Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Will following Beethoven’s example lead to success?

A friend of mine who goes by the handle MusicologyDuck alerted me to a listicle with a title I found impossible to ignore:

Since this list appears on a general life advice site rather than one focused on, say, musical composition, I anticipated that I’d find factual inaccuracies that would necessitate a list of corrections, as I did earlier for a listicle of Mozart myths. What I found instead was information that wasn’t quite factually wrong but lacked crucial historical context and was twisted to serve an anachronistic agenda.
Portrait of Beethoven
People who received ACTUAL lessons from Beethoven (above):
Carl Czerny, Ferdinand Ries, Josephine Brunsvik
These “lessons from Beethoven” have much in common with the sanitized composer biographies for children that I’ve previously criticized. Instead of presenting Beethoven as a moral role model for leading a virtuous life, however, this list offers the composer’s life as a model for a successful career. In the process, the complex, contradictory life of a real person is distilled to twenty-five aphorisms that cherry-pick events for anachronistic support of current economic practices.

The entire endeavor reeks of survivorship bias, a form of selection bias that tries to reverse-engineer success by only looking at examples that have succeeded, ignoring any examples of failure that may have followed the same plan but didn’t “survive” to be considered.

In this case, the article implies that Beethoven owed his success to these twenty-five factors; therefore, imitating them will lead the reader to similar success. It ignores all the other composers who worked under similar conditions and didn’t develop a reputation as extraordinary as Beethoven’s, just because their careers didn’t “survive” as legendary. To a certain extent, all lists of easily digestible advice work this way, but this one compounds the problem by contorting real history in the service of present economic conditions.

For example, item #4 misconstrues Beethoven’s relationship to Christian Gottlob Neefe as “unpaid work.” In fact, it was an apprenticeship—though he did not draw a salary, Beethoven was compensated through lessons from Neefe in piano, organ, and composition. Beethoven began this apprenticeship when he was eleven years old; many such arrangements also provided apprentices with a living situation. An 18th-century apprenticeship cannot be equated to a 21st-century unpaid internship; they operate within completely different economic and political systems!

Moreover, I find the encouragement to work for free a bad policy particularly in today’s conditions. Sure, I write this blog for free, but I’m my own boss. When I’m commissioned to write for other publications, I expect and receive payment. The expectation that people should be willing to perform, write, draw, etc. for exposure feeds toxic beliefs about the value of artistic work. Furthermore, this advice assumes that the reader is able to devote time and resources to producing free work—some people simply cannot afford to work without guaranteed financial compensation.

Many principles on this list assert the fallacy that works of art reflect events in their creators’ lives. Item #20 makes this connection explicit: “Beethoven’s personal struggles influenced him to compose emotionally moving pieces, such as the famous Moonlight Sonata.” Although today many people take the connection between music and the composer’s emotions as an assumption, that isn’t quite the milieu in which Beethoven worked. In fact, the idea that struggle is required to make Great Art is the Romantic trope of the artist-hero that was applied to Beethoven by music lovers and historians after his death.

In drafting this post, I consulted Robin Wallace, with whom I worked on my earlier essay on Beethoven’s deafness. Dr. Wallace is in the process of publishing his new book, Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss and Discovery, which offers an alternative to the artist-hero narrative imposed on Beethoven’s deafness. He told me in an email that, while he believes that Beethoven’s struggles did make his music more powerful, in his book he argues...
“...strongly against the idea that this makes him heroic, transcendent, or really in any way different than somebody like my late wife Barbara, who also had struggles in her personal life that affected the way she lived and expressed herself. In short, I have tried to replace Beethoven the hero with Beethoven the human being.”
Dr. Wallace also emphasized that Beethoven’s story isn’t one of overcoming deafness but learning to adapt to it, as many people with disabilities have done and continue to do.

This list’s fixation on struggle and overcoming adversity brings me to another concern I have about this list: an emphasis on Beethoven’s deafness that qualifies as “inspiration porn,” which objectifies a person with disabilities in order to inspire and motivate others.

Inspiration porn has many harmful effects: It degrades the disabled person by implying to a non-disabled reader that, no matter how bad they think their situation is, disabled people have it worse. Furthermore, it implies that all a disabled person needs to succeed is a good attitude, ignoring any structural problems that hinder them—after all, the problems can’t be that bad if this person overcame them, right?

Observe how the list frames Beethoven’s deafness:

"Work around your obstacles" and some more comments to that effect.

Indeed, Beethoven continued to compose after he started going deaf, as I’ve explained elsewhere. However, the two works mentioned above were composed in 1801 and 1810, respectively—after he noticed some loss of hearing, but before it became severe enough to interfere with listening to music or following a conversation. Those pieces are not good examples of Beethoven composing while deaf.

What makes this passage “inspiration porn” is how it equates Beethoven’s struggle with whatever obstacle the reader faces, no matter how trivial…or serious. After all, if all it took for Beethoven to work through deafness and overcome his depression was a “change of mindset,” then the reader should be able to conquer anything through sheer force of will!

Even beyond that, it weaponizes Beethoven’s lived experience to cajole the reader to be “productive” despite unfavorable circumstances. As with most inspiration porn, it says to the reader, “He could do it. What’s your excuse?” The excuse is that not all struggles are the same, and not all people are the same. Again, it diverts away from any issues that are legitimately beyond a person’s control and places the onus on the individual to overcome them with positive thinking—advising people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

This list is not exceptional in its implied promises. Most generalized advice makes pretty much the same offer: Follow these steps, and your life will improve. “Lessons from Beethoven” takes it a step further by offering “proof” that these suggestions worked for a highly-respected historical figure. Even so, I doubt that any reader would literally expect that following twenty-five suggestions will make them as successful as Beethoven, yet we keep reading in the hope that we’ll find something within our power to improve our circumstances.

These lists also imply that your situation is entirely self-determined. Look at #18: “Rise above your circumstances.” While American society lacks the strict class division of the 18th century, it is still incredibly difficult to overcome economic disparity without outside assistance of some sort. Even when citing Beethoven’s life, the writer admits that Beethoven would never be accepted as nobility, instead claiming that Beethoven’s legacy is his victory.

But for those of us who want to improve our lives and not merely our posthumous reputations, the reality is that attitude cannot conquer everything. While lists like these offer tips for an individual to find success within the system, sometimes one must look outward and change the system itself to thrive.

[ADDENDUM: After I revised and formatted this post, I checked my social media to find that Kanye West said slavery sounds like a choice.” This is pretty much an extreme version of misconstruing a horrendous systemic problem as a matter of individual mindset. This shouldn't have to be said, but: The slaves were not responsible for their own enslavement by failing to have a positive attitude.]

Many thanks to MusicologyDuck, Andrew Dell'Antonio, and especially Robin Wallace for their feedback and perspective on this post!

Like what you’ve read?


“Lessons from Beethoven: 25 Principles on Creating Great Work” by Melissa Chu for Thrive Global

“Inspiration porn: A look at the objectification of the disabled community” by Rebecca Rakowitz for The Crimson White

1 comment:

  1. The reason why Beethoven succeeded even after he began to lose his hearing is surely a combination of talent and excellent training. He stood on third base and knew what it took to "hit a triple."(=Perspiration porn.)