This post is by way of a gentle introduction to Philip Ewell, an associate professor of music theory at City University of New York.
Dr Ewell has stirred up a storm in musicological circles with an allegation that classical music is fundamentally racist, skewed towards white and male dominance. It is quite fun and easy to pick holes in his arguments. The flaw in the following contention comes glaring in the last sentence. But we’ll hear more from Dr Ewell shortly in what are becoming known as the Schenker Wars.
Seats belts on, please.
“Master,” and its derivatives (masterwork, masterpiece, masterful), carries both racist (master/slave) and sexist (master/mistress) connotations. In music theory “masterwork” is generally applied to compositions by white males. But Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is no more a masterwork than Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells. 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. Beethoven occupies the place he does because he has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for two hundred years, and we have been told by whiteness and maleness that his greatness has nothing to do with whiteness and maleness, in race-neutral and gender-neutral fashion. Thus music theory’s white-male frame obfuscates race and gender, one of its main goals….
I wish to “challenge the selection of materials” in music theory’s white-male frame—I will offer some alternatives in “New Music Theory,” my next blog post. I also wish to break the citational chain in which whiteness begets whiteness and maleness begets maleness. And with respect to Beethoven, the problem is not with him or his Ninth Symphony. As a cellist I quite enjoy playing his music: symphonies, sonatas, quartets, trios. That will never change. What is problematic is what has happened with Beethoven and his music since his death in 1827. He (along with countless other white males) has been propped up by the white-male frame, both consciously and subconsciously, with descriptors such as genius, master, and masterwork. And, like Ahmed says, there is a citational chain in so citing this “master” that we end up where we are, such that there are those who would actually take issue with me saying the Ninth Symphony is no more a masterwork that Spalding’s 12 Little Spells simply because we are told by whiteness and maleness that this couldn’t be the case. Beethoven was undoubtedly an above-average composer and he deserves our attention. But to say he was anything more is to dismiss 99.9% of the world’s music written 200+ years ago, which would be unscholarly, and academically irresponsible.
Read the full essay here.