Martin Luther King, Jr., in his book “Stride Toward Freedom,” wrote, “On a cool Saturday afternoon in January 1954, I set out to drive from Atlanta, Georgia, to Montgomery, Alabama. . . . The Metropolitan Opera was on the radio with a performance of one of my favorite operas—Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor.’ So with the beauty of the countryside, the inspiration of Donizetti’s inimitable music, and the splendor of the skies, the usual monotony that accompanies a relatively long drive—especially when one is alone—was dispelled in pleasant diversions.”

What does it mean, if anything, that King was listening to bel-canto opera as he made his historic journey to preach his first sermon at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church? One response would be to find something curious, or even contradictory, in the image of King enjoying Donizetti behind the wheel of his car. He was poised to become a titan in the civil-rights movement; classical music is a world in which Black people have seldom been allowed to play a leading role. Much the same question could be asked about W. E. B. Du Bois, who admired the music of Richard Wagner to such an extent that he attended the Bayreuth Festival, in 1936. Even though Wagner was notoriously racist, Du Bois said, “The musical dramas of Wagner tell of human life as he lived it, and no human being, white or black, can afford not to know them, if he would know life.”

Several scholars have conjectured that King was sending a cultural signal when he inserted Donizetti into “Stride Toward Freedom.” Jonathan Rieder says that the story demonstrates “King’s desire to cast himself as a man of sensibility and distinction.” Godfrey Hodgson writes that such references were intended to “reassure northern intellectuals that he was on the same wavelength as they were.” Du Bois’s cosmopolitan tastes have elicited similar commentary. It is questionable, though, to assume that these two formidable personalities were simply trying to assimilate themselves to a perceived white aesthetic. Rather, they were taking possession of the European inheritance and pulling it into their own sphere. More elementally, they loved the music, and had no need to justify their taste.

It is equally questionable to assume that King’s and Du Bois’s fondness for classical music lends it some kind of universal, anti-racist virtue. In that sense, my attraction to these anecdotes of fandom is suspect. I am a white American who grew up with the classics, and I am troubled by the presumption that they are stamped with whiteness—and are even aligned with white supremacy, as some scholars have lately argued. I cannot counter that suggestion simply by gesturing toward important Black figures who cherished this same tradition, or by reeling off the names of Black singers and composers. The exceptions remain exceptions. This world is blindingly white, both in its history and its present.

Since nationwide protests over police violence erupted, in May and June, American culture has been engaged in an examination, however nominal, of its relationship with racism. Such an examination is sorely needed in classical music, because of its extreme dependence on a problematic past. The undertaking is complex; the field must acknowledge a history of systemic racism while also honoring the individual experiences of Black composers, musicians, and listeners. Black people have long been marginalized, but they have never been outsiders.

This spring, the journal Music Theory Online published “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” an article by Philip Ewell, who teaches at Hunter College. It begins with the sentence “Music theory is white,” and goes on to argue that the whiteness of the discipline is manifest not only in the lack of diversity in its membership but also in a deep-seated ideology of white supremacy, one that insidiously affects how music is analyzed and taught. The main target of Ewell’s critique is the early-twentieth-century Austrian theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935), who parsed musical structures in terms of foreground, middle-ground, and background levels, teasing out the tonal formulas that underpin large-scale movements. Schenker held racist views, particularly with regard to Black people, and according to Ewell those views seeped into the seemingly abstract principles of his theoretical work.

Schenker was Jewish, but his adherence to doctrines of Germanic superiority blinkered him to such an extent that, in 1933, he praised Hitler, adding, “If only a man were born to music, who would finally exterminate the musical Marxists.” Schenker’s advocates have long been aware of his disturbing views but have insisted that his bigoted rhetoric has nothing to do with his theoretical writing. Ewell argued that Schenker’s system is, in fact, founded on national and racial hierarchies. Reverence for the kind of supreme talent who can assemble monumental musical structures shades into biological definitions of genius, and the biology of genius spills over into the biology of race. Ewell concluded, “There can be no question that for Schenker, the concept of ‘genius’ was associated with whiteness to some degree.”

Shortly after Ewell’s article was published, a skirmish broke out in the music-theory community, incited not by the article itself but by a twenty-minute condensed version of the material that Ewell had presented at a conference seven months earlier. The Journal of Schenkerian Studies, which is based at the University of North Texas, chose to devote ninety pages to responses to that brief talk. Some were supportive, others dismissive; one accused Ewell, who is African-American, of exhibiting “Black anti-Semitism,” even though Ewell had not mentioned Schenker’s Jewishness. On social media, Ewell’s colleagues came to his defense and questioned the journal’s methodology. The historian Kira Thurman wrote, “Did the Journal of Schenkerian Studies really publish a response to Professor Ewell’s scholarship that was ‘anonymous’? Yes.” National Review and Fox News somehow stumbled on the episode and cast it as so-called cancel culture run amok; it was claimed that Ewell was trying to ban Beethoven, although nothing of the sort had been suggested.

At first glance, the Schenker debate looks to be of limited relevance to the wider classical-music world, not to mention the general population. Although his theories have been taught in American universities for generations, they are by no means universally accepted. German-speaking musicologists, for example, have never taken him as seriously. Even in the U.S., conservatory students can often undergo a thorough training without encountering his work. Yet the case of Schenker illustrates an implicit prejudice that is endemic in the teaching, playing, and interpretation of classical music. His method is far from unique in elevating the European tradition while concealing its cultural bias behind eternal, abstract principles. What Ewell calls “the white racial frame”—he takes the term from the sociologist Joe Feagin—has the special power of being invisible. Thurman, in her paper “Performing Lieder, Hearing Race,” makes a similar point: “Classical music, like whiteness itself, is frequently racially unmarked and presented as universal—until people of color start performing it.”

The hysterical complaints that Ewell was proposing to “cancel” the classical canon stemmed mainly from a blog post in which he called Beethoven an “above-average composer” who has been “propped up by the white-male frame, both consciously and subconsciously, with descriptors such as genius, master, and masterwork.” This is a provocation, though it is hardly the first to have been lobbed at the great man: Debussy wrote that Beethoven’s sonatas were badly written for the piano, and Ned Rorem memorably dinged the Ninth Symphony as “the first piece of junk in the grand style.” Ewell provokes with a higher purpose: he is goading a classical culture that awards the vast majority of performances to a tight circle of superstars, shutting out female and nonwhite composers who, until the mid-twentieth century, had little chance of making a career. In some ways, that Valhalla mentality is as entrenched as ever.



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