What Do the Black Arts Movement and 'Die Hard' Have in Common? 'Beethoven in America'

by Elisabeth Woronzoff

11 December 2011

Michael Broyles pens an engaging and fascinating text, relying on copious amounts of research supplemented with myths and mysteries to rebuild and develop the image of Beethoven.
cover art

Beethoven in America

Michael Broyles

(Indiana University Press)
US: Oct 2011

Are dahn-dahn-dahn-dahnnn (hear it in your head, you know this) the most recognizable opening chords, anywhere? Has the “Ode to Joy”, the final movement of the “Ninth Symphony”, been relegated to cinematic stock music and commercial jingles? Michael Broyles’ text, Beethoven in America explores these questions while fully developing Ludwig Van Beethoven’s presence and influence on historical and contemporary popular cultural.

Sectioning the book into four parts—Arrival and Sacralization; Science, Scholars, and Critics; Beethoven and the Dramatic Arts; Beethoven in American Society and Culture—Broyles reveals the detailed and astoundingly ubiquitous prevalence of Beethoven’s image, music, and character in the US. To name just a few examples, Broyles utilizes early symphony repertoires, analysis of the impact of modernism, a reading of the film A Clockwork Orange, and a semiotic reading of a radio station’s birthday party for Beethoven, to present a historical analysis of Beethoven’s life. Throughout Beethoven in America, Broyles interweaves those moments when Beethoven’s work and legacy were a cultural dynamo to those when they were almost a silent whisper.

In the process, Broyles pens an engaging and fascinating text, relying on copious amounts of research supplemented with myths and mysteries to rebuild and develop the image of Beethoven. Some chapters present a nuanced perspective on established scholarship and research while other chapters develop new information and connections. In its entirety, Beethoven in America demonstrates how music and culture become experiences that present parallels across eras, societies, and geographic borders, and how Beethoven’s legacy maintains a global influence.

Calling upon the fields of musicology, history (European, American, contemporary, etc.), Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, among others, Broyles adopts an interdisciplinary approach to this text. Arguably, the two most interesting sections are Broyles’ presentation of Margaret Fullers’ impassioned, albeit distant, relationship with Beethoven or Beethoven’s influence on black social movements and racial politics.

This is not to say that other sections are not interesting, since each subject area is fascinating and engaging. In each field Broyles expertly maneuvers through the main theories and subject areas with no sign of weakness. He establishes a wide readership base without excluding or emphasizing one discipline over an other. As a result, Beethoven in American epitomizes the type of “book [that] is for anyone… or who just happens to be curious about Beethoven” (3). 

One of the greatest accomplishments of this study is the accessibility. Broyles begins the introduction with a recollection of the Third Bi-annual Convention of the American Beethoven Society. The conference included and invited the participation of academics and musicologists, but “what distinguished the conference was its reach beyond disciplinary boundaries, and even beyond academia” (1).

With that statement, Broyles sets the tone and pace for the upcoming pages. The language of this text is accessible and avoids unnecessary scholarly jargon or extensive musicological terms. Broyles is careful to explain fully his argument and clearly establish definitions that are unique to disciplines. He presents a theory or study then supplements it with an abundance of examples, images, and references. By doing so, he facilitates the readers’ acquisition and expansion of their knowledge of the subject areas.

While Beethoven’s identity might never be fully realized, Broyles presents a multiplicity of character sketches and reconstructions that seek the smallest detail or insight into Beethoven’s life and relationships. His extensive research demonstrates the range of possible interpretations positioning Beethoven, as for instance self-reflective or romantic, based on readings that might stress either quantitative analysis or the notorious Beethoven sketches. The inclusion of the varying readings of Beethoven’s characteristics supports Broyles’ thesis demonstrating the cultish and mythical aura surrounding the composer.

Rather than relegate him to decay in a historical culture bank, fans, scholars, musicians, activists, and casual radio listeners are actively engaging and adapting Beethoven’s work and legacy. As Broyles reminds readers “[Beethoven] is unpredictable, sometimes thoughtful and aware… sometimes loud and abrasive, sometimes sarcastic and at times cruel and cutting” (184). This quote can sufficiently describe the endless readings, depictions and performances of Beethoven the individual, the artist, and the cultural icon.

Broyles expertly makes connections between themes and subjects that at first seem unrelated. For example, in the chapter “Beethoven on the Silver Screen”, he connects Gary Oldman’s film The Professional to the actor’s portrayal of Beethoven in Immortal Beloved. Broyles notices that Oldman connects his two movies when he said, “’the calm before the storm reminds me of Beethoven’” (180). Broyles suggests this is not a coincidence but rather a linkage established by the movie studio or Oldman himself. Broyles brings trivial statements such as Oldman’s quip to life and this constantly refreshes Beethoven in America and reengages the reader.

In the text as a whole, Broyles makes these linkages less frequently. Perhaps it’s due to a lack of primary sources or concrete evidence, but Broyles seems to miss opportunities to connect concepts and theories across chapters. For example, one of Broyles’ most interesting chapters relates the theories and cultural beliefs that Beethoven was black. Broyles goes to great length to demonstrate that “Beethoven seems to have been an important symbol to the black community” (269). Yet, while discussing Chuck Berry’s appropriation of the name Beethoven for the song “Roll Over Beethoven”, Broyles fails to connect Berry’s potential inspiration as directly related to his cultural upbringing. Despite these insignificant omissions, the emphasis on hearing, reading, watching, and feeling Beethoven’s history presents itself as a viable form for interpreting the lineaments and effects on the historical and musical record.

At times, Broyles’ attention to details and exhaustive histories and presentations of research hinder the flow of the text. In a number of cases, Broyles launches into historical tangents that are in themselves interesting, but stray too far from the subject at hand. Broyles’ reasoning is strategic: he’s attempting to provide a clear and fundamental context from which to branch his study.

Often, however, Broyles wanders too far a field.  For example in his discussion of the film Five Easy Pieces, he provides the reader with a detailed plot summery. This provokes the reader to question how this recapitulation relates to Beethoven and only later does Broyles reveal that the middle names of two characters are from Beethoven symphonies. Broyles is careful to emphasize the connection between the film and Beethoven, however the plot summery could be circumvented without damaging the integrity of his argument.

With many media outlets and online sources predicting the decline and ultimate death of classical music, Broyles offers a glimmer of hope and perhaps an image of reality; classical music is still a relevant and evolving facet of our culture.  Instead of focusing on the areas where classical music is absent, Beethoven in America requires the reader to see and hear the prevalence of the genre. Artists such as Beethoven and his music “transcend beyond time” (353) while constantly influencing the narratives that rebuild the past while creating the present.

Beethoven in America


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