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Classical Music’s Suicide Pact (Part 2)

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Classical Music’s Suicide Pact (Part 2)

Succumbing to specious charges of racism, America’s orchestras, opera companies, and conductors are abandoning the Western canon. Summer 2021
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

Editor’s note: this story is part of City Journal’s Summer 2021 print issue and is being published online in two installments. Part 1 appeared last week.

Until August 2020, Dona Vaughn had been the longtime artistic director of opera at the Manhattan School of Music. Her experience included singing, acting, and directing on and off Broadway and on opera stages. The Manhattan School of Music’s 2019 production of Saverio Mercadante’s little-known opera buffa I Due Figaro showed her influence in some stunningly charismatic and witty student performances.

Vaughn was committed to championing minority musicians—so much so that she endowed a scholarship for them at her alma mater, Brevard College in North Carolina. “In all my years of teaching,” she said at the time, “I often have wished that more minority members were encouraged to pursue a music profession.” Besides the classics, she produced socially conscious contemporary works, giving the first professional staging, for example, at the Fort Worth Opera Festival of a feminist opera about a seventeenth-century nun.

The mob cares nothing for facts, though. On June 17, 2020, Vaughn was teaching a class on performing musical theater to high school students via Zoom. An unidentified participant, whose name and image were blacked out (very likely a plant), asked her, out of the blue, how she could justify having produced Franz Lehár’s allegedly racist (in this case, allegedly anti-Asian) operetta Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles) several years earlier. Vaughn cut the questioner off for raising an issue irrelevant to the current discussion.

The fuse was lit. A Manhattan School of Music student petition was immediately forthcoming. Vaughn must be fired because she is a “danger to the arts community,” it thundered. The petition resurrected a meme from the time of the Lehár production—that Vaughn had cast a black singer as a butler character, thus proving her racism. A rule banning blacks from playing servant characters would put off-limits some of the most essential roles in the repertoire, including Leporello in Don Giovanni, and Figaro and Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro (the latter of which Kathleen Battle knocked out of the park). For good measure, the petition threw in unspecified “reports” of “homophobic aggression and body shaming.” The petition quickly garnered 1,800 signatures. Phony Instagram accounts under Vaughn’s name suddenly appeared on the Web, containing fake inflammatory material.

Vaughn’s colleagues, cowering from the mob, let her twist in the wind. Almost none came to her defense. Vaughn was fired, and replaced by a black male.

The Manhattan School of Music administration apparently made no effort to speak with Vaughn’s former students, who would have rebutted the false charges against her. Howard Watkins is an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and a faculty member at Juilliard; he has accompanied world-famous singers and conducted at some of the most prestigious venues in the industry. In a heartfelt character reference after she had been fired, he chronicled his history with Vaughn. In 1988, he was enrolled in the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera. Vaughn was the program’s stage director and acting coach. Vaughn was responsible for many of his greatest experiences there, Watkins wrote. “Her classes provided all of us with specific tools towards improving our artistic growth and understanding. . . . It is tremendously sad that the students of Manhattan School have been deprived of the opportunity of learning from someone with vast knowledge, the passionate desire to see them succeed, and the integrity to say what must be said for them to grow.” As for the homophobia charge, Watkins’s “interracial relationship” with his male domestic partner “has clearly never been the slightest concern to her whatsoever,” nor would it even occur to her to “cast according to race or sexual orientation.”

Bass-baritone LaMarcus Miller worked in Vaughn’s Opera Workshop and Opera Lab at the Manhattan School of Music in the early 2010s. She was a “pillar of integrity” and the “epitome of a mentor,” he says. “I’ve only seen her be tremendously inclusive, while holding students accountable for their actions.”

Days after the firing, the anonymous petition instigator posted a follow-up: “Victory! Dona D. Vaughn has been removed from her position at MSM. Thank you to everyone who supported this petition. The work is never over and I hope you all feel strengthened by this victory.” The hope is well-founded; on to the next takedown.

As for Vaughn, she’s “still in total shock,” she says. “I do not have words to describe it. It’s guilt by allegation.”

Another academic is hanging on for professional life. Timothy Jackson is a music theory professor at the University of North Texas, the director of the Center for Schenkerian Studies, and the editor and founding member of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies. After Philip Ewell launched his race-based attack on Schenkerian music theory in November 2019, Jackson put out a call to members of the Society for Music Theory (including to Ewell) to submit a response. The majority of essays, published in the July 2020 Journal of Schenkerian Studies, were critical—some timidly, others more forthrightly; five were supportive. Few stated the obvious: that to equate tonal hierarchies with racial hierarchies is lunatic.

Like most practitioners of High Theory since deconstruction, Ewell is blinded by the similarity of words while ignoring their contextual meaning. A hierarchy of keys and of harmonies within those keys is constitutive of Western tonal music and of some non-Western music as well. It has nothing to do with alleged racial hierarchy. Ewell’s position means that tonal music is itself racist. Every composer writing in a tonal idiom, including composers of color, would be engaged in a racist enterprise. So would be anyone in any field of activity that recognizes dominant and subdominant elements—whether art analysis, evolutionary biology, chemistry, or engineering. Distinctions between gravitational, nuclear, and electromagnetic forces would render our very universe a site of cosmic racism.

Of course, the rhetorical slippery slope holds no terrors for Ewell. Sweeping other fields into the “white racial frame” would not cause him to rethink his argument; there can never be too many examples of white supremacy.

Jackson’s response focused on Ewell’s denunciations of Schenker as a proto-Nazi. Ewell had failed to mention Schenker’s outsider status as an Austrian Jew or his widow’s death in a concentration camp. Ewell’s silence on these matters, Jackson wrote, may be related to black anti-Semitism, which was once again in evidence in a spate of attacks on elderly Jews in New York. Ewell has called for more rap repertoire in music curricula. Before acceding to that demand, music departments should grapple with rap’s anti-Semitism and misogyny, Jackson advised. The underrepresentation of blacks in music theory is due to the fact that few blacks “grow up in homes where classical music is profoundly valued,” Jackson concluded, before issuing a call to demolish “institutionalized racist barriers.”

This attempted self-inoculation failed. The Executive Board of the Society for Music Theory and music theory students and professors nationally denounced him for “replicating a culture of whiteness,” in the words of the Society for Music Theory Executive Board. Jackson’s colleagues at the University of North Texas blasted him for publishing a symposium “replete with racial stereotyping and tropes.” Ewell’s own racial stereotyping was taken as simple truth.

Jackson must be fired for his history of “particularly racist and unacceptable” actions, according to the graduate students. Jackson was also accused of breaching scholarly norms in publishing the symposium; those charges were tendentious.

If Jackson made a mistake, it was to refute Ewell’s thesis on irrelevant biographical grounds and to deploy Ewell’s own ad hominem method against Ewell himself. Instead, he should have refused to get involved in the parsing of Schenker’s German nationalism and focused on the absurdity of the harmony-race analogy itself.

In December, Jackson was removed from his editorship of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies. The chair of Jackson’s department informed him that the university was ceasing its financial and institutional support for the journal and for the Center for Schenkerian Studies. Jackson is suing the university and the university’s regents for violating his First Amendment rights. Whatever the legal outcome, he will remain a pariah among colleagues and students.

The classical music canon is inseparable from European culture. (BRIDGEMAN IMAGES)

The biggest victim in the racial attack on classical music is the music itself. Once the poison of identity politics is injected into a field, it can never recover its prelapsarian innocence. Every time an industry insider or critic disparages our greatest composers for being too white and too male, he gives neophytes, especially young people, another reason to close their ears to this legacy. At a Peabody Institute conference in February 2021, the League of American Orchestras’ Simon Woods voiced his dread at seeing the “whiteness” on the stage and in the audience, once concerts resume. This is professional malpractice: the irrelevant lens of race will drive desperately needed new audiences out of, not into, the concert hall.

Seeking to make classical music politically acceptable, orchestras and conservatories are resurrecting lesser-known black composers from the past. (Other black composers, such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and William Grant Still, have been played, at least on radio stations, for decades now, and rightly so.) This enterprise would ordinarily call for celebration. The canon is being repeated to death. The more music we know, the greater our understanding of what it has meant to be human. And rediscovering black contributions to classical music is particularly meaningful. But the stated rationale for this resuscitation destroys its value. Every past composer now being presented on radio stations and in concert halls is said to have disappeared from public attention because of racism. That claim is, in many instances, fanciful.

Perhaps 98 percent of all composers in the classical tradition are not listened to or even recognized today. Those forgotten artists were almost all white males. It is the sad fate of most composers to recede into obscurity, if they were even lucky enough to have had their music performed during their lifetime. To charge history with racism for having allowed black composers as well to have fallen into obscurity requires proof of overwhelming merit strong enough to overcome the usual oblivion meted out to everyone else. That high burden of proof is not always met.

The composers enjoying the greatest prominence at the moment are Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–99), and Florence Price (1887–1953). The hyperbole surrounding their works is astonishing.

Bologne was the son of a Guadeloupe plantation owner and a slave; Joseph spent most of his life in Parisian court society. Throughout his twenties, he enjoyed an annuity from his father’s estate, but he has not been canceled for having profited from slave labor.

Bologne is commonly referred to today as the “black Mozart.” That comparison is laughable enough in its own right. Bologne is fluent in the Classical style, with a pleasing capacity for forward momentum. His works are recognizable on the radio for their simple construction. They possess none of the melodic gift and emotional depths that have led the world’s greatest composers to bow down before Mozart in dazed and loving gratitude.

But the “black Mozart” label is insufficiently hagiographic. It is Mozart who should be called the “White Chevalier,” says Bill Barclay, a playwright-composer. This is preposterous. If Bologne were white, his oeuvre would remain marginal. Other contemporaries of Mozart, such as Antonio Rosetti, Joseph Martin Kraus, and Josef Mysliveček, deserve revival before Bologne. It was not Bologne’s mixed-race status that consigned him to the same fate as nearly all his white colleagues, but his banality.

Florence Price has a major advantage over Bologne: she is of mixed ancestry and female, and thus intersectional. Price is most frequently compared with Dvořák. This, too, is overblown, though her American vernacular style drew inspiration from the Czech composer, especially in its use of black spirituals. The Symphony No. 3 in C minor (from 1940), considered her masterwork, starts promisingly, with eerie, shifting chords emanating from the brass. There are moments of boisterous exaltation—above all, in one of her signature African “juba” dances in the third movement—that incorporate early jazz harmonies. But the work is thematically inert and repetitive; its melodies, truncated. Frequent climaxes are generated artificially through cymbal clashes. Indeed, Price’s cymbal scoring makes Tchaikovsky’s fondness for the instrument look ascetic.

An influential pedagogue calls Price’s harmony, rhythm, and materials “fourth-rate.” Long before the current Price boom, a prominent conductor searched for a piece he could, in good conscience, program. He couldn’t find one, though he has happily conducted the works of other black composers, such as William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, and Alvin Singleton.

“Once the poison of identity politics is injected into a field, it can never recover its prelapsarian innocence.”

Sometimes the challenge proves too much even for the most willing boosters. The Financial Times, reviewing a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert from November 2020, admitted that Price’s String Quartet in G was “slight.” Not to worry, said the paper, it is “none the worse for that.”

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered Price’s First Symphony in 1933; it was favorably reviewed in the Chicago Daily News as “worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory.” The WPA Orchestra of Detroit and several women’s orchestras played her compositions. If her works failed to find that lasting “place” in the repertory, it was not because of a racial lockout. Ironically, the critics who champion Price now are ordinarily fierce advocates of the avant-garde. In Price, however, they elevate an aesthetically conservative style that would hold little interest for them if practiced by a white male.

The hype being ladled onto recently revived black composers is not innocuous. The inflation is in the service of accusation and resentment. By blurring real distinctions in musical value, the hypers make it harder for new listeners to learn what makes this tradition monumental. Someone ignorant of classical music should not be told that there is no difference between Beethoven and Esperanza Spalding, between Dvořák and Florence Price. A newcomer should start with the peaks, not the shallows. The wild applause that breaks out after a Price performance is due to its current political significance, not to its musical merits. Her works and those of other lesser-known composers deserve a grateful hearing. But the rapturous praise risks seeming condescending. Meantime, works of more likely interest, such as operas by William Grant Still, remain a tantalizing mystery.

As the lies about classical music accumulate, not one conductor, soloist, or concertmaster has rebutted them. These influential performers know that Beethoven’s late piano sonatas and quartets are not about race but about pushing beyond ordinary human experience into an unexplored universe of unsettling silences and space. They know that Schubert’s song cycles are not about race but about yearning, disappointment, and fleeting joy. They know that the Saint Matthew Passion is not about race but about crushing sorrow that cries out in pain before finally finding consolation. To reduce everything in human experience to the ever more tedious theme of alleged racial oppression is narcissism. This music is not about you or me. It is about something grander than our narrow, petty selves. But narcissism, the signal characteristic of our time, is shrinking our cultural inheritance to a nullity.

These musical leaders are silent, though their knowledge has led them deep into that greatest of all human dramas: the evolution of expressive style. They can trace how the erotic languor of Chopin’s nocturnes and concerti became even more potent in Brahms’s and Rachmaninoff’s piano works. They know that even one composer, not even in the first tier of name recognition, in this kaleidoscopic tradition—whether Smetana, Sibelius, or Granados—contains more expressive depth than any individual can possibly fathom in a lifetime. These successful musicians have felt the terrifying anticipation—a moment without parallel in the repertoire—as a pianist sits quietly in front of the orchestral beast at the start of one of the great romantic concerti as waves of sound pour over him, or as he issues his own challenge first, whether a thunderclap or a whisper, and is answered in turn. The leaders have experienced this, and yet they say nothing.

Their silence breeds such inanities as Alex Ross’s chastising the alleged racism of The Magic Flute’s Monostatos. The complaint is stunningly trivial when measured against the majesty of Mozart’s output. More important, it overlooks the conventional nature of dramatic expression. Monostatos is no more a serious portrait of a Muslim than Papageno is a serious portrait of a bird catcher. Both exist within the realm of comic tropes. If we are looking to take racial offense at libretti that Mozart did not even write, we could also complain about bumbling, manipulated, or hysterical whites, whether Count Almaviva, Donna Elvira, Masetto, Leporello, or Elettra. But every iteration of such a childish accusation serves as another excuse for the uninitiated to keep their ears shut.

The charges of class bias are just as specious. To be sure, many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century composers had court patrons—and we should thank those nobles for underwriting such musical treasure, however capricious their will and taste. Opera seria legitimated absolute rule while also trying to nudge its royal attendees closer to Enlightenment ideals of tolerance and justice. The Classical style is infused with nobility and grandeur; the French Baroque, with the formality of Versailles. So what? With the arguable exception of opera seria, music written for wealthy patrons—whether Telemann’s Tafelmusik or Haydn’s symphonies—is not about class but about the abstract logic of musical expression. Western classical music has at times emerged from or elicited political passions. But those passions were usually associated with nationalist movements against monarchical regimes, exemplified by the frenzy that broke out in Pest in response to Berlioz’s orchestration of the anti-Hapsburg “Rákóczi March.” Most canonical composers were at odds, quietly or vociferously, with their respective governments.

The present-day scourges impugn concert protocols as a classist means of excluding a “diverse” audience. But it was the bearers of inherited privilege during the ancien régime who treated music as a mere backdrop to be gambled and flirted through. The nonaristocratic classes started attending to music with silent devotion, as it became ever more complex and demanding. Timothy Jackson’s maternal and paternal grandparents, impoverished refugees from Central and Eastern Europe, bought his mother and his father a cheap violin and a dilapidated piano, respectively, during the Great Depression and scraped together enough money to pay for lessons. His working-class parents had done hard menial labor all their lives, but they heard classical music as a “call from another world, divine, mysteriously exalted, pointing to a higher plane of existence,” he wrote in his article for the Schenker symposium.

Today’s warriors against “classism” would presumably accuse José Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan socialist economist, of being an unwitting tool of white “patriarchal power,” in the words of the BBC Magazine. Abreu founded El Sistema, a program of free classical music training for barrio children in Caracas, in the belief that playing Bach, Schubert, and Brahms would help deliver them from poverty and crime into a higher and better world. El Sistema, Abreu said in 2008, was meant to “reveal to our children the beauty of music [so that] music shall reveal to our children the beauty of life.” Philip Ewell can sneer at Beethoven as, at best, “above average.” The BBC Magazine can snark that the formula for musical “greatness” only appears to be “wild hair + cantankerousness + 32 sonatas” but is, in fact, a “manufactured quality” bestowed by classical music industries in order to “sell scores of ‘greatness’ to as many people as possible.” The graduates of El Sistema know better, including its most famous product, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Dudamel said of Beethoven during a live HD concert broadcast in 2011: “He is not just the reference point of classical music; he is the master of us all.” The Seventh Symphony is “happiness. It’s the only word that I find perfect for this music.”

Though the keepers of our tradition know that classical music is a priceless inheritance, fear paralyzes them as that legacy goes down. Among the leaders contacted for this article were conductors Daniel Barenboim, Dudamel himself, Riccardo Muti, Franz Welser-Möst, Valery Gergiev, Gianandrea Noseda, Charles Dutoit, James Conlon, Neeme Järvi, and Masaaki Suzuki; pianists András Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, Lang Lang, Evgeny Kissin, and Richard Goode; singers Anna Netrebko, James Morris, and Angel Blue; and composers John Harbison and Wynton Marsalis. All either declined to comment or ignored the query.

Company managers were just as tight-lipped. The Met’s Peter Gelb refused an interview; the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Matías Tarnopolsky, Jonathan Martin of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and Jeff Alexander of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were also unwilling to speak. Simon Woods’s assistant said that he was caught up in moving to New Jersey and thus unavailable. (A source said that he had been in New Jersey for months already.)

Those music professionals who did speak to me, with few exceptions, required that they be referred to in so generalized a category that it would contain thousands of members. A former household name in classical music gave an anodyne interview, with one brief exception: an anecdote undercutting a black conductor’s unchallenged reputation. A day later, his wife wrote me: “We have just been informed that an interview has taken place between yourself and [former household name]. We request that you delete any comments made by [the name]. While we appreciate your enthusiasm for your project, we must decline from [sic] any involvement, on or off the record.”

Perhaps some of the star musicians who refused comment think that the racial assault on classical music is not worth taking seriously. Emanuel Ax, who did go on the record, laughed good-naturedly when told of Ewell’s Beethoven evaluation. “That is a wonderful quote,” he said. “This movement is not a danger to anyone.” Ax is wrong. The syllabi in literature departments today, compared with those from 40 years ago, show the devastation that the unopposed march of identity politics wreaks on the transmission of greatness.

Other music professionals understand the danger. One educator warns: “If conservatories start admitting by race and ethnicity, close them down. As soon as standards are modified, the game is over. Mediocrity is like carbon monoxide: you can’t see it or smell it, but one day, you’re dead.” Woke music administrators are relativizing excellence as a malleable white Western concept. Mention “quality” in a meeting of performing arts managers, and you may be accused of “sending the wrong message.” The music educator scoffs at that dodge. “We should face the facts. Excellence is easily identified. There are hundreds of thousands of composers; the world knows 100. Conservatories audition student conductors for 15 minutes, but you can detect their caliber in the first 10 seconds.” Some Juilliard professors have taken early retirement rather than risk conflict with the identity-obsessed mob. The striving for excellence is now secondary, says Earl Carlyss. “It is terrifying when politics takes precedence over quality.”

Conventions of scholarship are under attack as well. The distinguishing feature of Western classical music, which allowed an unparalleled transformation of style over seven centuries, is that it is written down, unlike other world musics. Notation allows us, miraculously, to hear what people were playing in the fifteenth century. But music departments are under pressure to eliminate the requirement that students can read scores, since such a requirement is purportedly exclusionary. Antiracist musicologists are jettisoning even more basic norms: source documentation. New York University musicologist Matthew Morrison scoffs at “Western (colonial) notions of ‘documentation,’ ” as he put it in a November 2020 tweet. In his study of black people, he doesn’t “put everything on paper. Some stuff is meant to be kept and transferred orally (and ritually).” In other words, ask Morrison for his written sources, and you may be accused of racism. It is a “colonial impulse” to “desire to . . . have access to everything,” Morrison warns fellow academics and potential fact-checkers.

Morrison is no fringe character. He has held fellowships at Harvard, King’s College London, the American Musicological Society, the Mellon Foundation, the Library of Congress, and the Tanglewood Music Center. He serves as editor-in-chief of Current Musicology. And he represents the future.

The betrayal of the music guardians is not unique. Other individuals entrusted with preserving Western civilization are abdicating their responsibility, too, either actively colluding with the forces of hate or passively allowing those forces to conquer their field. In June 2020, the chief curator of European painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Keith Christiansen, posted: “How many great works of art have been lost to the desire to rid ourselves of a past we don’t approve.” Met staffers accused Christiansen of systemic racism. Met director Max Hollein didn’t just let Christiansen twist in the wind; Hollein stabbed him in the back, reports Philanthropy. Christiansen’s post was “not only not appropriate and misguided in its judgment but simply wrong,” wrote Hollein.

The National Archives and Records Administration, founded to preserve the country’s historical records, declared itself guilty of systemic racism in April 2021. The Archivist’s Task Force on Racism, which produced the April report, denounced the Capitol Rotunda for lauding the “wealthy White men” who participated in the nation’s founding while “marginalizing BIPOC, women, and other communities.” Task force members included the directors of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

The Baltimore Museum of Art’s Christopher Bedford is the embodiment of the woke museum director. Calling himself an “architect of change,” he uses his collection as a way to signal his own racial virtue. Bedford has been on a deaccessioning craze to rid the museum of dead white male artists (modernists and postmodernists all), in order to buy female and minority artists. Two board members resigned. “I watched people . . . abrogate all stewardship that they are supposed to follow as a museum trustee,” said Stiles Colwill, a former chair of the museum’s board of trustees. “Preserve and protect your collection: That is your first mandate.”

So far, no one in the classical music field has shown similar principle.

Classics professors have been mute before calls to eliminate their entire field if it cannot be purged of its alleged racism and misogyny. Every humanities subject is being hollowed out with similar charges. Under the logic of the current moment, any tradition that comes out of Europe is racist because its contributors will have been overwhelmingly white. It matters not that the demographics of Europe until the last 50 years made that racial composition inevitable. Balinese gamelan music, the Chinese opera, Indian classical music, and the Nigerian talking drum have been as racially monolithic, without falling afoul of the diversity monitors. Only Western civilization is under attack for its traditional racial homogeneity.

The poisoning of classical music is heartbreaking enough. But unless more people fight back against the race war and defend our inheritance, we are going to cancel both a country and a culture.

Read Part 1

Top Photo: A-Digit/iStock

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Classical Music’s Suicide Pact (Part 1)

Succumbing to specious charges of racism, America’s orchestras, opera companies, and conductors are abandoning the Western canon. Heather Mac Donald Arts and Culture, The Social Order

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