from Gioia's interview. His comments have been edited for clarity and condensed.

Whitewashing Bach's transgressions

The big Bach biography when I was growing up was by Philipp Spitta, the son of a theologian. He was a theologian himself. There was another great book on Bach by Albert Schweitzer, a Lutheran theologian. They bring out the religious side of Bach. But they don't tell you about Bach getting into a knife fight, or carousing with a young woman in the choir loft, or the time he had to go to jail. So there's this whitewashing because they want to amplify the respectability and the religiosity of Bach. 

That only gives you a part of the picture. In many ways we miss the bigger issue here, which is, these figures did want to shake things up. They didn't want to be respectable. Their musical innovations required them to be transgressors.

I don't bring up these issues ... because I want to be gossipy. I do it because you need to understand where innovation comes in music —  from people who don't tow the line, who [are] willing to be disruptive, willing to shake up things. So it's not at all surprising that if we look at what people said about Bach during his lifetime, they were constantly attacking his music, the same way that they would be criticizing his life. He was too bold, too daring, too showy. There wasn't much music criticism back then. But we have examples of him having to submit a memorandum to his employer to explain why he's using all these avant garde musical techniques in his playing. These things are connected. The fact that Bach was someone that was transgressive in his life simply should alert us to [the fact that] this was the same personality that could create these great innovative changes in the music itself.

You need to understand where innovation comes in music —  from people who don't tow the line, who [are] willing to be disruptive, willing to shake up things.- Ted Gioia, music historian

Politicizing Beethoven and his lasting impact

Everybody has tried to own Beethoven. Nazi Germany claimed Beethoven was one of their own. The Soviet Union claimed Beethoven was one of their own. Even in Mao's China, where they got rid of almost all western music, they continued to play Ode to Joy and saw that as supporting their regime. The apartheid regime in South Africa used it; the Shining Path terrorists in Peru used it. Even today it's the anthem of the European Union.

This just shows you that this music is always politicized. And there's a battlefield out there that never ends as people try to appropriate it. It's obviously a distortion because Beethoven couldn't have been all these things: a communist, a capitalist, etc. You really need to cut through this history and go back to who Beethoven really was.

I just read an article the other day about a climate change conference in which they say that Beethoven was an advocate for climate change action because he liked to take nature walks and he wrote the Pastoral Symphony. I'm happy to see Beethoven used to advance good causes. But once again, this constant attempt to appropriate him is such a distortion. We really need to go back to understand who Beethoven was, not who we'd like him to be.

We now enter an era in which the line dividing someone's life and their music begins to blur and actually disappear. If you go back earlier to Bach, almost a century before Beethoven, no one ever asked themselves what Bach's political views were. All of a sudden when you get to Beethoven, it's very important to people what their political views are. Then you fast forward another 30, 40, 50 years — you've got Richard Wagner and Verdi — and suddenly composers are spokespeople for the entire nation. And what an extraordinary situation we've reached. 

We're still living in it today. Why should I care what Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber's political views are? I really shouldn't care, but we do because all of a sudden [there's] this idea that the music is linked to the life. And it's all blurred together into one mushy hole that's deep in our psyches now. This is the legacy of Beethoven: where the life is the music and music is life.

This is the legacy of Beethoven: where the life is the music and music is life.- Ted Gioia, music historian

Navigating art, ethics and biography

How do we deal with Michael Jackson? Woody Allen? Roman Polanski? What do we do if the art is at a great level but the person isn't? I think all of us have to come up with our values. And I respect anybody's values if they make choices on this.

My view is that art is measured by different standards than people's lives. Because of that, in most instances, I'm going to separate out the art. But even I recognize that there are certain limits. Hitler was a painter and nothing is going to convince me that those are great paintings because there's a certain limit beyond which you can't go. 

I think in most instances now, we have to separate. And we're going to find this increasingly in the future because these are big issues now. And we need to understand how we navigate through art and ethics and biography and try to figure out when they link up and when they separate.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.


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