Beethoven was an above average composer, promoted by whiteness and maleness

Beethoven was an above average composer, promoted by whiteness and maleness


norman lebrecht

July 31, 2020

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.



  • Nigel Goldberg says:

    Oh dear, the times we live in !

  • christopher storey says:

    What a load of racist, sexist drivel

  • M McAlpine says:

    Well these guys have to write some sort of pseudo-academic tosh to keep in employment. Whether it is worth reproducing on SD to insult everyone’s intelligence is a matter of debate.

  • annon says:

    Saul Bellow: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be happy to read them.”

    Who is the Beethoven of Botswana? The Mozart of Mozambique? I’d be happy to listen to them.

    You can erase Beethoven… but then you have no one to replace him with.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That the Papuans did not produce a Proust, is not because they don’t have the talents or lack a Duchesse de Guermantes, but because of natural circumstances (all of them not under their control) which prevented them from developing a culture which could produce such works. To bring such groups into such silly equasion, is racist.

      • Nick says:

        Borstlap, when a group of Homo sapiens does not produce a Proust for more than 75.000 years it can be safely stated that this particular group is incapable to produce a Proust, mentally and culturally incapable. And there is nothing racist about it. I am pretty sure Proust could not dance the way Papuans do. But we do not hold this against Proust. We do not hold it against Papuans that they are incapable to produce Proust because production of Proust takes a different level of the human development. And this has nothing to do with circumstances or climate change.

        • Jack says:

          Proust also couldn’t play Rugby League the way the Papuans do. He would be crushed.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Nick, let me offer you some useful information.

          It took some 74.900 years for the Europeans to produce a Proust, and Evolution had even more difficulties with producing ME because that took even longer.

          All civilisations which crossed the treshold of language formation and notation, arithmetics, artistic complexities, etc. emerged somewhere within the subtropic zone. And there must have been reasons why early humans journeyed from central Africa, where we first emerged from enthusiastic apes, to milder climates. Obviously they thought that the development of maths etc. needed some cool.

          We know from the Amazon jungle tribe of Pirahas how natural circumstances define the adaptation and specialization, and thus: development, of homo sapiens (‘Don’t sleep, there are snakes’, by anthropologist Daniel Everett, 2008). The Pirahas, an entirely sympathetic tribe, organising their society along almost communist lines – which stabilises their group – cannot count over 5 (they have: one, two, three, four, five and many), they speak a simple language in short sentences, don’t make art, don’t believe in gods, but are perfectly adapted to their environment of which they form an organic part. And all of that cannot be considered human flaws, thinking of the Amazon.

        • Le Křenek du jour says:

          That straw man is aflame.

          I posit that your anthropological knowledge of cultures such as those of PNG is woefully incomplete, not to say flawed.
          For one thing, you seem either to discount or outright to ignore the complex oral literatures of such cultures. Our script-minded civilisation would be hard-pressed to reminisce a fraction of the complex lays memorized by these people.

          Need I remind you that the great epic cycles of our hemisphere, be they Gilgamesh, the Homeric epics, the Heimskringla or the Mabinogion, all started out as oral traditions, many centuries before they could be fixated in writing?

          One final point of order: if Marcel Proust had been forced to live in the ecological niche which the natives of Papua have carved out for themselves, and where they not only survive, but thrive, he would not have lasted half a day.
          Your argument could be nicely turned on its head : it takes an altogether higher mental and cultural level to thrive under the conditions the Papua peoples find themselves in, and still produce a rich oral literature.

          So it all comes down to a judgement of value, one that is necessarily the result of one’s cultural conditioning.
          In plain speech: prejudice.

          The appalling idiocy of the Philip Ewells and assorted SJW of this benighted age does not validate your prejudice.

        • Lu says:

          Mr. Borstlap will be the first to defend the intrinsic value of Western high culture if it’s the right occasion, as all frequent visitors to this blog will testify. But this is not one of those occasions: Beethoven’s greatness and his universalism don’t depend on demeaning non-Western cultures, just like the intrinsic values of non-Western cultures don’t depend on demeaning Beethoven.

          And speaking of 75000 years: neither Beethoven nor any of the Zulu composers comes from a culture as long as 75000 years. Beethoven’s Germany didn’t assume its identity until the 1500s. Even Minoan civilization only appeared around 5000 years ago, so your timeline is completely irrelevant. Recent archaeology determines that the first evidence of hominin creativity, the use of stone tools, emerged around 3.5 million years ago. From this perspective, Beethoven and Tolstoy, whom you, Nick”, disrespectfully uses as straw-man for the silly argument, are extremely recent phenomenon.

          • John Borstlap says:

            I know, irony is difficult. it took 2,7 million of years to develop, according to Assyrian tablets.

        • Doofus1714 says:

          Dear Nick,
          It speaks to the level of people who read/comment is in this blog that there are more thumbs-up than down to your comment
          I certainly dont agree with the scholar’s point that Beethoven is mediocre, but to imply what you did about Papuans is ignorant and in fact racist. Gross.

    • Nick says:

      Sure, I have, Annon.
      With This idiot Ewell.

    • Grittenhouse says:

      Schubert, Schumann, Dussek, Berlioz…

  • Peter B says:

    It’s easy to ridiculize him, of course, and some of his reasoning is circular and/or absurd and/or irrelevant, but he actually makes some good points. And he doesn’t even have to point to whiteness to do that. Of course the “citational chain”, in which theorists refer to each other and dong that keep their own frame dominant, is a problem in humanities. Pierre Bourdieu wrote about that “circle of mutual admiration” decades ago.

    Also, refering to the passage you quote, he is absolutely right that, from a scholarly point of view, calling Beethoven a “genius” is silly. That’s the language of fans or overheated critics, and if scholars still use it, it only proves that essayism is still mistaken for scholarship in the humanities (not exluding Dr. Ewell’s circle of mutual admiration). Scholarship is not about constructing hitparades.

    What you can study rigorously for instance, is Beethoven’s technique, and how he broke the rules. What you can study a bit less rigorously, is his influence (influence being a notoriously hazy concept). But you cannot by any serious scientific method come to conclude that Beethoven is “the greatest” or “a genius”.

    What you should do, as a scholar, is start looking for neglected musicians, and analyze their work. Of course you should. How can you possibly argue that it’s ok to simply not study a part of your field. Biologists don’t say “let’s stick to mammals”. Biologists are excited when the find a new species. Musicologists still think there’s a desperate need for study n° 635,298 about a horse.

    • M McAlpine says:

      Yeah OK and you can’t by the same process say that Einstein was a genius either or that Michelangelo was a genius. Thankfully, most people go beyond pigmy reasoning and carping nit-picking and just use common sense.

      • David says:

        Thank you Peter, I entire agree with your attitude towards scholarship and you illustrate your point clearly and fairly. Hopefully others here will swallow their emotional reaction for 1 second and try to read your post.

        M McAlpine, there are many facets of human capacity and culture that contribute to the well-being of human life. “Common sense” maybe useful in some occasions but so are scholarships and vigorous studies that have built the foundation of our modern technological life. You are free to believe Einstein and Michelangelo are geniuses, but that does not eradicate the supreme value of research founded on scientific method.

        However, you are free to critique Ewell’s method, and whether he is being scholarly enough. That would be a constructive discussion for all, and an opportunity for you and the rest of us to learn.

      • Larry W says:

        M McAlpine, interesting choice of words in this context. Whether referring to African or dwarfish people, “pigmy” is disparaging and offensive. Incredibly, at least 6 people like your comment.

        • John R. says:

          The term pygmy is not a pejorative or even a slang term. It is the proper name of an ethnic group. You’re spelling it incorrectly….it’s not pigmy….. so maybe that’s how you’ve arrived at the conclusion that it’s a slur?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Now, for the sake of clean thinking about B’s achievements and their fate in the modern world, let us have a look at this comment, which – I think – is representative of a wide-spread mindset.

      “Of course the “citational chain”, in which theorists refer to each other and dong that keep their own frame dominant, is a problem in humanities. Pierre Bourdieu wrote about that “circle of mutual admiration” decades ago.”

      Analyses, commentaries, theories and opinions which have proven to convey meaningful insights into works of art, leading to a better understanding, indeed form a chain of citations, and for the reason that they created a basis for further development and/or variation. Such is the normal development of science and of culture, so this is a normal procedure in the humanities. Bourdieu was a fool who confused exploitation of art by the leading bourgeois elite of any period with the artistic culture itself, thereby drawing cultural achievement into the mud of his own thinking. Of course marxist people suffering from cultural illiteracy embraced such nonsense wholeheartedly. So, better not citate Bourdieu if one wants to criticize the citational chain.

      “…….from a scholarly point of view, calling Beethoven a “genius” is silly.”

      In serious. normal scholarship the term ‘genius’ is rarely used in the sense of fan enthusiasm. Where it props-up, it is as an explanation of the term, which stems from Antiquity when people believed that the incomprehensible qualities of great cultural achievement must come from some super-natural entity, as Plato imagined it to be a naked and winged beautiful ephebe, whispering the essence of the work into the spiritual ear of the artist. Given the rarity of the qualities of an artist like Beethoven, the idea that such people have a perception superior to ‘normal’ people is entirely acceptable. In 19C helplessness of explanation, it became a fig leaf but that does not diminish its original meaning.

      “What you can study rigorously for instance, is Beethoven’s technique, and how he broke the rules.”

      Beethoven studies concern temselves with a bit more than looking into technique and how he ‘broke the rules’. For instance, it has been shown that he re-established them in a different way and often on a bigger scale. He manipulated rules but never ‘broke’ them. Where he deviated from the ‘normal practice’ of his time, he subjected the deviation to his own version of ‘rule’ and thus made them musically meaningful and expressive. The dynamics of his musical logic are the same as those of Bach, Mozart, etc.

      “But you cannot by any serious scientific method come to conclude that Beethoven is “the greatest” or “a genius”.”

      There is no serious musicologist who would come-up with such naive conclusion. B’s greatness belongs to a category within which distinctions of ‘greatness’ are meaningless, and of course every serious musicologist knows all too well that B is simply part of a category which includes so many great artists. That does not diminish B’s greatness but indicates what he shared with others.

      “What you should do, as a scholar, is start looking for neglected musicians, and analyze their work.”

      Musicians? Surely meant is: composers. But that is happening all the time. And, as can be heard on YouTube, often such composers are dug-up and performed and offer surprises, something ensembles like the Koelner Akademie constantly do, and with success. The music hardly ever is comparable with the top composers but that is irrelevant, the mountain tops rest on a much larger quantity of interest. So many CD’s are now being produced of unknown music.

      “Musicologists still think there’s a desperate need for study n° 635,298 about a horse.”

      As far as I know, no serious musicologist has ever spend time on analysing a horse, apart from the mention of Mozart riding a horse in his better days – but without going into analysis. Even Mozart himself seems to have forgotten about his horse which was carelessly used by his servant.

      All in all, such superficial and naive thinking is widespread in the music world and it should be noticed that it is undermining the art form: its preservation is dependent upon people (politicians, donors, sponsors, patrons) who lack the type of understanding that musicology can offer and are thus easily seduced by simplistic formulations.

    • Rob_h says:

      But what if I don’t want to look for and analyze neglected musicians? That’s the question whose answer from the woke disturbs me most of all.

    • Grittenhouse says:

      If you want to truly understand music, you don’t study a rule-breaker, you study a rule-follower. The symphonies of Raff will teach you far more about writing a classical symphony than Beethoven. Original geniuses, Beethoven, Debussy, cannot be imitated. But take a minor composer and learn what they were doing, and you just might do better.

    • CS Lewis says:

      Your argument contains all of the fallacies that C.S. Lewis skewers so savagely in “The Abolition of Man.”

      When standards are rendered meaningless and all phenomena are reduced to relativism, we create the very conditions that allow a charlatan like “Dr.” Ewell to flourish.

      When we can’t even draw a clear distinction between a symphony by Beethoven and an African folk song, we have truly lost our way.

      As for whether it is moral (or tasteful) to compare the artistic/intellectual achievements of the undeveloped world with those of the West, I would say this: most of us would rather *not* go down that road. But thanks to Critical Race Theory and its adherents, rebuttal is an ugly, unfortunate, but ultimately necessary thing.

      When Ewell et al. posit that the greatness of Western artists such as LvB is merely a white, patriarchal construct, and that such artists are no more worthy of being called “great” than the most obscure non-Western/non-white/non-male/non-cisgendered “Artists” of the Third World, what are reasonable people to do? Stay silent? Accept this BS relativism without comment?

      This is how “Piss Christ” ends up in a museum next to Picasso…when we lose our ability to render sound aesthetic judgments, we lapse into decadence…and then we lose everything. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

      Yes, it’s distasteful to harp on the primitivism of sub-Saharan Africans and the aboriginals of Oceania. But in *this* context we must, if only to prove – by way of contrast – the staggering brilliance of artists like Beethoven, and more broadly, that there is a peak of human achievement and we need to recognize it, celebrate those who reach it, and encourage further generations to aspire to the same greatness – whether they are white, black, or whatever.

      When Europeans came into contact with sub-equatorial native peoples, none of the latter had yet invented the wheel, written language, animal husbandry, etc. In sub-Saharan Africa no pre-European structure was taller than 2 stories. The Bronze Age had not yet dawned.

      While I don’t relish repeating those facts, they need to be remembered, if only to ensure we don’t lose our sense of perspective, and forget what “civilization” really means. The West is not perfect, but on the whole, it has made the world a much safer, saner place to live.

      Beauty is truth, truth beauty.

  • Peter says:

    Mister Ewell’s essays happen to be the world’s most expensive toilet paper!

  • We privatize your value says:

    Since he name-drops “Esperanza Spalding” twice, we know where this is coming from… But in any case, his arguments are totally absurd. In Beethoven’s own time, when he was still alive, people were admiring him (and, for some, deriding him) for his uncompromising audacity and the novel ideas he developed and expressed. Among these were men like Joseph Haydn and Franz Schubert. Enough said!

  • J Bates says:

    They are just doing it for clickbait and in fact it’s because of these kind of people, left agenda is being laughed at. There are some legitimate issues, but all that extremist approach ensures is alienating public from them, so “a bear’s favor” as Russians say. Like that recent article on Guardian that claims cities with skyscrapers are sexist because they are tall and built using strong materials (?). You hear a lot of music on US classical radio stations from woman composers and it’s eventually annoying for a very simple reason – there is not a lot of good music written by women from that period (in 20th century – yes, aplenty, but that stuff doesn’t get on radio no matter the gender). Sometimes accepting the reality is the best way of moving forward.

    • John Borstlap says:

      If we would be given the chance we would do things so much better than men!


    • J Bates says:

      BTW, upon listening to Esperanza Spalding 12 little spells it’s obvious she is ridiculously talented! Very fresh and original creative voice, without any needs of comparisons to Beethoven or any other musician in any other musical idiom. Highly recommend.

  • Be afraid, be very afraid.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    I think Prof. Ewell should forget about Beethoven, let that devil burn in silence’s hell, and promote all those forgotten geniuses than Prof. Ewell surely know. Leave Beethoven to the ignorant rabble who deserve nothing better than to listen to Beethoven’s perverse music.

    • Nick says:

      I suggest you listen to Ewell playing cello. Then, and only then you will fully understand what the word “genius” means!!!

  • David says:

    I clicked on the link rolling my eyes, but he actually does make some good points if you can get over his ego that believes he has knowledge most others don’t.

    Instead of assessing Beethoven as “above average”, his thesis should have been that our perception of “genius” and “great” are never ahistorical, shaped by context and legacies, which most certainly includes attitudes towards race and gender.

    He is right to claim that logically, we may only claim one’s uniqueness if we know all other existing music, which we don’t. Some great music around the world are unknown to us due to the prejudiced selection over the centuries. Even composers like Bach were forgotten at one point, although in his case, it has nothing to do with his gender and race.

    However, his challenge is to claim that he is somehow beyond history, context, and bias. What are the metrics used to determine a composer’s greatness? How to explain all the composers who were white and male, who are now forgotten? I’m also certain that most teenagers nowadays will not regard Beethoven as a genius, this claim itself is relative. In essence, how does he bring objectivity into such relative question of value?

    But all those who are inclined to simply dismiss his arguments all together because of his provocative manner of speech and thesis, I encourage you to try to focus on the argument alone, and find ways to critique them by engaging with it. How do you justify your belief that Beethoven was a genius, unaffected by his position in society?

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      So, you found some ‘good points’. Let’s see the question from another angle: You go out for a walk. There is dog poop on the road. You look at it and it looks like it has an unexpected shape, changing colors, an interesting contour similar to a sculpture by Giacometti or the Wallenberg Memorial in Stockholm, whatever. And narrow flies flying around in complex patterns that are never repeated. Yes, it’s a work of art, a Duchampic ‘found object’ if you like to call it that, or like Manzoni’s famous ‘merde d’artiste’ jars.But no, it’s just poop. If you think you have identified beautiful sides of it, come in or less as finding good points in that text (by the way, has anybody considered that it may be a hoax?).

      • David says:

        The comparison to dadaism and the modern artistic movement of imbuing subjectivity upon something else is irrelevant here. Finding good points in an argument is not about finding subjective beauty dependant on interpretation. It’s about the strength of logical argument based on valid observation. I am saying that despite this essay not being academic enough and thus not providing enough evidences, some of his arguments are valid. Your reductionism and false equivocation suggests to me that you probably could benefit from learning about logic and the art of argumentation, since you seem to like to argue and have a strong opinion (like me).

        • Pianofortissimo says:

          That’s not a matter of logical argumentation. The problem with activists today is that they cannot distinguish parody or irony from real arguments. There are issues that are too ridiculous to be seriously discussed today. Activists do not listen to serious arguments, anyway. Like Freudian psychoanalysts in the 50’s – whenever psychoanalysis was disputed scientifically, psychoanalysts responded with making a ‘diagnosis’ concerning the opponent, not discussing the argument. Activists in our age are not that subtle, they communicate mostly with 4-letter words. And they don’t have any sense of humor.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “How do you justify your belief that Beethoven was a genius, unaffected by his position in society?”

      In contrary, B was understood within society as a ‘genius’, by lack of better descriptions, and in the classicist tradition of the bourgeois elite of the period. B was part of that society and became part of its elite. Does that reduce his ‘greatness’? He had the luck that there was common ground between what he wanted as an individual artist and the ideas and culture of his environment: he was part of that environment. The idea that an artist is some entirely isolated figure is a modern one, especially cultivated in the last century when art had to be a tool for attacking ‘the bourgeoisie’.

      • David says:

        That’s exactly what some people are questioning. Beethoven was understood within a certain society as a genius and since then have been praised, but what kind of society would praise it? Who have been neglected by this cultural homogeneity? You have to admit this is a relevant question, even if it means you need to find evidences to counter argue that no one was undervalued, and that everyone (including Beethoven) is regarded fairly out of pure merit (although I think most people will be hard pressed to make this argument)

        • John Borstlap says:

          I don’t think there has ever been a ‘cultural homogeneity’ anywhere, apart from some mormon and gay communities, and in the musical world of – say – 1770 till 1830 there was a lot of variety. Styles did overlap, we see early romanticism during Beethoven’s later life, a new trend which he did not share. Rossini overshadowed B’s popularity in the 1820’s and, in spite of his revolutionary style, his music belongs in fact to an 18C aesthetic (as serious musicology has shown). Artists were always part of the culture of the society within which they found themselves, and given the relative good contacts between artists, audiences and patrons (all being part of the same culture and sharing some generally-accepted basic norms), great talent must have been spotted regularly and supported. There will have been artists who did not make a great career, but in general there was not the type of division between artst and society as developed during the 19th century – a problem resulted from the change in patronage.

          We tend to look at the past from our own experience of the present, so it is hard for us to imagine a society in which the arts were a very important element in the general culture and generously supported, without questioning its meaning for ethnicity, diversity or shoe size. Evidence is there in the scale and intensity of investment by the elites and the church. Although there has been extensive historic research in music of 16th, 17th and 18th century, there has not been some great discovery of the likes of Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, Couperin, Rameau, etc. who has been neglected in his own time and who appears to have been truly ‘great’. The organic wholeness of the culture of the past has been lost and will not be recovered. Hence the ‘greatness’ of Ms Spaldings little spells.

        • Nick says:

          David, idiocy prevails.

  • Michael Henry James says:

    Does Beethoven’s piano music betray a bias towards the white keys and against the black ones? I think we should be told.

  • Tristan Jakob-Hoff says:

    Typical dismissive attitudes above, which utterly fail to address the questions Ewell poses. I think he offers an interesting perspective, and his ideas are worth exploring.

    Ewell’s point (as I understand it) is that by judging all music as it relates to a predominantly European (white) male framework, we are at risk of dismissing music which may have equal value when viewed from a different vantage point. Putting aside the issue of gender representation for a moment (because unfortunately the opportunities for women in most world cultures to gain recognition for their music have been extremely limited), who are we to say that the European framework is objectively the “right” one?

    Is it really right that when I google “greatest Japanese composer”, the top hit is Tōru Takemitsu, a composer whose stylistic tendencies were largely borrowed from France? A little more digging through Wikipedia suggests plenty of other Japanese names – even a few contemporaries of Beethoven – whose work I am nevertheless entirely unfamiliar with because it does not conform to the European classical tradition I grew up with. But if I am unfamiliar with that music, how can I begin to make a judgement about its quality in comparison to Beethoven? On the flipside, would the Eroica Symphony measure up if we had been raised on a diet of gagaku, the Japanese classical music which predates Western classical music by around 800 years?

    I do think, however, there is another key reason that Beethoven and other classical composers are as revered as they are, and it is one that goes beyond simple cultural hegemony: the power of notation and the classical performing tradition. Many composers from the Far East, for instance, were performers first and foremost, and were revered for their ability to embellish well-known, often very ancient tunes. Much like jazz, such a composition is never performed the same way twice, and the end product is often the result of spontaneous improvisation. To compose and to perform are indivisible in such traditions, but this makes such composers’ work necessarily ephemeral. Meanwhile, Beethoven has left us precise – and relatively strict – instructions on how to recreate his music almost exactly as it would have been heard 200+ years ago. This both gives it its longevity and allows it to travel from country to country, more-or-less unchanged.

    In the recorded era, we have thankfully been granted the opportunity to preserve the sort of spontaneous music which constitutes most musical traditions. I never saw Ella Fitzgerald perform, but I know what a great musician she was, and I know that the music she created was unique and infused with genius of the first order. But how would a Schenkerian analysis even begin to describe what makes it so great?

    The point is to accept that our predominantly white male framework is only really useful in assessing music written in the white male tradition. And that’s fine. But it should not be used as a stick with which to beat music that does not fall within that narrow definition.

    • MusicPhD says:

      Yeah I agree with a lot of this, Tristan. The promotion of the western classical canon as the universal yardstick by which all musical achievement is measured is, arguably, systemically racist and is certainly problematic in many ways, as it gives our musical tradition a centricity that we disallow others. It also predicates the documentation of the influence of the ‘Other’ on Euro-American composers under the horrible labels of ‘exoticism’ and ‘orientalism.’

      But these are your points, not Ewell’s. I respectfully think that you’ve layered your own, clearly enunciated, frameworks onto his text. I certainly didn’t interpret the propositions above from Ewell’s writing, not with any such clarity in any case.

      (While we’re at it, can we banish the term ‘world music’ for all time – I’m looking at you Southbank Centre. All music is world music, obviously.)

    • J Bates says:

      Takemitsu is the greatest Japanese composer because, well, he is! It just happened that Western classical tradition evolved further than any other musical tradition at that time. Why then you don’t say that Tchaikovsky is not that great because there was a brilliant balalaika virtuoso composer living at the same time? Does it mean Russian folk tradition is invalid? No, but Tchaikovsky used idiom that was simply most evolved and incorporated national elements in it, just like Takemitsu.

    • David says:

      This is exactly the value I find in Mr.Ewell’s post. Clearly his essay is not scholarly and remains to be argued for, but the hypothesis that race and gender are factors of the current cultural hegemony is nothing new, and should continue to be investigated. However, under what criteria can he claim Beethoven to be “above average”? He certainly cannot claim to be without bias, or that he has all knowledge of music ever composed. Provocative posts have their value, but they can also promote further division and repel others (as witnessed on this comment section….some people are completely allergic to any mention of race/gender), which is unfortunate.

      I appreciate you mentioning the importance of notation. From the way you write, I have a feeling you’d write a much better research paper on this topic than Mr. Ewell.

      • Nick says:

        “ I have a feeling you’d write a much better research paper on this topic than Mr. Ewell.”. This is neither difficult nor scientific. One cannot express Music with faux doctoral papers.

    • Ludovic Garnier says:

      Yes, we would still listen to Beethoven, just like the Japanese that has “been raised for 800 years on a diet of gagaku” are listening to Beethoven.

    • Nick says:

      Hey Tristan, I suggest you go a little beyond Wikipedia in your deep research. That might help in your case. The other suggestion would be to talk to a good psychiatrist and share your ideas. This might turn out even more helpful.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “Ewell’s point (as I understand it) is that by judging all music as it relates to a predominantly European (white) male framework, we are at risk of dismissing music which may have equal value when viewed from a different vantage point.”

      Indeed. If we compare Ms Spaldings’ little spells with Beethoven’s 9th from an ethnic point of view, it is entirely impossible to confer some superiority to the ethnic background of either author. But we are listening to music here with fundamental differences: Spaldings little things are entertainment and Beethoven’s symphony is art music, you expect very different things form these genres. It would be utterly stupid to use the European framework objectively as the right one for any type of music. Somebody who nonetheless sinks to the level of comparing products of two entirely different genres as them somehow being on the same qualitative level, without consideration of context, disqualifies himself as a serious discussion partner. Hence exit Mr Ewell.

      Going into a comparison of the musical traditions of West and East is as misleading. Exactly because Western music developed a notation process made it possible to produce so many amazing works. There is no Eastern tradition with a comparable diversity and structural complexity, for the simple reason that they were limited by their practice of transmission. For that reason they have other qualities and it is wrong to use a Western quality framework for Eastern traditional music. As soon as eastern composers began to use Western notation methods, the music began to develop in comparable ways – Japanese new music (20C, 21C) is a good example, like Chinese new music. (And using Wikipedia for quality research is absurd.)

      “I never saw Ella Fitzgerald perform, but I know what a great musician she was, and I know that the music she created was unique and infused with genius of the first order. But how would a Schenkerian analysis even begin to describe what makes it so great?”

      This quote sums-up the problem of multicultural confusion in a nutshell: the greatness of Fitzgerald is of a totally different order than the greatness of great Western classical composers. There is the immense difference in context of both forms of music, you cannot pick-up a bit from one context and compare it with another bit from another context and think you can compare them in the void, without background.

  • Mauricio Fernandez says:

    Seemingly, corona exposes innate idiocy in some people. It must be quite excruciating for this gentleman to have to play mostly the white keys!

  • Micaela Bonetti says:

    “As a cellist I quite enjoy playing his music”:
    Please leave Beethoven in peace.

  • Adrienne says:

    Racially based resentment oozes out of every sentence.

    “New Music Theory” reminds me of “New Maths”, where 2+2=4 is “cultural belief based on “western imperialism/colonization” (Brittany Marshall, BLM supporter).


    • Nick says:

      Right. 2+2 is now 22!!!

    • John Borstlap says:

      But if we can avoid people being ethnically-hurt by arithmetics, we can develop a system where 2 + 2 = 5. But such system will exclude lots of other people, so maybe it’s better to stick with the white man’s silly and arrogant proposition that 2 + 2 = indeed 4.

      • Le Křenek du jour says:

        No, we cannot.
        The underlying logic that results in the operation (2+2 = 4) is embedded in our nervous systems, just as it is in nature.

        No group of humans could have survived and evolved with a fundamentally faulty logical apparatus in their brains.
        The preposterous notion that such an aberration should be possible is a thoroughly modern conceit. It is an insult to our species, to all humans.

      • SVM says:

        Well, actually, our numbering system is a patchwork of appropriation from non-European cultures. The concept of zero is appropriated from India, and our numerals are appropriated from Arabia. No doubt, somebody will, drawing on the fallacy of cultural purity that underpins anti-appropriation rhetoric (in fact, most cultures and traditions involve a lot of appropriation throughout history), start a campaign for Europeans to stop “disrespecting”/”stealing” the culture of Arabs and Indians and revert to Roman numerals, so II + II = IV.

      • Nick says:

        Finally, a reasonable arrival of logic.

  • Ludovic Garnier says:

    Definitely, what a scary word, “Master”. Nothing worse than mastering something. Some people being better at a certain fields than others? Outrageous! Much better to be incompetent, that feels very pleasant, safe, inclusive.

    The guy clearly hates his music, for that alone there might be some serious concerns about his nature as a human being.

    • Nick says:

      Let’s ban “Master and Margarita”. It’s damn racist.
      (I wonder if Bulgakov even used the word ‘racist’.) Lived all his life, wrote thousands of pages and never used the one important word. Poor Bulgakov.

    • Nick says:

      Listen to two bars of this genius Ewell cello Playing, Ludovic and you will not need any other explanation. The guy is a musical idiot.

  • Nick says:


  • John Borstlap says:

    This little man is certainly not a master in his profession, and is so blinded by the racism debate that he can see nothing outside that framework. He appears to be a slave to the mindless crusade against ‘white culture’ without understanding that this culture is entirely colourless and is innocent of its exploitations.

    The greatness of the European classical tradition, one of the greatest achievements of humanity and of which Beethoven rightly is an icon, has to be seen as separated from people exploiting it to demean other people for whatever reason.

    It is not necessary to compare that tradition with other musical traditions to show its greatness. But Mr Ewell uses such comparison to demean Beethoven’s 9th symphony, which was meant for all people, also for Mr Ewell and Ms Spalding, and for any imaginable ethnicity – because music is a product of the mind and the spirit and thus, accessible to any human being with the ability and the intention to engage with it. It is one of the better gifts of Europe to humanity.

    “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.”

    There never happened a ‘propping-up’, it was the recognition of the greatness and importance of B’s works which formed the basis of public concert life as it developed in the 19th century and that process had nothing to do with a ‘white-male frame’ which is an invention of Mr Ewell. There is much to criticize of the 19C genius cult, but racism has nothing to do with it.

    We would not have concert life if it had not developed as it had in the 19th century. It is something precious to preserve, not to demean and pull down to the level of Ms Spalding’s innocent café entertainment.

    These are her little spells:

    There is nothing wrong with them, and it is ridiculous to compare them with Beethoven’s 9th. It is like taking a 5-year old’s drawing and saying it’s as good as a Rembrandt.

    Mr Ewell would do better to restrict his musical activities to the genre represented by Ms Spalding, and leave classical music alone – would be much better for him and classical music.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Dear Mr. Borstlap, you made a good point (as usual in all musical matters), but maybe Prof. Ewell is a hoax (those arguments can’t be serious).

      • John Borstlap says:

        I would love to discover it is a hoax.

        But my fear is that it isn’t, since it does reflect so many similar confusions.

      • Rob_h says:

        A hoax he definitely is not. And he has many supporters—possibly enough to change utterly the landscape of music scholarship and criticism. The problem is, when he and his adherents are in power, how will they respond when someone wants to write about something that doesn’t fit their scholarly program? I think we all know the answer. All we can do is pray that they come to better wisdom that the other people who changed music scholarship did, and not simply erect another regime where there are despised outsiders and an approved elite.

    • David says:

      Thanks for the link to Esperanza Spalding. Although I do not see particular charm in her singing, I think you unfortunately make an inconsistent argument above. You first mention that Beethoven’s greatness does not need to be compared to others, and then you proceed to compare. This is because fundamentally, we do need points of comparison to judge value. Value theory have always demonstrated the function of relativity, and from an epistemological and ontological point of view, it is almost impossible to ascertain objective value.

      Furthermore, what Mr. Ewell alludes to is not just the concept of “greatness” itself, but how greatness has been perceived. The question is not “Why is Beethoven great?” It’s “Why has he been perceived as great?” As Tristan above notes, scholarly discussion will never treat such subjective concept, but in common speech we consistently reference such concepts, which has solidified Beethoven’s position, and paved the path towards future generations that worked with that legacy. It is therefore important to question Beethoven’s significance in our society: how can we judge, and at what cost have we judged?

      Obviously, I sympathize because I find Beethoven to be truly “great” and I love his music, just like so many others (Martha Argerich mentions him as her favorite composer!). But it is possible to take a step back and appreciate the questions Mr. Ewell poses without feeling threatened. We should all have the humblness to question our own value and beliefs, and try to listen to others. Unfortunately, for the most part of your post, you resort to ad-hominem attacks, assuming political agenda, and attacking other artists instead of listening and engaging with the argument. Such defensive attitude will only close door for you and for others.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Thank you. I was comparing contexts, not works.

        The perception of B’s greatness is the result of B’s greatness. You cannot disconnect the two and say: the perception of B’s greatness is wrong for this and that reason. But you can say: the notion of B’s greatness is on this or that point exploited for reasons which are not in accordance with B’s greatness (like B’s appropriation by the nazis).

        Being critical of someone who clearly is confused and unprofessional (a musicologist, NB!), has nothing to do with being defensive. The question is: does there exist some archimedian point outside cultural contexts from which we can objectively assess artistic value and make qualitative distinctions? This question is related to our contemporary multicultural problem of how to judge cultural value and meaning within a context where different cultures live together under the umbrella of a common system. It seems to me that, within a subjective assessment of cultural artefacts, there are definitely objective elements which have the value and meaning of something real and thus: objective. After all, there are important values in society which are, in a strict sense, entirely irrational, like justice. Our legal system, for instance, is not objective in the sense science is. But the existence of something like ‘justice’ is real and objective, and I think it is the same with art: although subjective, we can make value judgements about works of art and their contexts which can have objective meaning and thus, relate to something real and reflect truth. Therefore there is objective truth in the notion that Ms Spalding’s little spells want to be something entirely different from B’s 9th and that both works should not be compared because of the difference of context (genre), which CAN be compared.

    • Cubs Fan says:

      Ah! You called him a “slave”. I’m gonna tell!

    • christopher storey says:

      Crumbs ! I had never heard of E Spalding, and now I see ( or perhaps more accurately, hear ) why . She is not quite in the Florence FosterJenkins category, but not far off it

  • E Rand says:

    leftism is a mental illness that destroys everything it touches.

    • John Borstlap says:

      True! My nephew is lefthanded and he breaks and drops everything, I don’t understand why he votes conservative.


  • MusicPhD says:

    I finished my musicological training quite recently – both gender and race studies are hot topics in current discourse but are nearly lawless lands where astonishing feats of mental gymnastics by the author can often leave a diligent reader in the dust – and I am certain that if I submitted a thesis predicated with the lack of rigour displayed by Ewell, I would’ve been rusticated. This article isn’t academic, it’s intellectually lazy and unquestionably biased. It’s an opinion piece masquerading as genuine musicology.

    Those Schenker Journal contributors are a cult unto their own by the way.

    • Ben says:

      Interesting yes,
      Something to add on my part:
      The “lack of rigour” in social justice academic articles/studies is a somewhat intentional part of the game. There is a kind of ideological function that that lack of rigour has in ramming everything through the lens of the White vs. non-white.
      Probably because reasoning with adequate evidence and logic, without the use of unjustifiably nebulous assumptions, is part of the ‘white male western evil incarnate civilization’.

      While the SJ movement has some good points (even Hitler had some good points on some things), the overall ideology of it is very very bad and destructive.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        When you find ‘some good points’ in any loathsome ideology you’ve already lost the debate a long time ago.

  • Novagerio says:

    When “One-way” racism is justified…
    Remove both Ewell and Schenker from the school curriculum, one for extreme and laughably anachronistic racism, the other for utter stupidity (!) Wich one is worse I frankly still don’t know.

  • D R says:

    Dr Ewell doesn’t seem to have a problem mentioning his own Masters degree in his bio

  • Brian Bell says:

    Wasn’t it Wanda Landowska who said that masterpieces are not wolves that devour each other? What would she say about this?

    • Ara says:

      She wrote in her book about a piece which I don’t remember the name but she played it so well that in her opinion a performer must give up on composers idea of how it should be played if performer can play it better than those who follow guidelines of composers. In other words, if you know better than Beetoven then you can do to him whatever you want. In this case an Afro-American professor backed by someone with a German dissent is changing his countries national security by selling all great white males to save himself. Which means he is just afraid of living white rich and powerful people who wouldn’t mind him doing it. Americans are rewriting history because they are scared to death to loose status quo.

  • Peter B says:

    It is telling that, with the notable exception of John Borstlap, none of the people eviscerating dr. Ewell in their comments have anything to offer but insults. They also decline to start a discussion with the few people who try to highlight some valuable points Ewell makes.

    This attitude demonstrates their intellectual weakness and their refusal to enter into meaningful dialogue, let alone to learn from it. It is, alas, also quite typical for the readership of Slipped Disc.

    • Counterpoint says:

      Isn’t the simple reality that in Europe a form of notation was invented about 1,000 years ago to allow compositions to be repeated in ecclesiastical settings. Much later the existence of notation allowed composers to express their individuality and emotions through music. It is that legacy which those who love to perform or listen to classical music now celebrate. Yes, other cultures over millennia may have produced worthy composers but with only an aural tradition and without a system of notation their imprint is lost. This may be a sad fact for 21st century musicologists with rabid political agendas to accept but that does not mean that the achievements of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner are any the less and I for one am grateful that white males, (and indeed females) have championed their cause.

      • SVM says:

        Hear hear! One should add only that the people who have “championed” the cause of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner include many from non-white ethnic backgrounds. I have had many wonderful and enlightening conversations with people from all manner of ethnic backgrounds about those aforementioned four composers.

    • The View from America says:

      Most of us don’t have time to “waste” with “waste.” (See Pianofortissimo above.)

    • We privatize your value says:

      Peter B, the cheapest trick of ideologues is ALWAYS to cry “insult”. What about Franz Schubert’s view of Beethoven, circa 1826? HE should know!

    • Ben says:

      I think that some things only warrant insults.

    • Nick says:

      You realize Peter that there is nothing to discuss with people like you or Ewell. It is a waste of time.

  • Nurhan Arman says:

    It’s from the WTF category!

  • mary says:

    Who’s stopping Mr. Ewell from writing his definitive 100 volume treatise on Esperanza Spalding’s work?

    Who’s stopping Mr. Ewell from devoting the rest of his life to being the world’s foremost authority on Spalding?

    Who’s stopping him from founding the very field of Spaldingian Studies?

    Go for it, knock yourself out.

  • Patrick says:

    It’s ok. Beethoven can handle this guy.

  • Karl says:

    But Beethoven was black. It’s been proven – it’s all over social media including twitter.

    • Nick says:

      You’re right Karl. Beethoven was black just as Jesus.

      • Ara says:

        Jesus was Asian aka yellow. It was proven in 2143 after a long dictatorship and revenge by black people when we finally found out that yellow people are the least racist candidates for history. We don’t know it yet but by then time travel was invented by yellow people and refused to be used as such to make it possible for at least one race to not become a master race. That’s why they destroyed everything that made them powerful including time machine. So this essay is the only thing they will remember.

  • Dan oren says:

    Apparently Beethoven had a very dark skin complexion. Does it make him a better composer?

    Also, before launching his minus one theory about “masters”, prof Ewell might have the intellectual curiosity to learn how you say “masterwork” is in French, Italian, Spanish, Russian etc…

  • Tim Walton says:

    What a load of cobblers why are you inflicting this idiocy on us. Just ignore him and he’ll hopefully go away.

  • Wonderful thoughts. Some people are gifted with a fervid and creative imagination. I wish them well

  • John Porter says:

    He’s an excellent theorist and a good cellist. That said, since when did anyone care what a music theorist had to say? No offense, but there are areas of academic research that is purely arcane and this is one of them. The teaching that is done is mostly rudimentary, basic harmony, notation, etc., the research is of little consequence outside of the academy. If he’s making the point that classical music is not “better” than other forms of music, fair enough, and that point has been made. (I do think that’s part of his overall assertion.) And if he thinks his decolonize the curriculum argument is going to ban White European compositions in classical conservatories, he is sadly mistaken, as are many who will make this sideshow argument in their schools. As far as the “Schenker Wars,” that’s another yawn. The man was a racist, no doubt,as I would imagine many Germans were toward Black people at the turn of the 20th century. He was also a nasty person, as seen by his statements on Mahler’s music. As far as the Schekerian Schoo goes, even the Mannes School of Music has largely moved away from it and this is the place, the center of the planet for this area, where Schenker’s theories were built into curriculum by Hans Weisse, Felix Salzer, Adele Katz, and Carl Schachter. Most schools hardly offer any Schenker any more, and it was always only but one of a number of ways of analyzing music, though thanks to Mr. Schachter it became limited to purely tonal music.

    • Fabrice says:

      Unfortunately, there are serious movements at several conservatories and large universities in the USA to remove such racist subjects as counterpoint and orchestration from the curriculum.

  • Stefan Lano says:

    Who is this misguided pedant to pass judgement on Beethoven or anyone else?
    Another abhorrent example of the times in which we live in which the purported right to an opinion supersedes its inherent inanity.

  • hanshopf says:

    Naively I thought the ghetto music the kids listen to nowadays is much more successfull than Beethoven due to its quality. Maybe this „music“ is all rubbish then and Beethoven really has been above average? That would be great to know that in the end white male quality succeeds in this world!

  • Counterpoint says:

    I wonder if Dr Ewell was awarded a Masters degree on the way to his doctorate.

    He refers to playing Beethoven as a member of orchestras and chamber ensembles. If he has so little affinity with European ‘classical music’ why does he insult his fellow musicians and any audience they garner by his involvement when he is so emotionally distanced from the joy of performing this repertoire.

    • Paul Hornung says:

      You don’t get hired at CUNY as a tenured professor in a research domain without credentials. What kind of question is that? Someone is going to call you racist for that statement. And by the way, all you had to do was look at his CV online.

      • Counterpoint says:

        If this response was aimed at me I was simply pointing out the irony in the inconsistency of Prof Ewell associating the term ‘master’ as in masterpiece or masterwork with slavery and white supremacy, and he holding the award of a master’s degree. It wasn’t racist but rather a gentle hint at the absurdity of the core premise of his argument mounted on the sensitivity of a word with many different contexts and connotations.

      • Harrumphrey says:

        What kind of question is that? An extremely valid one, you moron.

  • Jonatan says:

    Well, then I don’t know why Beethoven’s been so influential for both, male and female composers, why works inspired by Beethoven have been written. The first work inspired by Beethoven, namely his Piano concerto no. 1, that comes to my mind was written by a woman, namely Sally Beamish’s City Stanzas. So, in my view, this maleness and whiteness theory doesn’t work with Beethoven. Of course, why male composers are more performed than female composers is another matter, but that has nothing to do with Beethoven.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Because of this crazy discussion, my employer strapped me on a chair and forced me to listen to a Beethoven piece, I believe it was the first thing of his 9th symphony. I was quite surprised and immediately recognized the tantrums of my aunt Laura, so I found it a truly feminine piece. Quite instructive!


  • Simon says:

    Boy I am going to move to Mars… soon I won’t be able to perform any music written by white males without fearing that I am offending everyone who isn’t male or white… disturbing beyond belief

    • John Borstlap says:

      Mars people are reddish-brown so be prepared.

    • Ara says:

      Worst part is these condensation elitist publish this none sense with a smiling face and wait for us to judge and disagree protected by status and then what? This is true fascism.

  • D** says:

    While reading this, I remembered two personal experiences from 1976. At the time, I was studying music education at a major U.S. university.

    The first: I was enrolled in a music lit. class titled Black American Music. The professor was African American, although most of the students were not. All of us were quite interested in the material. Scott Joplin, William Grant Still, William Dawson, Howard Swanson, George Walker, and a number of others were covered. For some strange reason, Florence Price was never mentioned.

    Looking back, there was some outstanding music that was presented. There’s something quite charming and original about Scott Joplin’s output, and it’s wonderful to see that it’s now better known than it once was. William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony is an original, but I say that in a good way. It’s a shame it has been overlooked at times. There’s no doubt there are other great works written by Black (and other non-white) composers that deserve more attention than they receive.

    The second experience: I was a member of the university band, and we were focused on American music because it was the Bicentennial year. We read through a great number of works, but I don’t remember most of them. Some of what we played was excellent, music we wanted to play again and again.

    The lesson learned: In both the music lit. class and our university band, we listened to or performed music that had the spark of genius. It was music that grabbed us, music we just couldn’t put aside. The honest truth, though, is that there were (and still are) an enormous amount of compositions that are interesting and pleasant, but nothing more. It’s music one wants to perform or hear every now and then, but now and then are the key words.

    If one looks back at some of the music of forgotten composers who lived during Beethoven’s lifetime, there are probably some good pieces that deserve to be revived. At the same time, it’s probably safe to assume that much of this music is pleasant and interesting, but nothing more.

  • Allen says:

    In view of the overt racism and misogyny in certain hip-hop and related genres, I think Mr Ewell should be a little more circumspect in his condemnation of “whiteness and maleness”.

    If he really wants to make the music world a better place, condemnation of the glorification of actual violence might be a better place to start.

  • anon says:

    Mr. Ewell’s own CV is a case study in being “propped up by the white-male frame”.

    He dismisses White Males, unless they help to prop up his own credentials:

    “I studied cello with Stephen Harrison and music theory and composition with David Rakowski, Ross Bauer, and Leonard Ratner…

    I studied … music theory with Carl Schachter….

    I wrote a dissertation on Alexander Scriabin under Allen Forte. Finally, I studied music theory… with Yuri Kholopov at the Moscow Conservatory.

    My recent research focuses on … Rimsky-Korsakov. Specifically, I work extensively on the modal theories of Sergei Protopopov and Boleslav Yavorsky…. I’ve also generally worked with the voluminous writings of … Yuri Kholopov…

    I’ve played …. under the batons of conductors such as Gustav Meier and Pierre Boulez, in master classes for musicians such as Janos Starker and Glenn Dicterow, and in backup bands for artists such as … Stan Getz. My primary cello teachers were Stephen Harrison, Frederick Zlotkin … and Anatoly Nikitine”

    Any white males he didn’t name drop?

  • PaulD says:

    You learn something every day. I did not know that the master cylinder in the brake system of my car was racist. How could a Swedish company do something like that?

  • William Stahl says:

    Well, I never heard of this guy before, and now I know why. He does seem to have quite a good racket going in the current academic world. Ewell should bow down each morning in the direction of Bonn to thank the heavens for giving him a composer to sneer at for fun and profit.

  • Rob_h says:

    Do I need to know what 12 Little Spells is to follow this debate?

    • John Borstlap says:

      They are an entertainment version of Schoenberg’s 12 tone system, spread over as many little spells.

  • marcus says:

    Does this guy make a living churning out this crap?

  • DAVID says:

    The only redeeming quality in the whole essay is that it made me google Esperanza Spalding, whom I did not know. And I actually did enjoy it. But to claim that Beethoven is no better, is such a ridiculous statement that it’s truly stunning to see a university professor actually venture on such terrain. It only confirms my suspicion that music theorists really don’t have ears and have, at best, a stunted access to music, which to them is a merely academic discipline as opposed to something embodied and alive. The French have a very good expression that sums it all: “musicology is to music what gynecology is to sex.” The same is probably true for most theorists, who wouldn’t be able to tell a good piece from a bad one with their own ears and often base their musical judgment (or lack thereof) on contrived studies often written by people who wouldn’t be able to write a single note of music in their entire lives, though they certainly know how to talk about it ad nauseam in the context of very exclusive circles.

    Moreover, I don’t know whether the author realizes that he probably wouldn’t have a job, were it not for the entire culture that made his own discipline possible in the first place. Even though we should all endeavor to fight racism, the answer to such predicament does not lie in eradicating any figure that might be remotely problematic, because in doing so, you would have to essentially wipe out 90% of the western canon. It’s time to grow up and understand that every era had its own cultural context and that the person cannot be equated with the work and that the work stands on its own merits. It’s also important to understand that a creator’s work is not reducible to her or his particular historical conditions, but often transcends them in view of a higher universality. This is why names like Beethoven, Shakespeare, or Kant can be appreciated beyond the particular culture which they were part of. To dismiss their important contribution is not only incredibly reductive, it is also immature and childish.

    Instead of focusing on merely cosmetic measures that will ultimately solve nothing, let’s focus instead on enacting real change in the world by truly addressing the issues of inequalities and racism, instead of writing up impressive prose that does nothing but maintain the status quo and gives us the good conscience that we’re actually making a difference, which is far from being the case. Let’s take concrete measures in the actual world — this, of course, will happen not in the sterile and insular sphere of academia, but through real and embodied political action — so that anyone, regardless of race, may have an equal chance in this incredibly competitive world, and so that no one suffer prejudice due to the color of their skin. That would be a worthwhile and productive pursuit indeed.

    • D** says:

      Good points, David. I especially agree with your comments about theorists and musicologists. It’s important not to label all of them with complete negativity, but some criticism is justified.

      While reading your remarks, I thought about George Gershwin. The academic composers of his day, including Walter Piston, Daniel Gregory Mason, Randall Thompson, and Roger Sessions, wrote more “educated” music than Gershwin. Well-crafted is an expression often heard. A Piston symphony probably looks better on paper than “An American in Paris,” but most concertgoers, with justification, would probably choose Gershwin over Piston.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Wise words.

      “It’s also important to understand that a creator’s work is not reducible to her or his particular historical conditions, but often transcends them in view of a higher universality.”

      Very true. That is the very point of having a cultural heritage which continues to ‘speak’ to generations of later eras, in case they are literate enough.

    • Ken says:

      One of the most intelligent things I’ve read here in a long while. Would niggle about Kant (really?), but life’s surely too short.

  • TubaMinimum says:

    This feels… counterproductive. There are absolutely great musicians and artists out there who are underappreciated or lost to history, and a very many of those due to their gender, race, or just accidental place in history that meant they weren’t championed by performers or scholars.

    That case can be made without trying to slay someone’s sacred cow. Unfortunately, this line of scholarship feels more aimed at making a splash than championing the forgotten, why else would you set up an argument that allows “these artists are truly great if I can prove that Beethoven wasn’t so great.”

  • TheoPros says:

    Hmm…I am a musician of Hellenic descent. Many of my collegues from central Europe have suggested that in this day and age I should be introducing myself as an “olive skinned” person (thus not entirely Caucasian), so to pretend to belong in some kind of minority, if I want to gain more recognition.

    My response is always the same: My music and music-making is to be introduced, not me personally, per se. And there should be no difference whatsoever if I am from Pakistan, Germany, Panama or Kenya, tall or short, fat or skinny, straight or LGBTQ, male or female. Get it together, folks!!

  • Dear Mr. Ewell: To plagiarize (with justification): Your review is before me. In a moment it will be behind me.
    Sincerely, Lorna Salzman

  • Dennis says:

    If someone were deliberately writing a parody of woke musicology (and wokeness in general) gone berserk and taken to its most absurd lengths, one couldn’t do better than that Ewell paragraph quoted above.

    Frankly, to even bother to responding in detail to the manifest absurdities contained in that one paragraph alone, never mind his whole article, is giving him more time and attention that he’s worth.

  • Christopher Pegis says:

    Reverse racism is still racism. I hesitate to say I’ve enjoyed playing the Clara Schumann piano trio as this comment might be construed/taken the wrong way… or quoted out of context, “sigh”. The times we live indeed. One of the things in my musical bucket list, was to perform every Beethoven string quartet. Having managed to accomplish this, it’s hard for me to think of Beethoven as “above average “. I guess I was peripherally aware that he was white but geez…..

  • Norbert says:

    It’s always a shame when stupid people become prominent.

    Buy there you are – it’s always been so!

    This pontius little twat will fade into obscurity. I think Herr Beethoven has his front row seat in immortality, pretty firmly reserved!

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Sounds like second rater trying to make a name for himself (and there are many of them in the field of Musicology).

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Les chiens aboient et la caravane passe…. (Comme dirait l’autre).

  • Grittenhouse says:

    I have been making this argument for years, but for musical reasons, not political reasons, other than the fact that German xenophobia has influenced music education and performance for far too long. It is not about being a white male, it is about being German and believing all things German and Austrian are inherently superior, and it goes back to Mozart, well before Beethoven. In fact, Prague was the musical capital of Europe, and Bohemian composers were the forefront, not Austrians and Germans.
    It was German musicians emigrating to America who established the music schools and their curricula based on the three B’s: Bach, Beethoven and then Brahms, rather than, say, Handel, Haydn and H___. Because of this ingrained teaching, all the programming by musical groups emphasizes German/Austrian repertoire, at the expense of other nations. It is the French and Italians, if anyone, who were the most important in the development of European music. Then you have the Bohemians, Russians, Spaniards, English and others. The balance of programming has never fully shifted away, if anything, it has gone back even more to just Beethoven, Beethoven and maybe Brahms or Bruckner.
    Wagner continues his domination, not the composers murdered in the Holocaust. It is inexplicable.
    It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that Debussy and Ravel reached high status in the US. The same for Shostakovich and Sibelius. Perhaps only Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov had rivaled the Germans in popularity, if only by audience demand.
    This must be addressed, but not for reasons of diversity but reasons of musical importance. How about a full understanding of Rameau’s ground-breaking revelations and its inestimable impact? I’ve yet to see that. Or a full appreciation of Berlioz, for that matter.

    • John Borstlap says:

      This argument has already been fiercefully developed in France from the late 19C onwards. Especially Debussy broke a lance for Rameau and protested against the German influence.

      But all of that does not diminish the fact that the ‘central German classical tradition’ is of the greatest importance and value, quite apart from any comparison. Why not see music as a diverse field?

      Ironically, it were Jewish brilliant scholars and musicologists who brought the German type of musicology to the USA, as refugees from the nazis. And they laid it thick on that the German classical tradition was simply central to Western music.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    I’m surprised that Joseph Bologne aka the Chevalier de St. Georges also aka “the black Mozart” (1745-1799) has not come up in this discussion. He and Mozart knew each other and Mozart greatly admired him.

  • Dan says:

    a) I love Beethoven, and “classical” music in general. I also love hip-hop (and pretty much every other genre of music I’ve been fortunate enough to explore). I don’t know that I’d ever compare the two genres, nor ever say one is “better” than the other. Both are different and wonderful in their own ways. I don’t think Mr Ewell is saying Beethoven is less a genius, but that other composers (in any genre, or the same) could rank as high as him, were it not for the way historical trends have gone. That seems uncontroversial. Most classical folks wouldn’t say Ravel is “better” than Beethoven, but many would agree both are “geniuses.” That is the same principle at play, I would think.

    b) There is no danger of “losing” Beethoven to these imaginary “cultural wars.” Look, if Wagner has still survived into this century, Beethoven will be fine. Genuinely, I think the more we critique Beethoven, the more surely is his historical relevance assured. Better to be talked about, than not be talked about, etc. That sort of thing. I’m fairly convinced “cancel culture” is a fiction that the elites have allowed to proliferate so as to distract us from issues like global economic inequities. Most people I talk to agree “cancel culture” doesn’t really exist.

    c) These ad hominem attacks against this professor are disgraceful, and further, any attempt to suggest any style or genre of music is “better” can’t possibly be taken seriously, right? Don’t we agree it’s all taste? There is no good or bad in music, just taste. In art, nothing is objective. Is that being disputed now?

    d) We would agree Beethoven was a dreadful human, no? He drove his nephew to attempt suicide. We can at least register that to be true, and also appreciate and study his music, without pretending Beethoven is some demo-god? Lionizing anyone or anything is dangerous.

    In conclusion: All music is wonderful, but so is free and open debate. We need more of both, not less.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Chopin escapes censure by reason of hids “Blsck Keys”Etude in G flat and is canny enough to sneak in one whitish note near the end on advice of counsel, but no veritable dead white composers, leaving them to his erstwhile friend Liszt either to slay or revvify. Black Music Matters to the Bureau of Land Mangement, for veterans of the alphabet soup.

    Vladimir de Pachmann left an entrancing record of it, which he blames on Leopold Godowsky in his spoken disclaimer at the gossamer end, caught by the microphone. Godowsky, the Apostle of thr Left Hand, found the etudes too easy and made his own advanced edition of them, many for le main sinistre.

  • And on cue the Breitbart crowd jumps in to attack the offending intellectual with their usual ill-informed and racist ranting. The comments here ironically illustrate the problems Ewell attempts to raise.

    • Adista says:

      So anyone you disagree with is racist? You and your “woke” crowd have lapsed into self-parody. For that reason let me encourage you to please keep it up!

  • Edgar Self says:

    Bffthoven bashing is older than Beethoven, dating at least from the first envious iconoclast who instinctively attached the tallest thing in sight as diminishing himself, inviting attention elsewhere. In hiss okn time, Ludwig Spohr thought Spohr the foremost composer of the day, and B. a mere passing fad. Another budding musicologist debunked our man by proving he wrote nothing but cadences.

    But Beethoven was as black as Ebony, known as “der schwarze Spanier” to coevals.The f through allusion or outright quotation were Schubert’s Ninth and rio No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 100, and Brahms’s fifstsymphony right down to Shostakovich’s viola sonata of 1975.

  • John says:

    There’s another retard who wrote a book about twenty years ago saying basically the same thing. She teaches at Cal Berkeley. (There’s a shock!)

  • Better to remain Silent and be considered a fool than to speak and remove all Doubt. says:

    I feel sorry for the poor students at Hunter College who have to take this morons class.

  • John Cagliari says:

    Oh please, a below average listener thinks that Beethoven is merely above average… what a big deal………..

  • Ewww, well... says:

    You can easily shatter his “Masterwork” c**p by simply replacing composers in respective genres – Medtner in Classical and Chick Corea in Experimental Jazz, where it’s vice versa – Medtner being a good composer but not necessarily associated with masterpieces and Chick Corea who have wrote true masterworks in his field. This mad guy is comparing a promising but not yet fully established talent with a historical Giant.

  • Ewww, well... says:

    Question though, would you rather be propped up by your achievements as a great musician or be propped up by somebody degrading a great musician to showcase you?

  • Pedro says:

    Well I guess soul music is also racist under thoss criteria.

    Beethoven was one of the greatest (for me the greatest) composers of all time.

    He composed his 9 symphony masterpiece after he lost his hearing!

    Dangerous this ignorat times we live in.

  • Jordan Brown says:

    I don’t speak for her, but Spalding might prefer not to be the example of comparison in this little exercise.

  • John R. says:

    Interestingly he has his own Vimeo channel of him playing the cello:

    It’s all the typical dead white European stuff so maybe he should tone down his rather sanctimonious preaching.

  • fflambeau says:

    I enjoy Beethoven, but believe, perhaps to a lesser extent than this writer, that he and those gatekeepers we have in music have also done a great deal of harm to classical music for two main reasons.

    One, we so overplay and overrecord Beethoven that members of society at large think that he is all the classical music has to offer. Why do we need every new conductor to lead and record a whole series of Beethoven symphonies when we have had greats like Furtwängler, Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Bernstein, Klemperer and many other greats do it already? Is anything new really being added or is it for marketing reasons?

    Overplaying Beethoven also means that much less time is devoted to wonderful, gifted composers of lesser stature. An example, the Russian, Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov, wrote two very, very good symphonies that are virtually unknown in the West. Or how about Duke Ellington’s magnificent, “River Suite”? Also underplayed. That shouldn’t be. In a real sense, the Beethoven “phenomenon” has sucked the air out of classical music for others.

    I pretty much disagree with the writer on the issues of whitness and gender although I appreciate his comments.

  • Couperin says:

    I was proud to take part in the world premiere for Beamish’s City Stanzas (great and powerful 2nd movement dedicated to Peter Maxwell Davies; forgettable outer movements). That commissioning project was done for Jonathan Biss and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Each Piano Concerto was paired with a new concerto, all the composers of which were white, two were women, and none of the works even came close to the quality of Beethoven. They will be largely forgotten, except perhaps as a way to shine a new light on Beethoven’s greatness. Oh well. At least Timo Andres and Caroline Shaw got some press out of it. Mind you, the orchestra completely detested both of their works, but not because they’re white!

  • Eduardo says:

    do we really need to waste our time with this?
    Please Norman……..

  • Kathleen King says:

    This is the outcome when racists — regardless of their personal ethnicity — are given public platforms to spread their hate. There are many, many talented and capable folk out there. Please give them platforms and let people such as this creature hunt for soap boxes in Hyde Park or just rant on the streets.

  • Miguel Benatuil says:

    How mentally decrepit can you be to postulate such a senseless claim?.. a truly worthless, unsubstantiated rambling on non history.

  • Sandringham Vache says:

    Mr Ewell – please name the black female composers who lived in Beethoven’s era and deserved equal acclaim.
    I’m waiting …


    The word MASTER in music derives from TEACHER – Maestro having nothing to do with dominance.

  • Natasha says:

    We should be celebrating instead drum beats and dancing around a flame in a circle with our arses hanging out.

  • Ara says:

    You Americans are pathetic.

    Beethoven is a master because he mastered something. What does this have to do with racism?

    He was the first one to use romance to melt the conservatism and a borocco style approach to the idea of harmony over melody. The way he used melody was put above harmony and without him we wouldn’t have jazz and blues. You’re rewriting history here. People like you always do it. You’re blowing this theory out of thin air.

  • Ara says:

    Also, I must add this. In Beethoven’s times problems where different which is the reason that brought us Beethoven and promoted him. He is what came out of it as a master and a genius who changed everything.

  • The author is both a moron, an idiot, and a clueless man of enormous, self-inflated ego.

  • Simon says:

    As far as I am concerned Ms. Spalding wouldn’t be even playing the bass or composing if it weren’t for Beethoven and his works composed for the European instruments the white males brought with them from Europe. I get some of his points, but honestly if we are going to attack some of the greatest works of art and those who created them, maybe we ought to just nuke the entire world and go back to stone age and start from scratch. This is getting beyond ridiculous.

  • Jeremy Cullen says:

    It’s ok, of course it can be frightening to have your worldview challenged.

  • Michael Morrison says:

    I didn’t read all 99 comments, but I have read Thayer’s Beethoven bio and have or have herd nearly all of his music.

    No one has mentioned the one thing which has ensured the immortality of Beethoven’s music: Evolution

    As with life and the universe itself, the fit survive and the unfit do not.

    Dozens of other white, male composers in Beethoven’s day composed music and had it performed before the same audiences as his. Their music fell onto the same ears as Beethoven’s.

    Most of their music has fallen into obscurity, while Beethoven’s music continues to dominate performance venues and recordings, world wide.

    There’s a reason for that, and it isn’t because Beethoven was white or male. It certainly isn’t because he himself was a charismatic figure, like, say, Wagner or L. Ron Hubbard.

    Beethoven was an obnoxious, bad tempered, drunken fornicator who somehow drove his own nephew to attempt suicide rather than live with him. He was despised by most, loved by none, and who, on his deathbed, cursed those who had fought to have his ninth symphony performed because he claimed they had cheated him out of his money.

    But, when it came to composing music, Beethoven was a genius. His music survives because much of it is magnificent.

  • Jonathan says:

    It turns out that this author’s entire argument is based on the English word “master” referring to one who has mastered some subject, and “masterwork” or “masterpiece,” referring to a piece, painting or novel that its fans consider masterful, could coincidentally also refer to a slave owner across the Atlantic (here in America)…as if Beethoven had anything to do with that. The article shows no insight into Beethoven’s music whatsoever, and the author apparently has no understanding into what distinguished Beethoven’s music from that of his contemporaries.

  • Paul Murphy says:

    What a disappointing post about an important topic. Mr. Lebrecht offers a framing and introduction for Mr. Ewell’s important work that might be about as honest and trustworthy as William Barr’s framing of the Mueller report. If you’re getting most of your news and information about classical music from this blog, you might wish to look elsewhere for more enlightened tidbits.

    (I confess I have no specific places to recommend right now, but would invite others to post their recommendations. Heck, I invite others to start competing blogs!)

    Recently, it seems as if the most notable contribution of SlippedDisc is that certain posts (and especially the comment sections!) of this blog offers excellent and historic documentation of the ignorance, racism, sexism, elitism, and so many other “isms” that are associated with classical music. Historians will pick through these comments, and I believe will judge them harshly.

    God bless you Norman, but my patience has reached its limit with this post. Please, I beg of you. You have a lot to offer the world. Please do better.

  • Felipe Ordóñez de Rivera says:

    Utter bollox.

  • Lana says:

    Goebbels’ attitude toward human culture is nothing more than a BS. Always failed in the past, will fail again and again

  • Jeff says:

    An African American music theorist? I take offense to this peculiar intersectional identity, which likely was made possible through cultural appropriation and racial quota. And by the way, don’t believe the hagiographers: MLK is just an above-average negro.

  • Jason Fingers says:

    Actually, this is great news because if Beethoven is the average, that means there are hundreds of unknown composers greater than Beethoven who will soon be discovered. What a goldmine.

  • Oistrach says:

    Says a man who owes his career as musician to white, European male composers. Is ‘activism’ the 21st-century way to compensate the lack of ‘talent’?

  • Alexanderhenry says:

    I Read the article.
    Ewell claims that music theory itself is racist. By music theory, I assume he means music notation and the rules governing various forms of music- tonal, atonal, dissonant, improvised etc.
    Therefore, things such as scales or modes, crotchets (quarter notes),a verse, a chorus, a coda, phrases, variations, improvised instrumental solos- are all racist.

    He offers no explanation for this. How is an F major scale racist exactly?

    I’m afraid, this kind of pseudo academic theorizing is non sensical, opportunistic, disingenuous, cynical claptrap.

    Ewell may further his own career as a result of this but that’s all there is to it.

  • Peter says:

    I listened to a bit of 12 Little Spells. Some masterwork — unlistenable, in my view, and I listen to everything from classical to throat singing.

    It makes you wonder if this music professor has ever heard a note of music, or really understood it. He surely doesn’t appreciate the fact that Beethoven almost single-handedly advanced music a century, and wrote his greatest works while profoundly deaf.

    How glad I am to be well past my college years. I would never survive in the new McCarthyism and plain ignorance of campus wokeness. And I say this as a political liberal who now finds the left to be just as irritating and dangerous as the far right.