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Graffiti of Beethoven on a yellow wall
Comparing Beethoven to punk rockers is based on the composer’s attitude to tradition, but is it an accurate categorization? (Shutterstock)

Why Beethoven wasn’t the original punk rocker of classical music

Last summer, the meme “Beethoven was Black” was trending online, a trope that drew the iconic composer into a 21st century discussion about race and social justice. But there is another curious classical music trope in circulation, one that is actually hard to avoid: Beethoven was a punk.

A cursory search for information about iconic composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt or Stravinsky inevitably yields articles and blog posts proclaiming them the “original punk rockers,” linking them with the infamously brash modern pop music phenomenon associated with bands like the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and The Clash.

What is going on here?

Punk characters

Who are the supposed punks of the classical music world? It seems that, for many commentators, any composer who went against the grain in some way was a punk.

British radio station Classic FM, for example, provides a short list of classical music punks that begins, improbably, with the medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen. Her wide-ranging chant melodies and settings of risqué texts apparently make her an “anti-establishment figure.”

The list also includes Tchaikovsky, considered a punk by virtue of the emotional effusiveness of his symphonic music. Twentieth century French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez also makes an appearance because he who sought to craft the future of modern music from scratch by vehemently rejecting the past.

In an article for The Guardian, scholar John Butt cites the Reformation, launched by the composer and schismatic monk Martin Luther in the 16th century, as classical music’s “punk rock moment.” The rocker and poet Patti Smith asserted that Mozart was a punk rocker because his music exemplified the “pursuit of the new, of making space, of not being confined or defined.”

In a similar vein, in his 1986 hit “Rock me Amadeus,” Austrian pop star Falco famously characterized Mozart as an 18th century rock star — “ein Punker,” loved by all the ladies for his hard-drinking, punk rock insouciance.

In ‘Rock Me Amadeus,’ Austrian pop star Falco portrays Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a rebel.

The harshly dissonant music of early 20th century Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg is “punk rock,” according to journalist Rebecca Mazzi, by dint of its non-conformist rejection of musical traditions.

Beethoven the punk

But Beethoven — once again, as a cultural icon who seems able to absorb meaning and interpretation from any and all directions — appears to be the exemplar of a proto-punk. A tongue-in-cheek Entertainment Weekly article draws connections between Beethoven and the Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious: both “trashed hotel rooms” and composed “anti-monarchy songs.”

Music critic Colin Fleming’s characterizes Beethoven’s eighth symphony as “punk-rock” thanks to its quick tempos, boisterously loud passages and overall “pugnacious and punchy” character. The BBC claims that the annual Proms concert is perhaps one of “the oldest punk rock concerts on the planet,” featuring music by Beethoven that 19th-century audiences and musicians often found “challenging.”

Even the scholarly world can’t resist the lure of this trope, it seems: a German press release for musicologist William Kinderman’s very recent book about the political nature of Beethoven’s music describes the composer as a “Rebell und Punk.”

Punk began in the mid-‘70s in the United States, moving to the United Kingdom only to fizzle out by the end of the decade. This notion that Beethoven, along with other big names in the classical music canon, was a punk invites some deconstructing. A key issue is the notion that punk — a very short-lived musical movement (and arguably, a form of lucrative and cleverly stage-managed outrage) — somehow exemplified the “pursuit of the new,” as Patti Smith claims.

Patti Smith performing behind a microphone with long grey hair
Singer-songwriter Patti Smith, shown here performing in the Netherlands in 2018, called Mozart a ‘punk rocker.’ (Shutterstock)

Punk traditions

Punk rock is, if anything, decidedly regressive. It challenges the ear via its raucousness and its provocative and often obscene lyrics, not through audacious musical innovations. It is sped-up rock ’n’ roll, nothing more. Punk relies on traditional instrumentation — guitar, drums, bass — and traditional rock chord structures.

It rejected the excesses of other '70s-era musical genres — especially progressive rock and disco — by becoming more stripped down, but also more rootsy: punk is, in essence, a rock revival movement rather than an anarchic reimagining or refashioning of music.

The ethnomusicologist Evan Rapport has argued that punk’s true roots actually reside in the blues, and makes the provocative claim that the tendency to link punk to the European avant garde constitutes a whitewashing of history that seeks to obscure punk’s origins in Black music, much like the discourse concerning Black composers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The great classical composers, certainly from Mozart onwards, were admittedly idiosyncratic and individualistic, but whether they were radically anti-authoritarian punks is highly debatable. They may have composed music that sometimes vexed their contemporaries, but they also wrote for the box office, courted patrons, sought popularity and were not artistic anarchists: rather, most understood themselves — even the most irascible, like the arch-modernist Schoenberg — to be part of a larger, continuous cultural tradition.

Stravinsky, the original punk rocker?

Notwithstanding the lack of any true affinity between classical music and punk, Beethoven-as-punk-rocker seems to be part of an effort to assert the ongoing relevance and sexiness of classical music, even as performing organizations and venues struggle to stay afloat, and audiences continue to decline. It is the case, alas, that most of us no longer have the right ears and brains for this music, which requires focused attention, musical memory, familiarity with a vast lexicon of expressive gestures and an understanding of how large-scale musical structures are built.

Drawing connections between snarling, three-minute punk songs and Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony in the hopes of simulating interest in the classics and getting bums into seats in concert halls ultimately doesn’t help listeners plumb the depths and navigate the richness and complexities of a half hour-long orchestral work.

a black and white photograph of dancers
A posed group of dancers in the original production of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le sacre du printemps, showing historical Russian folkloric costumes and backdrop by Nicholas Roerich. The first performance sparked a riot in Paris in 1913. (The Sketch Magazine)

If we must draw some connecting lines between punk and classical music, I suppose we could look to Igor Stravinsky. The Paris premiere of his 1913 ballet Le sacre du printemps is reputed to have sparked a riot, and is lauded as a turning point in the development of musical modernism.

This performance, like the legendary first gig by the Sex Pistols in 1976, has since become shrouded in myth: in each case, many more people claim to have been in attendance than actually were. Perhaps the “classical music is punk” trope should begin and end there.

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