|Beethoven, the disembodied name of a|
musical deity, in Boston's Symphony Hall
Anyone who has ever proposed a greater inclusion of women composers and composers of color—into a curriculum, a concert program, or an archive—is familiar with this kind of response. One of the most persistent myths in music history is that the classical music canon came about as the result of a rational, inevitable process that ensured the preservation of only the "best" works, those that "stood the test of time." An influential proponent of this view was the German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus, who maintained in 1977 that the musical canon was not made but "found." According to Dahlhaus, we can't shape or change the canon, since it was created long ago by the invisible hand of tradition.
How exactly is this selection process supposed to have worked? One imagines a fictional court of justice in the heavenly spheres, presided over by—whom? (God? St. Cecilia? Herbert von Karajan?), that conducts annual reviews of ALL the compositions by ALL the people, and hands down impartial judgment on their "musical quality." The verdict: Sibelius, yes; his contemporaries Amy Beach and Will Marion Cook, no.
In the wake of recent conversations about the egregious underrepresentation of women and people of color in the classical repertory, we are confronted yet again (for example in this blog: here, here, and here) with the deep-seated belief in the “invisible hand” selecting for musical quality. The minuscule numbers of women composers programmed by major symphony orchestras last year (as reported by Ricky O’Bannon and Sarah E. Baer) are depressing, and at the same time—like the recent revelations about sexual misconduct by conductors and teachers—they are totally unsurprising to anyone familiar with the classical music world.
Why, if "everyone" already knew, are we only now having this larger conversation about representation, responsibility, and repertoire? Why are we still fighting this battle, after so many skirmishes, and 24 years after the publication of Marcia Citron’s groundbreaking book, Gender and the Musical Canon?
Obvious reasons include institutional inertia, career ambitions, intellectual laziness, and individual bias. But there is another, less well understood reason why a virtually all-white, all-male repertory has been tolerated for so long: the widespread preconception that music has no gender, or much of anything else. German philosophical idealism, which flourished in the 19th century simultaneously with the rise of the (mostly Germanic) musical canon, valorized Geist, mental and spiritual modes of experience and thought over embodied ones. The masculine was firmly associated with the realm of ideas and transcendence, while the feminine represented bodily limitations and drives.
Music's incorporeality and semantic imprecision have lent themselves to an aesthetic of absoluteness or purity, and to the fiction of an automatically self-regulating canon. In this sense the names of the famous composers who populate our concert program (and peer over the audience in Harvard’s Paine Hall) were originally to be understood not as men, or even as actual humans, but as prophets and high priests of music, unencumbered by distasteful residues from the real world and therefore beyond physical characteristics like gender.
|Bronze statue of Beethoven at the New |
England Conservatory of Music, looming
larger than he did in his mortal life.
Feminists are often accused of "reducing" everything to gender. But we as a society have been judging music on the basis of gender all along, by privileging specific cultural notions of masculinity in the guise of gender neutrality.
A fascinating 2015 article in Science has showed that women are underrepresented in domains that are believed to require talent or brilliance as opposed to hard work. These include philosophy, math, music composition, and, one might add, orchestra conducting. When quality and achievement are hard to measure, and governed by subjective notions of genius, then men will always win out.
It turns out that the invisible hand of the classical music canon works much like Adam Smith’s invisible hand of capitalism: as a conscious perpetuation of the interests of powerful people (mostly men), with the whole process disguised as natural and inevitable. When the mask of a gender-neutral objectivity is removed, we are suddenly confronted with the pink and wrinkled reality of classical music.
This is a liberating moment, and it could be transformative for a field for which "conservative" is far too mild a word. Let's recognize the compositional achievements of women and people of color, expand the repertory, diversify our ensembles, and hire more women conductors. While we're at it, let's rethink why we want to listen to music in the first place. We need to reimagine our musical institutions as places of discovery and wonder, rather than ritual celebrations of an ossified repertory, and reshape them as places centered in our communities rather than in the abstract realm of Art.
Since the imaginary court of musical justice does not exist, it’s up to us to create a more diverse and equitable canon.
Thanks to J. Andrés Ballesteros, Shaw Pong Lui, Linda Shaver-Gleason, Henry Shreffler, and Barbara White.
Anne Shreffler is a musicologist who writes about the musical canon, the political and ideological associations of music, and the European and American avant-garde after 1945. She teaches at Harvard University.