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Classical music reckons with its long history of white supremacy

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Courtesy of University of Delaware
Classical music canon and those who maintain it have long been overwhelmingly white. Some believe it’s time for that to change.

BY
Contributing Reporter

While listing off qualities that illustrate the “excellence” of Europeans and Americans in a speech given on July 6, 2017, Donald Trump began, “we write symphonies.” In this simple statement, Trump continued the long-standing Western tradition of putting white culture on a pedestal above all others. And nowhere is this tradition more prevalent than in classical music, the genre whose harmonic language and systems of notation we dare to call music theory. However, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, as America ruminates on its history of oppression, the classical music industry has finally begun to reckon with its own ugly history.

Following the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year, conversations on race’s relation to performance practice and audition processes in classical music have taken a front seat. On June 7, 2020 Dr. Paul Head, interim director of the University of Delaware School of Music sent out a letter to students and faculty in which he acknowledged that the university curriculum and audition process are heavily biased towards students with money and backgrounds in Western music. His letter also listed some potential solutions he and his staff were considering which included revamping the audition process to avoid costly trips to the university and adjusting the curriculum to give students the freedom to study other genres of music outside of classical. He ended the letter with a Zoom link to open up the conversation to all students, faculty and alumni.

While racial issues in the industry are certainly gaining attention, it may not always be done so with genuine intentions. 

“Some of it feels a bit performative,” Taria Mitchell, mezzo-soprano and admissions coordinator at the University of Michigan School of Music, says.

Mitchell, a Black opera singer, described one of these “performative” events at Oberlin College from a flyer she saw.

 “They had a concert a few weeks ago where they released a flyer, and it was about the faculty that were gonna be showcasing music by Black composers,” Mitchell says. “Well, the flyer was literally all white people.”

It’s no secret that the industry has a diversity issue. A study conducted by the League of American Orchestras found that African Americans comprised about 1.8% of all employed orchestral musicians in 2014. Hispanics represented about 2.5%. In a conversation about challenges she faced as a Chicana opera singer, soprano and voice professor Dr. Noel Archambeault recalled a previous interview where she was asked how many people she knew in her industry that looked like her. 

“And honestly,” Archambeault says, “I could think of maybe three people offhand.”

Opera in particular puts up many obstacles for minorities. Most of its canon was written at a time when white people were the only ones allowed on a stage. Women in minorities often face the danger of typecasting into secondary roles since they don’t fit the composer’s vision of a pale lead soprano. Mitchell finds that the industry has more to do with connections, appearance and money than any amount of talent.

“A lot of minorities are pigeonholed into these different roles that are only made for minorities. So the rest of opera feels like it’s off limits,” Mitchell says. “I’m always going to be the comedic relief character or I’m gonna be like somebody’s nanny. Those are the roles I can have because of the way that I look.”

Archambeault finds that there are a lot of barriers that Hispanic women have to break in classical music. In her generation, women were expected to stay around the family to help out. A career in opera was barely within her realm of imagination.

“You know, it was always ‘you stay around the family’ so you could help out, especially if you’re female,” Archambeault says. “You took care of the elders, took care of the males. That’s kind of the thing. Luckily we’ve gone away from that, and now, I feel like we’re at a point where the barriers are placed on us as to what we expect ourselves to become and how many people we actually see that look like us in the industry.”

Dr. Archambeualt also found barriers while pursuing higher education. 

“I remember going through school and feeling a little discriminated against because my [previous] schooling didn’t really look the same as white people,” Archambeault says.  

Classical music’s racial bias tends to shine brightest through education. For decades, college music history classes have studied the same set of white composers. Conversations debating which composers should be studied in universities are growing, but Franklin and Marshall alumni Lauren Matcha finds this debate performative at times. 

“I have a friend who went through the same music history class [in Fall 2020] that I went through, and they barely mention any people of color, any Jews,” Matcha says. 

Many of these composers that students do study were incredibly problematic, but these problems are often glossed over in music history. Richard Wagner, a pillar of the classical music canon of the 19th century, was an avowed antisemite. He went so far as to write an infamous essay titled “Das Judenthum in der Music” (Jewishness in Music) in which he espoused his racist belief that Jewish contributions had damaged German music and culture. 

“We barely heard about the backgrounds of any of these people, and they were praised for being prodigies,” Matcha says, who is herself a Hispanic Jew. “I had to learn all of the backgrounds of these composers from elsewhere, and when I started studying them, the praise felt uncomfortable to me.”

Classical music’s bias towards white composers is largely owed to its theoretical framework which evaluates music on its whiteness. Perhaps the most prominent figure in Western music theory, Heinrich Schenker, was a fervent racist. He believed there were essentially 12 “genius composers” to which all other composers should aspire to. Including the well-known Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, the 12 geniuses were, of course, all white. Schenker went so far as to claim that God himself gave us the I-V-I harmonization, which these composers all used in their works. In his many racially charged essays and journal entries, Schenker has frequently used such terminology as “less able or more primitive races” and “wild and half wild peoples.” In a 1914 diary entry, he compared Japanese peoples to “animals” that the white race would need to adapt to in order to “annihilate.” 

“He was definitely sympathetic to the rising tide of German nationalism before World War II,” Dr. Christopher Gage says, an adjunct instructor of music theory at the university. 

For a long time, theorists have separated Schenker’s racism from his theoretical work, but at a Society for Music Theory conference in 2019, Dr. Phillip Ewell changed that. At the conference, Ewell, a cellist and professor of music theory at Hunter College, gave a presentation titled “Music Theory’s White Racial Frame” in which he asserted that Schenker’s worldview and artistic view are indelibly linked. 

“Ultimately, our white racial frame’s removal and denial of race in the study of Schenker and his musical theories is a textbook example of colorblind racism,” Ewell says after describing several attempts of music scholars to whitewash the racism in Schenker’s work. 

He also called attention to SMT’s grim statistics on diversity with 93.9% of all American music theory professors being white in 2018. His presentation created a heated debate among music theorists.

Soon after this conference, the Center for Schenkerian Studies at the University of North Texas published its 12th volume of “The Journal of Schenkerian Studies,” which attempted to counter the claims made in Ewell’s presentation. Save for a few individuals who wished to remain anonymous in the publishing of this academic journal, the journal’s editors were all white. The common argument among the scholars writing this journal is that because Black composers such as Art Tatum or Scott Joplin have produced works that would be considered “genius” in a Schenkerian lens, that Schenkerian analysis has no racial bias despite Schenker’s belief that Black composers were inferior.

“The premises of Schenkerian analysis lead to the opposite conclusion”  Dr. Jack Boss, professor of music theory at the University of Oregon, writes. “That Black musicians did indeed produce works of genius, works which ornamented their structures in new and fascinating ways, and are worthy of our study.”

Ewell actually addressed this notion in his presentation. 

“But stocking our textbooks with musical examples by these Black composers is not the solution to this problem, which is a result of framing western functional tonality as the only organizational force in music worthy of music theory’s consideration in the music theory classroom,” Ewell says. 

Ewell’s argument was not that non-white composers cannot produce works of value under Schenkerian analysis but that to do so, they must incorporate white aethstetics into their music.

Much of the world’s music does not fit into western theory; it is not a universal science. For example, the Indian Raga, a musical scale from Indian theory, does not perfectly align with western concepts of intervals and pitch.

 “We can’t get the exact scale from our notation. They have their own set of notations,” Dr. Gage says. “If you look at some cultures in Africa, you’ll see a lot of it is rhythm and dance based rather than pitch and harmony based.”

While it is based on a similar pitch and rhythm structure, many elements of jazz style can’t be notated through classical theory. Dr. Miles Brown, a bass professor at the university, says western analysis is only one method. There are several other methods that can analyze other genres such as African and Gamelan music or jazz. 

“There are in-between notes,” Brown says. “The blues has notes that can’t be just labeled as one pitch or another. With the rhythmic aspect, no one has actually been able to identify and codify what swing is.”

Many believe white supremacy ought to be rooted out of classical music at an institutional level, but musicians are seeing the greatest degree of success in smaller companies and orchestras. 

“Major orchestras survive on familiarity,” Brown says. “When you look at the programming choices for a season of a major orchestra like the New York Phil or the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, inevitably you’re going to see Beethoven or Mozart or Schubert or Schumann.”

Brown believes a lot of these standards have to do with the audience. The crowd that has the money and desire to go to these concerts are older white people who want to hear these primarily white composers. As a result, the big organizations move at a slower pace.

“So where you want to look for this change are the startup ensembles, the younger ensembles,” Brown says. 

For example, Brown mentioned that in his ensemble Alarm Will Sound, they are reviewing their hiring policies. 

“In the past, we’ve gone by word-of-mouth recommendations,” Brown says. “The challenge with [this approach] and players that are not [raised] in the system is that traditionally, communities with less privilege have systematically not been given the advantage of going to music school and making the connections.” 

To face this challenge, Alarm Will Sound has specifically reached out to musicians with less privileged backgrounds by putting out calls for musicians and composers with non-traditional forms of style and training.

Even in the ever-traditional world of opera, Mitchell sees glimmers of hope in small ensembles. 

“There are some small companies that are out here basically trying to change the narrative,” Mitchell says. “And although they’re small companies, I feel like that’s gonna end up having a larger impact at some point.”

Performers, composers, students and educators are adding to the conversation everyday. Music educator Dr. Archambeault is hopeful at the prospect of lasting change in diversity and teaching methods.

“I hope so,” Archambeault says. “I really hope that we have the strength, the fragility, the vulnerability to really look hard at what we’re doing everyday both in the classroom and the outside world.”

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