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."|
|"They are the ONLY ones who did because that's how it's defined!"|
|"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."
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, whose music is experiencing a revival|
due to a recent discovery of her lost works.
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.
|“The Black Mozart”? Could Mozart lead|
a regiment of soldiers? Mozart isn’t even worthy
of being called “The White Joseph Bologne”!
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.
|Contemporaries said Beethoven’s hair was|
“thick, bristly[and] coal-black,”
yet here he has wispy flyaways. Hm…
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!
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, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2017/07/06/trumps-white-nationalist-dog-whistles-in-warsaw/?utm_term=.7947c2dcc6a1
“Hold My Mead: A Bibliography For Historians Hitting Back At White Supremacy” by Sarah E. Bond on History from Below, https://sarahemilybond.com/2017/09/10/hold-my-mead-a-bibliography-for-historians-hitting-back-at-white-supremacy/
“Trump Is Wrong if He Thinks Symphonies Are Superior” by Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/30/arts/music/trump-classical-music.html
“Toscanini, Trump, and Classical Music as a Tool of Power” by Alex Ross in The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/toscanini-trump-and-classical-music-as-a-symbol-of-power
“The Rediscovery of Florence Price” by Alex Ross in The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/05/the-rediscovery-of-florence-price
“The ‘Black Mozart’ Was So Much More” by Andrea Valentino for Atlas Obscura, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/joseph-bologne-black-mozart
“Chevalier de Saint-Georges: The man who got under Mozart's skin” by Jessica Duchen in The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/chevalier-de-saint-georges-the-man-who-got-under-mozarts-skin-a6859191.html
“The music theorist and composer Vicente Lusitano (1561)” by Jeff Bowersox for Black Central Europe, https://blackcentraleurope.com/sources/1500-1750/the-musical-theorist-vicente-lusitano-1561/
“The highly sought-after musician in Europe in the 1500s was a black man” by Mildred Europa Taylor for Face 2 Face Africa, https://face2faceafrica.com/article/the-highly-sought-after-musician-in-europe-in-the-1500s-was-a-black-man
“Black Beethoven and the Racial Politics of Music History” by Nicholas T. Rinehart in Transition: An International Review, https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:17167/
“The 8 White Identities” by Barnor Hesse on Twitter, https://twitter.com/barnor_hesse/status/796784744591724544