Susan McClary - The Beethoven and Rape Controversy

The Beethoven and Rape Controversy

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In the January 1987 issue of Minnesota Composers Forum Newsletter, McClary wrote of Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony:

The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.

This sentence elicited and continues to elicit a great range of responses. McClary subsequently rephrased this passage in Feminine Endings:

The point of recapitulation in the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony unleashes one of the most horrifyingly violent episodes in the history of music. The problem Beethoven has constructed for this movement is that it seems to begin before the subject of the symphony has managed to achieve its identity. (128)

She goes on to conclude that "The Ninth Symphony is probably our most compelling articulation in music of the contradictory impulses that have organized patriarchal culture since the Enlightenment" (129). The critiques of McClary discussed below refer primarily to the original version of the passage.

Readers sympathetic to the passage may be connecting it to the opinion that Beethoven's music is in some way "phallic" or "hegemonic," terms often used in modern feminist studies scholarship. These readers may feel that to be able to enjoy Beethoven's music one must submit to or agree with the values expressed, or that it requires or forces upon the listener a mode or way of listening that is oppressive, and that these are overtly expressed, as rape, in the Ninth. For related views, see discussion above, as well as the article "Criticism and sonata form".

Several commentators have objected to McClary's characterizations. Four examples are:

  • "Painter Jailed for Committing Masterpieces" by Robert Anton Wilson (also Wilson, Robert A. (1998). Everything Is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults, and Cover-ups, p. 64. ISBN 0-06-273417-2.)
  • Historical Review Press: "The Godfather of the Multi-Cult Nightmare" by Robert Stacy McCain
  • "The Feminist Interpretations Debate, Concluded" by Glenn Lamont.

Leaving aside readers whose main interest is political, there are other reasons readers might take offense at McClary's sentence. The passage could be construed as unfair to Beethoven if one assumes that the "throttling murderous rapist's rage" putatively expressed in the music is supposed to have come from Beethoven's own habitual thoughts and feelings, which McClary does not suggest. Scholars and historians have found no evidence that Beethoven ever committed a rape or harbored an intense urge to do so.

Numerous musicological academics, however, have raised more serious and substantial objections to McClary’s scholarship, including (but not limited to) her notorious remark about rape. Four examples are:

  • Music theorist Pieter van den Toorn has complained that McClary's polemics negate the asocial autonomy of absolute music; he is concerned with Schenker-style formal analysis. Van den Toorn complains, for example, that “Fanned by an aversion for male sexuality, which it depicts as something brutal and contemptible, irrelevancies are being read into the music.” Van den Toorn's complaint was rebutted by musicologist Ruth Solie, but van den Toorn responded with a whole book on these issues.
  • Composer Elaine Barkin, in another extended critique, complained that “McClary’s voice tone, language, attitudes all too resoundingly perpetuate and reinstantiate those very ‘patriarchal practices’ she is deploring.” McClary briefly dismissed Barkin's critique as "a caricature."
  • Musicologist Paula Higgins, in another robust critique of McClary's work, has observed that “one wonders… if has not strategically co-opted feminism as an excuse for guerrilla attacks on the field.” Higgins complains of McClary's “truculent verbal assaults on musicological straw men”, and observes that “For all the hip culture critique imported from other fields, McClary has left the cobwebs of patriarchal musicological thought largely intact.” ” Higgins is also critical of McClary's citation practice as it concerns other scholars in the area of feminist musical criticism.
  • Ethnomusicologist Henry Kingsbury has criticized McClary’s inattention to the Friedrich Schiller poem set in the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony; he also lists numerous works by Beethoven and Schubert that he says contradict McClary’s claims regarding violence in Beethoven as well as her argument about the construction of gender in music.

Another source of controversy is the possibility that McClary's passage trivializes the horrific experience of actual rape victims by reducing it to mere metaphor. Even readers sympathetic to criticism of Beethoven's music may find that pinpointing a vague, unintended colonial program as "rape" is inaccurate.

The pianist and critic Charles Rosen has also commented on the famous passage. He avoids taking offense on any of the grounds mentioned above, and is willing to admit sexual metaphors to musical analysis. Rosen's disagreement is simply with McClary's assessment of the music:

We have first her characterization of the moment of recapitulation in the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony:
The phrase about the murderous rage of the rapist has since been withdrawn, which indicates that McClary realized it posed a problem, but it has the great merit of recognizing that something extraordinary is taking place here, and McClary's metaphor of sexual violence is not a bad way to describe it. The difficulty is that all metaphors oversimplify, like those entertaining little stories that music critics in the nineteenth century used to invent about works of music for an audience whose musical literacy was not too well developed. I do not, myself, find the cadence frustrated or dammed up in any constricting sense, but only given a slightly deviant movement which briefly postpones total fulfillment.
To continue the sexual imagery, I cannot think that the rapist incapable of attaining release is an adequate analogue, but I hear the passage as if Beethoven had found a way of making an orgasm last for sixteen bars. What causes the passage to be so shocking, indeed, is the power of sustaining over such a long phrase what we expect as a brief explosion. To McClary's credit, it should be said that some kind of metaphorical description is called for, and even necessary, but I should like to suggest that none will be satisfactory or definitive.

McClary also notes that she "can say something nice about Beethoven", saying of his String Quartet, Op. 132, "Few pieces offer so as vivid an image of shattered subjectivity the opening of Op. 132."

Read more about this topic:  Susan McClary

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