Black Scholars Confront White Supremacy in Classical MusicHistorians in the News
tags: racism, music, composers, classical music
Since nationwide protests over police violence erupted, in May and June, American culture has been engaged in an examination, however nominal, of its relationship with racism. Such an examination is sorely needed in classical music, because of its extreme dependence on a problematic past. The undertaking is complex; the field must acknowledge a history of systemic racism while also honoring the individual experiences of Black composers, musicians, and listeners. Black people have long been marginalized, but they have never been outsiders.
This spring, the journal Music Theory Online published “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” an article by Philip Ewell, who teaches at Hunter College. It begins with the sentence “Music theory is white,” and goes on to argue that the whiteness of the discipline is manifest not only in the lack of diversity in its membership but also in a deep-seated ideology of white supremacy, one that insidiously affects how music is analyzed and taught. The main target of Ewell’s critique is the early-twentieth-century Austrian theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935), who parsed musical structures in terms of foreground, middle-ground, and background levels, teasing out the tonal formulas that underpin large-scale movements. Schenker held racist views, particularly with regard to Black people, and according to Ewell those views seeped into the seemingly abstract principles of his theoretical work.
Schenker was Jewish, but his adherence to doctrines of Germanic superiority blinkered him to such an extent that, in 1933, he praised Hitler, adding, “If only a man were born to music, who would finally exterminate the musical Marxists.” Schenker’s advocates have long been aware of his disturbing views but have insisted that his bigoted rhetoric has nothing to do with his theoretical writing. Ewell argued that Schenker’s system is, in fact, founded on national and racial hierarchies. Reverence for the kind of supreme talent who can assemble monumental musical structures shades into biological definitions of genius, and the biology of genius spills over into the biology of race. Ewell concluded, “There can be no question that for Schenker, the concept of ‘genius’ was associated with whiteness to some degree.”
Shortly after Ewell’s article was published, a skirmish broke out in the music-theory community, incited not by the article itself but by a twenty-minute condensed version of the material that Ewell had presented at a conference seven months earlier. The Journal of Schenkerian Studies, which is based at the University of North Texas, chose to devote ninety pages to responses to that brief talk. Some were supportive, others dismissive; one accused Ewell, who is African-American, of exhibiting “Black anti-Semitism,” even though Ewell had not mentioned Schenker’s Jewishness. On social media, Ewell’s colleagues came to his defense and questioned the journal’s methodology. The historian Kira Thurman wrote, “Did the Journal of Schenkerian Studies really publish a response to Professor Ewell’s scholarship that was ‘anonymous’? Yes.” National Review and Fox News somehow stumbled on the episode and cast it as so-called cancel culture run amok; it was claimed that Ewell was trying to ban Beethoven, although nothing of the sort had been suggested.
At first glance, the Schenker debate looks to be of limited relevance to the wider classical-music world, not to mention the general population. Although his theories have been taught in American universities for generations, they are by no means universally accepted. German-speaking musicologists, for example, have never taken him as seriously. Even in the U.S., conservatory students can often undergo a thorough training without encountering his work. Yet the case of Schenker illustrates an implicit prejudice that is endemic in the teaching, playing, and interpretation of classical music. His method is far from unique in elevating the European tradition while concealing its cultural bias behind eternal, abstract principles. What Ewell calls “the white racial frame”—he takes the term from the sociologist Joe Feagin—has the special power of being invisible. Thurman, in her paper “Performing Lieder, Hearing Race,” makes a similar point: “Classical music, like whiteness itself, is frequently racially unmarked and presented as universal—until people of color start performing it.”
The hysterical complaints that Ewell was proposing to “cancel” the classical canon stemmed mainly from a blog post in which he called Beethoven an “above-average composer” who has been “propped up by the white-male frame, both consciously and subconsciously, with descriptors such as genius, master, and masterwork.” This is a provocation, though it is hardly the first to have been lobbed at the great man: Debussy wrote that Beethoven’s sonatas were badly written for the piano, and Ned Rorem memorably dinged the Ninth Symphony as “the first piece of junk in the grand style.” Ewell provokes with a higher purpose: he is goading a classical culture that awards the vast majority of performances to a tight circle of superstars, shutting out female and nonwhite composers who, until the mid-twentieth century, had little chance of making a career. In some ways, that Valhalla mentality is as entrenched as ever.
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