You should have seen my face, jaw completely dropped, mouth agape. I couldn't believe what I'd just heard, at my own dinner table, nonetheless. It was horrifying, actually, and I was in utter disbelief. But let me give you some context so you'll be able to join me in the moment that exposed my closet elitism.
It had only been a few weeks into working on what we'd planned to be the opening episode of our new podcast, Decomposed. It would be about Beethoven, of course. I mean, who else would we use to launch a new podcast about the lives of famous composers? He's the man I assumed everybody knew everything about. We sat around our computer screens, video conferencing about the story. We were practically pulling our hair out trying to avoid all the obvious plot lines. We had determined that Decomposed would tell stories we didn't really know, along with some of the well-known historical facts about these well-known composers. We'd spend the first season on the usual suspects, but would present them from slightly unexpected angles. And that is why Beethoven was giving us the fits. Rewrite after rewrite, nothing was hitting home.
So, I'm at the dinner table after one of those sessions, sharing with my family about the plight of trying to recast Beethoven in a new light and I say, "The problem is everybody already knows Beethoven was deaf." I was expecting quick agreement from my mother who had toted me from one piano competition to another, including a Beethoven competition as a youngster. I was expecting an exaggerated eye roll, or an overly sarcastic, "Duh!" from my younger sister, who'd grown up scribbling in crayon on my Urtext scores. What I wasn't expecting was for the two of them to stare back at me blankly, doe-eyed, absolutely not joking. What they said next, practically in unison, was something I told them never to repeat in public outside of the sanctity of our home. They both said in all seriousness, "I didn't know Beethoven was deaf."
Honestly, I think I went deaf for a few seconds. How in the world could two highly educated, sophisticated women, living in a civil society, who were close blood relatives of a concert pianist not know something as common as the alphabet? How could they not know Beethoven was deaf? I asked them this in tones dripping of disbelief and shame. I chastised them and again made them promise never to admit it publicly. And then they did something even more unexpected. They didn't share in my horror. Instead, they laughed at me for my disbelief, as if to say, "Jade, chill out. Everybody's life does not revolve around Beethoven." But didn't it?
What makes the whole thing so comical to me now is the irony. I had spent my entire early career making classical music more accessible, making the presentation more engaging and exploratory for my audiences. I considered myself to be well outside of the elitist circles I eschewed, so unlike the people who assumed everyone should know about classical, and possibly even see it as a higher art form. I remember an administrator at one of my music schools patting us on our backs at the opening convocation for being a part of a special group of humans who understood the intricacies of classical music. He pontificated while pointing disdainfully at the brutes on the football field lamenting that they'd never comprehend the beauty of Faure's Requiem. Meanwhile, I was sort of lamenting that he'd never know the beauty of a perfectly timed tackle right in the middle of this dizzyingly elitist speech. Yet here I was, at my own dinner table, unable to fathom that what I considered common knowledge was still a wondrous mystery to so many. My mother and sister couldn't be the only ones!
After my initial shock, I got more excited about Decomposed, realizing there was still so much to share and still so many with whom to share it. While we knew connoisseurs would tune in, I got more and more curious about the new discoveries to be made by new people. It made me less self-conscious about sharing in an "aggressively accessible" way, as one critic put it. To not assume that everyone knows that Dmitri Shostakovich composed during the throes of war, or that Clara Schumann struggled with work-life balance before it was a thing, or that Tchaikovsky was gay, or even that Beethoven was deaf gives us so much glorious room to pull people into a world we think they should already know.
As I think back to how easily my family dismissed my disbelief, I'm reminded that what I first thought was an inexcusable ignorance was really confirmation that there was the possibility of indelible impact if I only let go of my assumptions. In the end, the writing team found an angle that made me think about Beethoven's experience differently than how I had before. I was forced to recast some of my impressions and dial back some misplaced sympathies, just like I had to do with my family. After all, the most powerful thing a powerful story can do is not reconfirm what you already know, but make you rethink what you thought you knew so well.
Nicknamed "Classical Music's No. 1 Maverick," Jade Simmons is the host of the Decomposed podcast. She also is a concert artist, bestselling author and a passionate storyteller with a strong understanding of classical music's roots.