"Beethoven Has a Lot More Fans in Pop Than Anyone Realized"

Musicologist Michael Custodis on the Adoption of Beethoven in Pop Culture

By Google Arts & Culture

Text: Hartmut Welscher, VAN Magazin

The Chuck Berry song
Roll Over Beethoven, the Clockwork Orange movie, and the Peanuts comic strip are just some of the most famous examples of Beethoven's adoption into popular culture. Nevertheless, the debate around Beethoven in pop has barely been researched until now. "It has taken a long time for popular culture to be regarded in musicology as anything other than ordinary," says musicologist Michael Custodis from the University of Münster. On the anniversary year, he curated the exhibition Ludwig Lives On! Beethoven in Pop (Ludwig lebt! Beethoven im Pop) at the rock’n’popmuseum in Gronau. In this interview, he speaks about Beethoven clichés and musical reticence in pop, as well as a few of his favorite finds.

Michael Custodis (© Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster)
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What role does Beethoven play in pop?
Although his music is much more present in everyday life than the music of other composers, it is dealt with surprisingly less intensively in popular styles compared with Bach, for example, who is still sampled a lot in metal and 
and jazz music. 

Why is that? 
First, I would look for reasons in the music itself. Beethoven's music very rarely works off a melody alone, without thinking about the rhythm and how the themes develop in conjunction, whereas pop music is very melody-oriented. Furthermore, Beethoven's pieces are so self-contained, the logic so polished, that from a pop point of view it is hard to extract anything from them other than a reference to a melody. For a lot of fast pop numbers, it would certainly be an option, but musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, who know Beethoven very well, shy away from doing anything different with the music out of respect and admiration for it. Even in the progressive rock genre, not that many artists have dared to reference Beethoven directly. For a lot of musicians, his music is too complex to interpret in a pop song.


Does Chuck Berry's Roll Over Beethoven mark the beginning of Beethoven's adoption in pop? 
If we define pop as the music that began after the Second World War and unravels somewhere between rock ’n’ roll, Elvis, and Chuck Berry, then Roll Over Beethoven would be the big bang. On the other hand, it would hardly be imaginable without any other references. For example, Charles M. Schulz brought us the Schroeder character in Peanuts a little earlier than that. This is when it became apparent the theme existed. But after Chuck Berry, Beethoven in pop became something other than it was before.

To what extent did the Beethoven theme exist during Chuck Berry's time?
Beethoven was part of the middle-class school curriculum. His music could be heard at concerts, on the radio, and in schools. Just looking at the repertoires of US orchestras in the 1950s, it is apparent how prominent European music was—particularly Beethoven's symphonies. Beethoven's presence could be felt in everyday musical life. Even Chuck Berry couldn't escape the music—he tells the story himself via his song, using the example of his sister who monopolized the piano with her classical piano practice.


Does this mean that Beethoven stood symbolically for the white, educated middle classes, against whom those in pop protested?
I had to change my opinion significantly on this. At first, I thought Beethoven was a classic backdrop for middle-class educational culture, which people dramatically dissociated themselves from. That did actually exist, especially in punk—the Rock ’n’ Roll High School movie with the Ramones is an example of this. But with Beethoven, it is more the case that those who dislike him never even attempt to get to grips with his music, whereas those who show an interest in him also like him in different ways. That's what I found interesting. Beethoven has a lot more fans in pop than I thought, and far fewer opponents.

What would you say are interesting examples of Beethoven being adopted in pop that go beyond just a simple quotation? 
The Fifth by Ekseption, of course—Rick van der Linden was someone who really loved Beethoven and had a lot of success as a result. Another interesting example would be Exogenesis: Symphony by Muse at the end of their album The Resistance (2009). Matt Bellamy is a very resourceful musician—as a pianist, he is really passionate about Rachmaninoff and Chopin, but if you listen carefully, the small piano figure at the beginning of the third section of Redemption, which brings the Exogenesis: Symphony to a close, is the beginning of the Moonlight Sonata in the major key. Or Billy Joel's This Night. The jazz pianist Hiromi also produced a wonderful version of Pathétique in reference to Beethoven as an improviser.

Meanwhile, the Beethoven clichés have been reproduced most widely in pop: Beethoven the titan, Beethoven the genius and the madman, Beethoven the hot-tempered character, Beethoven and women, and so on. 
Yes, when you look at caricatures and literature from the 19th century, you  notice that these stereotypes are often derived from Beethoven's own lifetime. These abbreviations have persisted, even partially within the research into Beethoven, including unfortunately the notion of Beethoven and nationalism. In pop it is easy to work out what Beethoven's exponents know of him. They either get caught in the trap of these clichés or start to play around with them.


For example? 
I Can by Nas is a clever example. He takes For Elise (Für Elise), a piano teaching piece and one which archetypally stands for the theme of Beethoven and women, and turns it around. At the time of Chuck Berry, Beethoven represented the classic theme of white, educated classes. If I wanted to be something, I had to be like white people. In the video for I Can, however, a black girl sits in front of an out-of-tune piano and plays the beginning of For Elise, then Nas cuts in with his own sound, rearranges the melody, and places other sounds underneath. It is also about empowerment, and about the encouragement of young black women. It is obvious that he is aware of the associations with the piece—they correspond to the theme of his song.

In the movie world, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange is an example that stands out for its play on Beethoven clichés.

Absolutely, he denies how obvious this is. So, how would you describe Kubrick's Beethoven? There's no easy answer to that. The interesting thing is that there have often been watershed moments in how Beethoven is perceived, usually around the Beethoven anniversaries. One important date was 1970—this is where Kubrick comes in, but also Mauricio Kagel's experimental movie Ludwig van: A Report.


Beethoven was also consistently perceived as nationalist. Does that play a role in pop? Is there an association with Rechtsrock (a form of white power music), for example?
Hardly, and as much as Beethoven was labeled a nationalist, his nationalist label was just as frequently brought into question. There are always those who say that Beethoven belongs to them, but there are always those who say the opposite: that Beethoven belongs to everyone. For example, a lot of Wagner and Beethoven have been played for a long time in French theaters. As part of their archrivalries with Germany, especially after the war in 1870/71 and the First World War, the French and other nationalities denied Germany the right to speak for Beethoven independently. They said that Beethoven was a European cultural asset and that, through their aggressive actions, the Germans had forfeited the right to claim Beethoven for themselves. A similar thing happened with the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, who fled from the National Socialists to the USA in 1937 and led the NBC Symphony Orchestra, which had been founded for him. He would play Beethoven and Wagner time and again with his orchestra because he refused to relinquish the sovereignty of interpretation over German music to Hitler.

What are your favorite finds when it comes to the adoption of Beethoven in popular culture?
A mash-up of Beethoven and Beyoncé tunes that the Juilliard School produced along with Sam Tsui, which is both surprising and original. There are also some highlights to be found in advertising. But the best for me are the earlier references in jazz, such as Dolly Dawn's Beethoven Wrote It, But It Swings (1939), the Beethoven Bounce by Al Donahue and His Orchestra from 1940, and Beethoven Riffs On, an homage to Symphony No. 7 by John Kirby & His Orchestra from 1941. They are brilliantly written, comical numbers that are evocative of Beethoven and allow his music to continue swinging timelessly.

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Author: Hartmut Welscher, VAN Magazine

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