Thursday, September 27, 2018

Who wrote the symphonies, and why should it matter?

I’ve devoted much of this blog to challenging the stereotype that classical composers are all “dead, white men,” even though the canon makes it seem that way. So far, I’ve only addressed the “men” part, in several posts and a guest post.

Yet I haven’t written as much about the “white” part, mostly because it’s uncomfortable to discuss racism as a white person in the US—especially in connection to something I love, something I’ve built into my identity. It’s hard to talk from the privileged position without inadvertently making assumptions (which is why I’ve sent drafts of this post to many people for feedback).

But recent events have challenged my perspective, to the point that the “whiteness” of classical music is something I can’t not address anymore. I must push beyond any discomfort because this is a conversation that needs to happen, especially in the current political environment.

On July 6, 2017, President Donald Trump stood in Krasinski Square in Warsaw and declared, “We write symphonies.” Many writers have already posted their theories about who this “we” is. Though the speech says, “our community of nations,” it’s often (correctly, I believe) understood that he meant Europeans and Americans—but just the white ones.

The greatness of “European culture”—with emphases on ancient Greek, Norse, and Germanic cultures—is often cited by white supremacists as justification for preserving a purely white race, with the German-dominated classical music canon touted as the highest of human achievements. Those in the classical music community (performers, scholars, writers, fans, and more) have grappled with this association, from downplaying its elite status to admitting the ways in which the culture itself encourages such glorification.

And yet, the link between classical music and white Europe persists, especially beyond its fanbase. When Imani Mosley, a fellow musicologist and friend, Tweeted:
"White European men aren't the only people who composed classical music."
"White European men aren't the only people who composed classical music."
Someone argued:

"They are the ONLY ones who did because that's how it's defined!"
Dictionary definition of "classical music" from a Google search, underlined "(more specifically) music written in the European tradition"
"They are the ONLY ones who did because that's how it's defined!"
Even as people rattled off names of classical composers of color, this person insisted:
"It's fine to say not only white people composed the world's beloved music. But classical music is literally composed by white people. It's that simple."
"It's fine to say not only white people composed
the world's beloved music. But classical music is literally
 composed by white people. It's that simple."
In addition to being incorrect and ignorant (and racist—further posts in this thread make that blatantly clear), this Tweeter was disturbing for their persistence, clinging to the belief that classical music is only created by white people, despite all evidence to the contrary. Sure, this particular conversation could be dismissed as mere trolling, but it wouldn’t have been so effectively frustrating if it didn’t poke at some legitimate anxiety about classical music’s apparent whiteness. This trolling is a caricature of actual beliefs.

First: Dictionary definitions should never be cited as evidence in any argument besides, “How does that dictionary define this word?” Most English-language dictionaries are descriptive rather than prescriptive; they don’t set the meanings of words so much as reflect common usage. When discussing with experts, “common usage” just isn’t good enough. This definition is overly narrow—mostly because it pertains specifically to the so-called Classical era rather than the centuries-spanning collection of works considered “classical music.” Ambiguity and simplifications are reasons why general dictionaries aren’t to be used as scholarly sources (other than in studies of dictionaries).

In any case, there are plenty of composers of color who write and wrote classical music, and many in the thread were quick to cite names: William Grant Still, Florence Price, Toru Takemitsu, Unsuk Chin, Alberto Ginastera, Clarence Cameron White…and that’s just a small fraction of the non-white classical composers!
Florence Price
Florence Price, whose music is experiencing a revival
due to a recent discovery of her lost works
Still, these composers were born after 1880, making it seem like non-white composers is a relatively recent trend, as though there was a moment when people of color suddenly learned how to write music in a European style. More accurately, the events of the twentieth century impacted white-dominated establishments in such a way that they became more willing to acknowledge non-white contributors to the Fine Arts. Considering conservative discourse over the past century, it’s all too easy to dismiss multiculturalism as modernism and something that “ruined” art music, rather than accepting modernism as the milieu that all music of the twentieth century participated in or reacted to.

Particularly in America, the rise of African-American composers in the late nineteenth century is often tied to narratives of post-Civil War freedoms as well as a visit from canonical composer Antonín Dvořák—suggesting that America needed a European master to reveal and direct black Americans’ potential for high art music.

But there have been non-white composers even before the nineteenth century, and some of them were—get this!—European. That’s right: Europe is not one big block of whiteness, and pretty much never has been—at least since the purported beginning of the Western music tradition, c. 800. Europe has so many ancient cities built by and for trade with Asia and Africa. As goods shuffled around, so did people. Europe has had a diversity of skin colors for centuries, despite white-supremacist narratives that mythologize Medieval Europe as a continent of pure whiteness.

One of the most famous pre-1800 non-white composers is Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-99). He was born in the Caribbean to a black slave mother with a French aristocrat and plantation owner as his father. That father sent him to Paris as a child for his education, where he earned a reputation as an exceptional fencer and soldier as well as a violinist and composer. Bologne is often called “The Black Mozart,” a nickname that reinforces the primacy of white canonical composers—as though Bologne can only be conceptualized in terms of a more “history-worthy” contemporary.

In fact, Bologne knew Mozart; they met in Paris while Mozart visited in 1778. At that point, Bologne was an established musical celebrity, known for his violin concertos as well as his leadership of Le Concert des Amateurs, a highly regarded orchestra. Mozart, then 22 years old, was still struggling to secure a steady position.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
“The Black Mozart”? Could Mozart lead
a regiment of soldiers? Mozart isn’t even worthy
 of being called “The White Joseph Bologne”!
Even though Wikipedia says Bologne is “best remembered as the first classical composer of African ancestry,” I recently came across an article on Vincente Lusitano, a non-white composer and music theorist born in Portugal in 1522! Like Bologne, he was mixed-race, with a black mother and Portuguese father. The article provides an explanation for why Lusitano’s African heritage would be overlooked: “Europe’s musicologists would later try and detach him from his mixed background and would regard him as white.”

Such whitewashing affects other composers as well, though not always to the same degree. For instance, Ludwig van Beethoven is often depicted as having pale skin, despite being described by his contemporaries as bearing a “strong resemblance to a mulatto”—because of course the greatest representative of the German musical canon could not have had dark skin.

Classic portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven writing
Contemporaries said Beethoven’s hair was
“thick, bristly[and] coal-black,” 
yet here he has wispy flyaways. Hm…
(There has been a persistent myth that Beethoven was black, but research confirms that he wasn’t.)

I bring up historical examples because I believe it is important to recognize that cultural diversity isn’t just some recent “fad,” or some progressive plot to weaken Western culture. It is Western culture, woven into the fabric of society through the centuries. Multiculturalism is not new. And just as I believe in highlighting woman composers from earlier eras to challenge narratives of women being eventually granted the ability to compose by patriarchal society, I point to these composers as proof that people of color have been creating classical music for far longer than most people realize, but their music has been intentionally suppressed in the service of a narrative of white—specifically German—cultural supremacy (because, alas, that too is part of Western Culture). Clearly, people of all races, religions, genders, and sexualities can create classical music!

And yet…

Maybe this is the wrong debate to be having. Maybe we’re focused on the wrong thing. Maybe by proclaiming that, “Classical music is for and by everyone!”, we reinforce the notion of classical music as a universal standard and something that everyone should aspire to appreciate. The matter of who writes the symphonies accepts a white-centric perspective that presents symphonies as the ultimate human achievement in the arts.

I hadn’t fully considered these implications until I heard a paper by Philip Ewell at the Post-Truth conference. During the presentation, he pointed out that, of the most common theory textbooks used in American higher education, only 1.63% of the musical examples come from non-white composers. This oversight has a profound impact on how music students regard non-white composers. Studying a particular piece reaffirms its canonical status; enshrining it in a textbook is deeming it worthy of study. Over-representing the “great” composers reinforces the idea that they’re the ones who deserve the most respect, as if to say, “Marvel at the many techniques Mozart used so perfectly!”

In the Q&A following this paper, I touted the Music Theory Examples by Women database, suggesting that a similar database for composers of color would be useful for including those composers in the curriculum. (The Composer Diversity Database includes composers from under-represented demographics, though it does not focus on providing examples of theory concepts.) Dr. Ewell gave a good-natured smile and responded, “Yeah, but we know that the examples are going to all be William Grant Still and Florence Price!”

That’s when it hit me—I proposed introducing composers of color to the existing music theory structure, whereas Dr. Ewell proposed overthrowing the existing structure and building a new one that would accommodate non-white music a priori—no reaching for “inclusion” necessary because non-white composers would already be there.

I realized that what I, a well-meaning liberal white woman, had inadvertently proposed was tokenism: “Hey, look at these non-white composers who play by white rules!” According to Barnor Hesse—a professor of African-American studies, political science, and sociology—I was operating according to #3 of his “8 White Identities”:
White Privilege: “May critique supremacy, but a deep investment in questions of fairness/equality under the normalization of whiteness and the white rule; sworn goal of diversity.”
I had assumed that the music theory approach of these textbooks was the standard. Bolstered by the myth that the 12-pitch tonal system corresponds to physical properties of the universe (I’ve already addressed why it doesn’t really work that way), institutional biases and circular logic have perpetuated this system: What is Great Music? Music that engages with these rules. Why these rules? Because they’re the basis of Great Music…

I do think that Music Theory Examples by Women and the Composer Diversity Database can bring more attention to music from under-represented composers. These databases are the products of diligent research from many people, and they provide concert programmers (and others) with ways to expand the listener experience beyond the confines of the canon. Yet so long as we retain our current definition of classical music, these composers will always be seen as others. This goes all the way through how we teach music and music theory, currently treating the Western canon as fundamental and all other styles as deviations from this norm.

Centuries of white bias cannot be overcome by sprinkling a few non-white, non-men sprinkled throughout a season. Too often organizations pat themselves on the back for making an effort but don’t consider how other aspects of their planning—from programming the audience’s favorite composers, to the press releases and program notes—reinforce the white male hegemony. Instead of operating from White Privilege, white classical music fans devoted to change need to aspire to at least Hesse’s White Identity #6:
White Critical: “Take on board critiques of whiteness and invest in exposing/marking the white regime; refuses to be complicit with the regime; whiteness speaking back to whiteness.”
Honestly confronting white supremacy in classical music culture requires radically new approaches to how music is presented to listeners. As for what those approaches should or even could be, I just don’t know. But I realize they’re going to be much more threatening to the status quo than a few nods to Florence Price, and we won’t be able to develop them until we acknowledge the whiteness of the way things are now and listen to people who point out the harm of the hegemony.

This discussion is all the more necessary now, given how classical music has been—and still is—used as justification for racist politics.

Many thanks to Philip Ewell, Will Cheng, and Kendra Preston Leonard for reading drafts of this post and helping me develop my position.

Like what you’ve read?

“Trump’s white-nationalist dog whistles in Warsaw” by Jonathan Capehart in The Washington Post,

“Hold My Mead: A Bibliography For Historians Hitting Back At White Supremacy” by Sarah E. Bond on History from Below,

“Trump Is Wrong if He Thinks Symphonies Are Superior” by Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times,

“Toscanini, Trump, and Classical Music as a Tool of Power” by Alex Ross in The New Yorker,

“The Rediscovery of Florence Price” by Alex Ross in The New Yorker,

“The ‘Black Mozart’ Was So Much More” by Andrea Valentino for Atlas Obscura,

“Chevalier de Saint-Georges: The man who got under Mozart's skin” by Jessica Duchen in The Independent,

“The music theorist and composer Vicente Lusitano (1561)” by Jeff Bowersox for Black Central Europe,

“The highly sought-after musician in Europe in the 1500s was a black man” by Mildred Europa Taylor for Face 2 Face Africa,

“Black Beethoven and the Racial Politics of Music History” by Nicholas T. Rinehart in Transition: An International Review,

“The 8 White Identities” by Barnor Hesse on Twitter,


  1. We've tried to address some of this in the #ClassicsaDay feed on Twitter. Shortly after Trump's speech we did an entire month of #WeWriteSymphonies, specifically calling out composers of color, and of course for #WomensHistoryMonth we posted examples of women composers of all eras. I also try to mix both women composers and composers of color into our other monthly themes. The more I do, the easier it is to find examples. And I keep discovering more all the time. You can see a few examples here:

    1. Thank you for your comment! I think awareness like this is a good thing—the more people are exposed to works outside the canon, the more they're able to seek out. But again, it's a small step in overcoming a huge, systemic problem.

  2. Thank you for writing this essay. We have to recognize the limits of inclusion rhetoric. I'm not arguing for not pursuing inclusion, but inclusion cannot be the end goal if we are trying to develop an equitable society. I read this essay a few weeks ago, and I think it is worth bringing into music discussions:

    1. Thanks for the support! The paragraphs on those databases were the most difficult to write. I know people working on them and believe that they can do some good. But I couldn't ignore realization I had—they're still working within a system that is inherently unfair.

    2. I am involved in the two databases you discuss, and I am involved because I think they can do some good. At the same time, I think we need to look in the mirror and ask who and what are benefiting when we do this work. Does this inclusion work primarily benefit and keep alive an unfair system, or can it ultimately lead to systemic change? Even if it primarily benefits the unfair system, is this the only way to get systemic change? Does it give enough marginalized people jobs so make these efforts beneficial to these communities?

    3. You're raising excellent points. On this, I think it's a matter of, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," with the databases being the good. They do provide some benefit to marginalized communities, and that's certainly better than "all canon, all the time."

      But still, I'm aware of how concert programs are tied to economics, and if some subscribers don't get their Beethoven cycle, they won't re-up, and that's an unfortunate truth. Inclusion databases are a way to strike that balance between familiar and unfamiliar music.

      But I'm uneasy with accepting that these are the terms of the balance. It may economically unfeasible at the moment to tilt away from the canon, but if not now, when? How do we start a major shift in defining "the classics" among audiences? Changing the pedagogy will affect music students, which is also a good thing, but there are so many listeners out there who get their classical music from recordings and radio stations, and they're difficult to, well, re-educate.

      I know I've strayed a bit, but...Many organizations fear dwindling audiences and bemoan the fact that an appreciation for classical music is less common than it was fifty years ago. But maybe this is the opportunity to reset our sights. Maybe it's good that fewer in the audience are carrying 1960s-era expectations to the concert hall. If we can find a way to shift expectations, what can we accomplish? I'd hope that it would provide even more opportunities for marginalized people.

  3. Linda, this post is 🔥🔥🔥! I appreciate how critically you examined your own preconceptions—it was really eye-opening for me to realize that as a person raised in the culture of classical music, I hold some of the same assumptions upheld by a white supremacist system (even though I'm not white, yikes!!)

    The "symphonies" thing points to another reason why we should retool how we evaluate the definition of greatness in classical music. It's fairly accepted that there are many "good" composers, but the "great" ones—the ones worthy of immortalization—are the ones who compose symphonies.

    The problem is that whether or not symphonies get played/performed in a composer's time comes down to social privilege; directors/promoters/other gatekeepers historically, and still today, were/are more likely to program large scale works by white European male composers. Composing a symphony is an ENORMOUS undertaking and a composer is not likely to spend their time and energy on a massive project for no pay that will never get performed. So the "classical music is a meritocracy in which the symphony is the marker of greatness" argument is similar in spirit to the Jim Crow laws that citizens could only vote if their grandfathers could—it's intentionally measuring people using a system that wasn't designed for their existence.

    1. Excellent points. But then, symphonies weren't always considered a profound statement from the composer to eternity; that impression came about with the veneration of Beethoven. Before that, they were just music--like a suite, but with a first movement using sonata form. The movements could even be performed separately, distributed throughout the program!

      Personally, I like that Haydn didn't take The Symphony as a genre quite so seriously, but still composed enjoyable music.

    2. Oh, that's a very good point—I realize I was making a generalization based on the post-Beethoven idea of musical greatness. (I feel like this proves your point about the difficulty of thinking outside of the system in which we've been taught!)

  4. Linda, Thank you for your wonderful article.

  5. Yes! Another thanks for this article (which, to me, seems written to politely that I can't imagine people getting angry at you for it!). Also thanks to Sharon for pointing out, once again, how hard it is to really think outside the box.

  6. I always remember what Hannibal Lector tells agent Clarice Starling, " We covet that which we are familiar." So any music's popularity is folly to pursue when we would all love whatever it was we heard all the time.

    1. I agree that familiarity accounts for a lot of concert programming, and it serves to reinforce the canon. A few days ago, a friend sent me a concert review that praised familiarity (by someone from which I expected better!). Your comment leads me to consider writing up something about that!

  7. I am very glad to have come across this article! I am always looking for writing about such issues as I myself write and lecture about such issues. I cannot wait to quote you and share this on my social media platforms. I am not sure if you are aware of the organization Castle of our Skins. If not, please visit our website and see the work that this organization is doing to combat the stereotypical image of what a composer should be, as well as to bring parity to the lives and music of some great Black composers!

  8. Let's not neglect the crucial factor of social class. Many classical composers were on the payroll of the royal court. Their function was to write the music of kings and the gentry, who had a taste for music of greater structural complexity than ordinary folk, largely because they had the time and money to indulge
    in such tastes---the musical analogue of the baroque architecture of the palaces in which they lived.

    To write such music required three things that were hard to come by: musical training, access to an orchestra of talented players, and a source of income for the long hours of composition. How many black Europeans of the 18th century had access to all three?

    Viewed in this light, it would a minor miracle to find even a single black composer at that time, or a black palace architect. The risk of tokenism is that by enumerating the miraculous few, we neglect the social factors---wealth, connection, education, and cultural status---that excluded (and exclude) the many.

    To quote Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of the Atlantic magazine who is in hot water this week for his rather poor articulation of a similar point about the structural inequalities in long-form journalism: "white males dominate cover-story writing because they’ve had all the opportunities."