Editor’s note: this story is part of City Journal’s Summer 2021 print issue and is being published online in two installments. Part 2 will appear next Sunday, August 8.
Classical music is under racial attack. Orchestras and opera companies are said to discriminate against black musicians and composers. The canonical repertoire—the product of a centuries-long tradition of musical expression—is allegedly a function of white supremacy.
Not one leader in the field has defended Western art music against these charges. Their silence is emblematic. Other supposed guardians of Western civilization, whether museum directors, humanities professors, or scientists, have gone AWOL in the face of similar claims, lest they themselves be denounced as racist.
The campaign against classical music is worth examining in some detail, for it reveals the logic that has been turned against nearly every aspect of Western culture over the last year. The crusade began within days of the death of George Floyd in late May 2020. Floyd died during an arrest in Minneapolis; cell-phone video captured Officer Derek Chauvin (since convicted of murder) keeping his knee on the prone Floyd’s neck and back for nearly eight minutes, while Floyd repeated “I can’t breathe.” Riots against police brutality broke out across the U.S.; institution after institution pledged to fight the structural racism that Floyd’s death supposedly represented.
The classical music profession deemed itself implicated in Floyd’s death. On June 1, 2020, the League of American Orchestras issued a statement confessing that, for decades, it had “tolerated and perpetuated systemic discrimination against Black people, discrimination mirrored in the practices of orchestras and throughout our country.” The League was “committed to dismantling” its “role in perpetuating the systems of inequity that continue to oppress Black people” and expected its member orchestras to respond in kind.
That response was immediate. The Hartford Symphony Orchestra apologized for its “history of inaction to effectively confront the racist systems and structures that have long oppressed and marginalized Black musicians, composers, and communities.” The Seattle Opera announced that it would “continue to prioritize” antiracism and “make amends” for causing harm. Opera Omaha sent a message to its “black community”: “We know that you are exhausted and recognize we will never fully understand the depth of your suffering. We know that part of your exhaustion comes from the heartbreak of our silence, inaction, and half-measures.” Every communication that the opera sends out now concludes with the tagline: “We will listen more than we speak, but will not be silent in the face of injustice.”
Black musicians produced manifestos complaining of their mistreatment at the hands of white administrators and conductors. Weston Sprott, a trombonist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, along with three musicians from three other ensembles, declared in the New York Times that the reason there are not “more Black artists in orchestras” is “racism.” Six black opera singers made a YouTube video about opera racism at the invitation of the Los Angeles Opera. L.A. Opera’s president, Christopher Koelsch, introduced the discussion. “I come to you today as the white male leader of this institution,” he said, staring dazedly at the camera. L.A. Opera was committing “anew to self-examination and . . . to do our part to heal wounds that are hundreds of years old.” Most of the discussion centered on Floyd’s death, but tenor Russell Thomas also told of being rebuked for routinely showing up late and for talking on his cell phone during rehearsals for an unnamed opera. “They were putting me in my place,” Thomas said, though his behavior was the result of his uncle dying in a car accident, he maintained. Only a black singer would be denied “a basic amount of consideration.”
Professional disappointments were likewise chalked up to racism. Soprano Lauren Michelle claimed that the reason she has not had a more prominent career in the United States was that she was black. “The truth is I am an award-winning international opera singer who has only been hired once at an A-house in the United States,” she wrote on her blog. Michelle did not address why her contemporaries, such as Angel Blue, Pretty Yende, Eric Owens, and Lawrence Brownlee, have sung in “A-houses.”
Music conservatories admitted their racial backwardness. The Juilliard School’s president, Damian Woetzel, and Juilliard’s Director of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Initiatives pledged that the school would become a “community that not only rejects racism, but that is actively anti-racist, working to tear down systemic racism and injustice.” As part of that “work,” the school created a blacks-only Zoom “space for healing.” Juilliard’s head of music theory wrote his colleagues that “it’s high time the whiteness of music theory is examined, critiqued and remedied.”
The classical music press, presiding over an art form whose salience shrinks by the year, produced a torrent of commentary explaining to readers why they should view classical music as culpably white. In September 2020, New Yorker critic Alex Ross apologized for being a “white American,” writing about a world that is “blindingly white, both in its history and its present.” The love of classical music on the part of nineteenth-century American patrons and performers was a smoke screen for white supremacy, Ross suggested. For good measure, he invoked a standard from the student gripe portfolio to buttress his argument for classical music racism: Mozart’s portrayal of the Moor Monostatos in The Magic Flute.
The lead reviewer for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini, urged that orchestra auditions no longer take place behind a screen, in order to address the “appalling racial imbalance” in orchestral ranks. Currently, musicians’ identities are concealed by a screen through most, if not all, stages of an orchestral audition to prevent favoritism or bias (a process known as a “blind audition”). But colorblindness is now regarded as discriminatory, since it favors merit over race.
Fellow Times critic Joshua Barone called for reforming “opera’s culture” by placing “anti-racism front and center.” A Washington Post critic alleged that systemic racism “runs like rot through the structures of the classical music world.” Vox explained that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was a symbol of white male “superiority and importance.” BBC Magazine columnist Tom Service also purported to deconstruct the alleged greatness of the canonical repertoire: “The link between patriarchal power in the West and the fact that the classical canon is made of lookalike faces of Great Men is more than coincidental.” Slate complained that referring to well-known composers only by their last names exacerbates classical music’s exclusionary practices. The Louisville Orchestra, for example, had advertised the performance of a Beethoven symphony and the debut of a composition memorializing Breonna Taylor by “Davóne Tines” and “Igee Dieudonné.” To assume that Davóne Tines and Igee Dieudonné need to be “full-named,” whereas Beethoven does not, replicates classical music’s “centuries of systematic prejudice, exclusion, sexism, and racism,” according to Slate. (Note to readers: if you have not heard of Tines and Dieudonné, you are not alone.)
Classical music radio announcers and executives instructed their audience to hear inequity in the cascade of human feeling coming from their speakers. Garrett McQueen, then an announcer for American Public Media, told a Composers Forum roundtable in June 2020: “You are complicit in racism every time you listen to Handel’s Messiah.” (Handel held stock in a slave-trading company.)
Academia, the source of today’s race obsession, weighed in with gusto. The Music Library Association decried its complicity in the “marginalization and extrajudicial killing of people of color, particularly Black and indigenous individuals.” A music theory professor from Hunter College, Philip Ewell, received widespread acclaim for his denunciations of classical music racism.
Ewell has whiteness on the brain. During the Floyd riots, Ewell compiled a glossary of music-related euphemisms for whiteness: “authentic, canonic, civilized, classic(s), conventional, core (‘core’ requirement), European, function (‘functional’ tonality), fundamental, genius, German (‘German’ language requirement), great (‘great’ works), maestro, opus (magnum ‘opus’), piano (‘piano’ proficiency, skills), seminal, sophisticated, titan(ic), towering, traditional, and western.” Since everything is about race, according to Ewell, any time you seem not to be talking about race—referring to someone’s piano skills, say—you are actually talking about race by dint of ignoring the topic. (Connoisseurs of deconstruction will recognize the rhetorical technique here of turning an “absence” into a supposed “presence.”)
“According to Ewell, any time you seem not to be talking about race, you are talking about race by dint of ignoring it.”
Ewell also engaged in the mandatory Beethoven takedown. The only reason we deem the Ninth Symphony a masterpiece is Beethoven’s whiteness and maleness, he wrote on his blog. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is “no more a masterwork than Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells,” Ewell insisted. Spalding is a jazz singer; Twelve Little Spells is an album of experimental jazz numbers about 16 body parts and functions. The texts (“Our eyeballs are hollow but presently hold shape/ Around a gooey filling”) are not the equivalent of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” To place Spalding’s slight compositions at the same level of complexity, emotional force, and historical significance as the Ninth Symphony is objectively ludicrous.
Ewell backed up his aesthetic relativism with an attempted logical refutation of Beethoven’s greatness: “To state that Beethoven was any more than, say, above average as a composer is to state that you know all music written on planet Earth 200 years ago when Beethoven was active as a composer, which no one does.” Judgments of greatness imply no such encyclopedic knowledge, however. We may deem a meal great, for example, without implying that we have eaten every other meal available on the planet at that moment.
Ewell’s whiteness obsession is standard in music departments now. What catapulted him to iconic status was his denunciation of the early twentieth-century music theorist Heinrich Schenker. Schenker developed an influential system of analysis that identifies the most important elements of a musical phrase in order to explain the phrase’s emotional impact and its role within a work’s thematic development. In a keynote address at a November 2019 music theory conference, Ewell argued that Schenker’s ranking of notes and harmonies within a composition is merely a stand-in for a white supremacist ranking of the races. The “white racial frame” of Schenkerian analysis has kept blacks from becoming music theorists, Ewell maintained.
Ewell’s speech was ecstatically received. Alex Ross’s September 2020 article on racism and classical music amplified Ewell’s “white racial frame” thesis further. And when a few music theorists dissented from that thesis, Ewell became a symbol of the field’s oppressive whiteness, as will be discussed below.
With such near-unanimity regarding classical music’s racial sins, it is no wonder that the demands issued to compensate for those sins have been breathtaking in ambition. Those coming from the influential Sphinx Organization were typical. Sphinx has been advocating for race consciousness in classical music since 1997. It holds separate competitions for young black and Hispanic musicians, supports minority-only ensembles, and provides color-coded training and financial assistance. Since the Floyd riots, it has been churning out a series of diversity demands more extensive than any it had previously proposed.
Its first set of demands opened with a call for orchestras, opera companies, and conservatories to “examine the supremacist logic embedded in traditional Western art and music/repertoire.” After impugning the Western music tradition, Sphinx then laid down racial quotas for that allegedly white supremacist activity: at least 20 percent of soloists each concert season should be black and Latinx; 40 percent of candidates for auditions and administrative jobs should be black and Latinx; and 20 percent of the repertoire performed each season should be “reflective [sic] of Black and Latinx composers.” At least 10 percent of every musical budget should be spent compensating for past racial inequities in programming (what such compensation might mean was not explained).
Sphinx’s next set of demands was published in the New York Times in September 2020. The numbers had changed, suggesting a certain arbitrariness in how they were computed. Sphinx president Afa Dworkin, writing with Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, now insisted that 15 percent of a music organization’s budget (up from the previous 10 percent) should go toward “addressing systemic racism” (what that meant was again left unspecified). This 15 percent reallocation should continue for the next decade. The diversity component in every audition was down to 25 percent from 40 percent, but if an orchestra or conservatory did not rustle up the requisite diversity quotient, it could not select a winning candidate, no matter how qualified the finalist.
In January 2021, Sphinx issued more audition guidelines. Traditionally, if a musician is of a known high caliber, having played with another prestigious orchestra, say, he may skip the early stages of an audition and go right to the semifinals or finals (which may still be blind). Sphinx now proposed that those automatic advancements include a whopping 25 percent or more of “Black and Brown” musicians. This is mathematically impossible, and Sphinx should know it, since it has been decrying the low numbers of minorities in orchestras for two decades. Blacks make up 1.8 percent of all orchestral musicians, which includes noncompetitive community ensembles. The larger and more competitive the orchestra, the fewer blacks it has. Filling at least 25 percent of all automatic advancement slots with minorities from top-ranked orchestras is not doable, even assuming that there were so many automatic advancements in each audition to be able to set aside 25 percent of them for any type of quota.
Sphinx’s January audition guidelines suggested selecting musicians on nonmusical grounds, as Anthony Tommasini had recommended. Orchestras should hire diversity consultants to develop “extra-musical evaluation” criteria for orchestral positions, such as serving as an institutional spokesman.
Board members also found themselves in the crosshairs for being too white, with the added infraction of being too rich. Simon Woods, head of the League of American Orchestras, apologized for his whiteness during a discussion at the Peabody Institute in February 2021, and then lamented that non-diverse board members were given power to help define the “vision” of orchestras. Anyone in the classical music business today should be down on his knees in gratitude that there remain wealthy donors who want to contribute to the “vision” of orchestras. Supporting social and racial justice organizations confers a thousand times more prestige, as the stampede of New York’s wealthiest to the galas of the antipoverty Robin Hood Foundation demonstrates. But the pressure is now enormous to find “diverse” board members, no matter their connection to music or their ability or willingness to help finance struggling ensembles. Few cultures, however, have embraced philanthropy as vigorously as the Anglo-American one.
Even in the best of financial circumstances, the racial demands would have been startling in their scope. But at a time when every classical music budget has been blown apart by the coronavirus lockdowns, such ambition requires considerable confidence in one’s bargaining power. The bet paid off. Orchestras and opera companies rushed to adopt racial hiring benchmarks and to take on costly new diversity bureaucracy.
Long before 2020, the Metropolitan Opera had been running in the red. The coronavirus blackout put it on the ropes, eliminating $150 million in earned revenues. In December 2020, Metropolitan General Manager Peter Gelb told his employees that financial cutbacks were a life-and-death matter: “What we’re trying to do is keep the Met alive, and the only way to achieve that is to reduce our costs.” In a letter to the stagehands’ union, Gelb wrote: “The health crisis has compounded the Met’s previous financial fragility, threatening our very existence.”
In February 2021, Met musicians were nearly a year without pay, and the stagehands’ union was locked out of the house. Yet that month, the Met’s first chief diversity officer started work. The new position was necessary in order to ensure that the Met is an “organization that is adamantly opposed to racism,” as a Met spokesman put it in an e-mail. Otherwise, there would apparently be some suspicion that the Met, populated by immaculately progressive staff in the most liberal big city in the country, might favor racism.
The Met’s new chief diversity officer, Marcia Sells, had been the dean of students at the nation’s highest-paying law school—Harvard. Her six-figure Harvard salary doubtless will have been increased to cover the move to New York. Sells would likely also have been promised her own staff. Sells has no background in music, much less opera. Yet she is now entrusted with creating “artistic pathways” at the Met for “people of color,” according to a press release.
Presumably, the Met would have compiled a firm empirical basis for this new financial commitment, given the sacrifices that it is asking its existing employees to make. Has the Met in recent years failed to hire the most qualified musician because of his skin color or otherwise denied opportunities to minorities? I asked the spokesman. The query was ignored.
In March 2020, the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra agreed to a 20 percent pay cut in the hope of reducing an estimated $15 million deficit by year-end. That projection was arrived at before anyone imagined that Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center would remain dark for the next 12 months. Yet in October 2020, the orchestra created a new vice presidency position for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access. “Diversity is excellence,” explained Philadelphia Orchestra President and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky in announcing the new title. Philadelphia’s vice president of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access, Doris Parent, also has no musical background. Her two bachelor’s degrees are in psychology and family studies; her master’s degree in business administration is from the University of Phoenix. She will nevertheless be “shaping” the orchestra’s future, according to Tarnopolsky.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has announced its first chief diversity and inclusion officer but has not yet hired someone for the role. It is sending its musicians, board, and staff to diversity training. Ideally, the orchestra would be “reflective of Cincinnati”—i.e., 40 percent black—executive director Jonathan Martin has said. For now, short of that ideal, it is putting a black composer on every live-streamed performance this season.
The Juilliard School recently announced a pandemic-related tuition increase, prompting student protest. Perhaps the school should have held off on bulking up its diversity bureaucracy instead. It has hired a new Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Program Manager, to supplement its existing Director for EDIB Initiatives. Its new Bias Response Deputies are steeped in “trauma-informed practices” so that they can understand how Juilliard’s systemic bias “manifests” and how to mitigate it. Faculty are being trained to recognize their racial biases. All aspects of the school will now be examined “through the lens of inclusion,” Juilliard’s provost announced in September 2020.
In light of such changes, the evidence for current discrimination in the classical music field must be overwhelming. In fact, it does not exist.
The primary fact adduced to prove systemic bias is the underrepresentation of black orchestral musicians. Blacks’ 1.8 percent representation among the nation’s orchestral musicians is up slightly from 1991, when they were about 1.6 percent of orchestra members. Meantime, the proportion of Asians rose nearly threefold from the early 1990s to 2014, from 3.4 percent to over 9 percent (and more in some top orchestras), though Asians, too, are nonwhite in an allegedly white supremacist field. When Asians began their conquest of Western classical music in the second half of the twentieth century, there were fewer Asian instrumentalists and composers to serve as ethnic role models than there were black instrumentalists and composers to serve as role models for blacks.
The official explanation for that steady underrepresentation of blacks in orchestral ranks is racism. Suggesting that there aren’t enough competitively qualified blacks in the audition pipeline is taboo. Anthony Tommasini briefly considered that supply-side explanation before calling for the deblinding of auditions. But he gave the last word to Sphinx president Dworkin, who insisted, in Tommasini’s words, that the “pipeline is not the problem, and that talented musicians of color are out there and ready.”
Conductors and members of audition committees disagree. Leonard Slatkin has served as music director in Detroit, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, London, and Lyon, and has served as principal guest conductor in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Cleveland. Filling Sphinx’s quotas for auditions would be “impossible” at the present time, he wrote by e-mail. “There are not enough black and other minority musicians studying at music schools or conservatories, let alone in the audition pool.” By one estimate, the combined black and Hispanic student population at conservatories ranges from 5 percent to 8 percent, but that estimate represents students in all arts programs at a school, which may include theater and dance. At Juilliard, blacks make up 8 percent of the total student body in music, drama, and dance. The drama division is nearly 50 percent black. Asians make up 28 percent of the total student body. The school would not provide the breakdown for the music division alone.
At the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, black audition entrants are rare, though there is no minimum experience requirement, says someone who oversees the process. Even if the screen were removed, there are very few black musicians to hire. Proponents of the racism narrative never explain why conductors, perfectionist by nature, would turn down the most qualified musician in favor of someone more likely to maul an exposed solo, just because that inferior musician was white.
In fact, conductors want “the best possible player for the best possible concert because you will be blamed otherwise,” says a former music festival leader. “I’ve never observed someone not getting the job because he was black.”
Zubin Mehta conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1962 to 1978 and then went on to direct the New York Philharmonic for another 13 years. There was “never” any racial component to auditions, Mehta said in a phone interview. Nor have boards discouraged the hiring of black musicians, as is alleged. “No one ever told me you can’t engage someone because he’s black,” Mehta says. Dorothy Chandler, for decades Los Angeles’s premier arts philanthropist, welcomed Mehta’s hiring of Henry Lewis as assistant conductor in 1961.
Pianist Emanuel Ax replied: “Of course not!” when asked if he had seen racism in the field, though he added that he would have “no idea about auditions.” No black pianist has asked Ax to teach him (which is how Ax gets students), though he would welcome such a request.
Violinist Joseph Striplin played with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and the Metropolitan Opera’s touring orchestra. When the Grosse Pointe Symphony Orchestra’s conductor fell ill, Striplin was asked to fill in. He now leads that orchestra. There was discrimination in the past, but it’s not the 1940s anymore, Striplin says: “Orchestras would be more than happy to have more blacks.”
Both of John McLaughlin Williams’s parents were pianists who passed on to him their love of classical music. His father’s hopes for a musical career were dashed by mid-century racial attitudes. But the classical music industry is “not racist now, by any means,” says Williams, a conductor, violinist, and pianist. Williams has never witnessed someone not getting a job because of the color of his skin. But after hundreds of years of discrimination, blacks assume—and understandably so, Williams says—that if they are not picked for something, it is because of their race.
In July 2020, in the New York Times, bassoonist Monica Ellis accused the orchestral profession of protecting a “white framework built to benefit white people.” To the contrary, the field has been obsessed with diversity for decades. Since the early 1970s, fellowship programs for black and Hispanic musicians have poured forth, including from the New York Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Typically, these programs allow the grantees to play with the orchestra, train them for auditions, and give them priority in tryouts. At present, more than a dozen of the country’s top orchestras provide fellowships for black players, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, while many others give stipends to minority musicians as audition support. Orchestras have also sent their musicians into public schools in the hope of creating more minority players.
Music schools have encouraged black enrollment, though they now lambaste themselves as exclusionary. In 1986, Juilliard established the Aaron Diamond Foundation Fellowships for Minority Students, endowed with millions of dollars. Rather than requiring minority students to come to New York to audition for entrance to the school, Juilliard set up regional auditions across the country. Minority applications rose fivefold, but minority admissions stayed low, since most applicants were not qualified. The school needed to start earlier in the process, then–Juilliard president Joseph Polisi told funder Irene Diamond. So the conservatory brought local black and Hispanic elementary school students to the New York campus for individual tutoring and group lessons. The school provided each student with an instrument to play at home and one to play at school. It reached out to parents in the hope of involving them in their child’s music education. Today, the Music Advancement Program serves about 100 students a year.
So prized have been black students and musicians that they are treated with kid gloves. Violinist Earl Carlyss was a member of the Juilliard Quartet for 20 years and a teacher for even longer. In the 1960s, Carlyss helped determine whether students at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore would continue into their next year of study. One violinist played so poorly that Carlyss mentioned him to the dean. “We know,” came the answer, “but no one has had the nerve to boink him.” At Michigan State University, Carlyss tried to correct a student’s sloppy playing. Two weeks later, nothing had changed. Have you practiced? Carlyss asked. “I don’t have to,” the student responded. “I’ll always have a job.”
Prejudice tragically limited black musical opportunity in the first half of the twentieth century. But even in that cruel period, some black musicians were recognized and elevated, complicating the monolithic story of oppression that the classical music profession is now telling about itself. These musicians included bassist Charles Burrell, cellist Donald White, and double bassist Henry Lewis—who became music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in 1968 and eventually conducted nearly every other major American orchestra, sometimes accompanying his then-wife, mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne. More recently, the late conductor James DePreist was mentored by Leonard Bernstein. Michael Morgan, conductor of the Oakland Symphony, received a Tanglewood fellowship at 19, the youngest such recipient. Morgan became Leonard Slatkin’s assistant at the St. Louis Symphony at 23. Starting in 1986, he worked for seven years as assistant conductor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim.
Since at least the 1970s, performing ensembles have sought new works from black composers. George Walker’s numerous commissions came from the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, among other groups. Walker’s Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in honor of a black tenor, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996. Walker received fellowships from the Fulbright, Whitney, Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Koussevitzky, and MacDowell foundations.
And yet we are to believe that music ensembles, having commissioned pieces from black composers, then turned around and suppressed those same composers out of racial bias. If few contemporary, black-composed works entered the regular repertoire, the reason is the same as that affecting new works by white composers: audiences continue to reject post-tonal idioms, no matter how many honors the academy confers on their practitioners.
Today, black musicians are welcomed with open arms. One musician with a major orchestra marvels at the oppositional stance taken by some of his fellows, such as clarinetist Anthony McGill and his brother, flutist Demarre McGill. “The business has handed these guys opportunity after opportunity. To turn around and say: ‘It’s a racist industry!’ I want to shake them. They should be ambassadors!” Another leading player notes that the McGills “aren’t the exception; they are the rule. People fall over black students to give them every opportunity to have a shot. I did it, too. Since 1990, at least, black privilege has been in effect in classical music.” Opera singers—such as Pretty Yende, Angel Blue, and Julia Bullock, all enormously talented in their own right—have enjoyed an extra boost to their careers from being black, according to a former opera executive.
If, before 2020, being black was an asset in a field already agonizing about diversity, going forward, it will provide jet propulsion. Commissions are pouring in to black composers, and many orchestras are putting a black-authored work on every program. Expect a rash of new Black Lives Matter–themed works, such as Carlos Simon’s “An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave,” dedicated to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and others “murdered wrongfully by an oppressive power,” and Jonathan Woody’s “Nigra Sum Sed Formosa—I Am Black but Beautiful (A Fantasia on Microaggressions),” a madrigal sung to microaggressive comments that black singers have allegedly been subjected to, such as “I bet you sing spirituals very well” and “When you stood up, I was shocked, you should play in the NFL.”
Black musicians are highly sought after for consultancy jobs and newly created fellowships. Small performing ensembles seeking philanthropic support to stay alive during the pandemic are now grilled on their racial makeup. If their musicians, staff, or board are too white, they can forget about a grant. Many are going under.
Even early-music ensembles, a rarefied subspecialty of music, are feeling the post-Floyd heat. The Continuo Foundation now conditions its grants to early-music groups based on their programming of works by “women and people of color” and on the “diversity” of their performers and administrators. But there were virtually no black composers in medieval and Renaissance Europe, since the continent was overwhelmingly Caucasian. Female composers were rare (thus the eternal fuss over Hildegard von Bingen). As for performers, blacks have only recently started going into the early-music field. There are not enough of them now to seed every period-instrument group that desperately needs financial support—i.e., every period-instrument group.
“Two key sources for classical music exposure—circumambient culture and music education—have dried up.”
Conservatories are creating separate programs for blacks. The Manhattan School of Music announced in October 2020 a new Artist Scholars program, peopled exclusively by black “performers, educators, activists, directors, choreographers, and administrators.” In November, one of its Artist Scholars gave a Zoom lecture on the American minstrel tradition; it was incoherent. The Artist Scholar congratulated himself repeatedly on his “very Brechtian theatrical technique,” which consisted of superimposing the original lyrics of “Ol’ Man River” onto Paul Robeson’s cinematic performance of the song. This intervention was a major theatrical coup of “Brechtian-Weillian irony and dissonance,” according to its author. The school’s provost thanked the Artist Scholar afterward for his “spectacular presentation.”
If institutional support and encouragement of black musicians have been unequivocal for decades, why has their percentage in orchestras barely budged? Because over the last 60 years, two of the three main sources for exposing a child to classical music—circumambient culture and music education—have dried up. Violinist Joseph Striplin had a “classic inner-city mother,” he says, but he had the good fortune to come of age in the 1940s and 1950s, when “music was vibrant in the country and at school.” Classical music themes were ubiquitous on television shows and in the movies. Every junior high and high school in Detroit had its own orchestra; students were taken to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Young People’s concerts at the Masonic Temple and the Ford Auditorium. “We heard and we saw; the orchestra was massive to my young eyes,” he says. Striplin attended the prestigious Cass Technical High School and played in its orchestra with students who had had lessons since they were young. “I loved this music and knew I needed to find out how to play like that,” he says.
Since then, music education has been decimated, and classical music has disappeared from the public sphere. From 1962 to 1989, the percentage of high schools with orchestras fell from 67 percent to 17 percent, according to Billboard. Seventy-seven percent of schools polled in a University of Illinois study dropped piano instruction; 40 percent dropped string instruction. If a child’s home is not exposing him to classical music, he is likely not being exposed at all.
Today, blacks are not being pushed out of classical music; they are not being pushed in by their families at a rate necessary to compete. “Unless you start the violin at age seven, you won’t be auditioning for the New York Philharmonic when you’re 25,” says Emanuel Ax. And it is overwhelmingly Asian families who insist on such early discipline, placing the same emphasis on mastering an instrument (or two) as was once found in Jewish homes. Parents sacrifice for private lessons; the household stays quiet when a child is practicing.
Without home transmission, the best hope for creating more black classical musicians is to restore widespread music education. The antiracism advocates have said little about that imperative, however. It’s easier to extract racial quotas from compliant organizations than it is to engineer a change as profound as exposing students to a vanishing musical aesthetic. Packing off every opera and orchestra administrator to implicit bias training will not produce a single competitively qualified black musician. Nor will potential students be inclined to pick up the violin after learning that its repertoire belongs to a white supremacist tradition. But more power is to be gained by pushing the racism line than by pursuing the unlikely rebirth of public school music training. So the search has been on to find racial scapegoats.
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