Classical music ‘must acknowledge a history of systemic racism’

Classical music ‘must acknowledge a history of systemic racism’


norman lebrecht

September 16, 2020

That’s the strapline on Alex Ross’s nuanced and cautious survey in the New Yorker of upheavals in American universities and orchestras over supposed white supremacism in western music.

In respect of the Schenker row he writes: At bottom, the entire music-education system rests upon the Schenkerian assumption that the Western tonality, with its major-minor harmony and its equal-tempered scale, is the master language. 

One could argue that case from a different angle. His conclusion, though, is indisputable:

The ultimate mistake is to look to music—or to any art form—as a zone of moral improvement, a refuge of sweetness and light. Attempts to cleanse the canon of disreputable figures end up replicating the great-man theory in a negative register, with arch-villains taking the place of geniuses.

Read on here.




  • Doug says:

    How many years has it been since I first wrote here in the comments that the Leftist cultural revolution will come for classical music? Another fine example.

    • Alexander Radziewski says:

      Leftist? In which bubble do you life? It has nothing to do with left or right but with an extremely limited view from Americans involved in classical music in the USA. If only Schenker is their role model, I can understand them but it’s totally wrong for them to believe the classical music world outside the US is still based on the point of view of Schenker and his followers in the US.

      • MWnyc says:

        Oh, by no means is Schenker the only role model for classical music, especially contemporary classical composition, in the U.S.

        Schenker — or, to put it better, the whole major-minor, equal-temperament structure of Western tonality — is still the basis for classical music instruction in the U.S. I gather that remains the case in most of the Western world.

        The critic and teacher Matthew Guerrieri put it well when he once wrote that he tells his undergrad music students that he, and the school, are teaching them Western music theory not because Western classical music is superior to other kinds of music, but because the theory is
        a) easy to systematize,
        and therefore
        b) easy to teach,
        which means that
        c) it’s a good way to jumpstart the brain into making connections between written notes and pitched sounds and to make you able to write down, analyze and understand all sorts of music.

        • Sue Sonata Form says:

          Very well said. But “The Guardian” won’t get off on your comments; it prefers the victim/oppressor model. Every time.

      • Y2K says:

        Alex, I could not have put it any better. Left/Right tribalistic vitriol often makes people leave their brains at the door.

      • Frank Taplan says:

        what bubble do YOU live in? It has everything to do with the leftist push to pull down everything and anything Western. Ask for a list – I’m prepared.

        • Alexander Radziewski says:

          I am waiting for your input. I am left and a professional musician in Germany for more than 40 years.

          • Chris says:

            Germany is a country of consensus-forming centrists. This movement is certainly coming from the Anglo-American left, which, not unlike the Anglo-American right, is far more extreme and less rational than pretty much anything to be found on the Continent.

          • Edgar says:

            Agreed. The extremest extremists on both right and left in the US have the same ruthless totalitarianism in common. If one would put them in a cage, not one of them would survive – they’d kill each other, as neither group allows anyone who thinks otherwise than they do to remain alive.

            We might well see such extremist totalitarian violence happening on US streets on and after November 3. Hyperbole? Dystopia? I am by no means sure. I only hope I am wrong.

            As for music: I intend to read Ross’ New Yorker article. So I refrain from comment on it.

            Yet: If anything, one of the many lessons the Covid pandemic teaches is that it unmasks centuries of Western European/ Western global dominance. The era of colonisation and its terrible aftermath comes to its end: people worldwide have become deeply aware what has been done to them and demand change. We witness epochal tectonic shifts of change, in every aspect of our human existence. (Much more complex, needing deeper reflection and discussion. I only say we live through the end of an epoch and are moving toward a radically different one, without yet grasping how it will be)

            Maybe we need this “Generalpause” and tune hearts, minds, souls and ears to music hitherto not fully dis-covered/appreciated/validated, I wonder?

            Too sad it is still considered (in most places anyway) too dangerous to use the human instrument par excellence: the human voice, singing. I, for one, would love to come together with others and sing.

            Among music I’ve been listening to these past days is Ives’ “Unanswered Question” (on YouTube, Chicago Symphony, MTT conducting). I wonder what Charlie would say -what kind of music he’d write-were he alive today.

          • William Safford says:

            I disagree, Edgar.

            In the U.S., the right wing has moved into National Front territory, or worse.

            The American left wing isn’t even close to what is mainstream left-leaning politics in Europe, and there is nothing totalitarian about it — except in the minds of the actual totalitarian-leaning right-wingers, who don’t let facts get in the way of their fringe ideology.

            Most of the protests in the U.S. this year have been peaceful.

            When there has been violence or property damage, it has almost exclusively been instigated and committed by right wing agitators. This is well documented. Anyone is able to read and see this. They do — we do — unless they watch and read exclusively right-wing propaganda outlets.

            I read Alex Ross’s article. It is right on the money. His comments on the Schenker tempest in a teapot, for example, highlight not only the racism that he apparently believed, but the racism that many people used to attack Professor Ewell and others when those racist background structures were brought to the foreground.

          • Sue Sonata Form says:

            Except that extremists on the right are a minority/fringe element. On the Left they form the biggest part of the political ideology in the USA. Nice try, though.

          • William Safford says:


            The extremists on the right occupy the Oval Office and many Cabinet-level and other political appointments (mostly acting) right now, including the office of Attorney General.

            Have you read in the news about forced sterilizations in internment camps?

            Did you read about the government’s desire to use heat rays against protesters–a weapon system that the military didn’t want to use in combat in Iraq because it’s too inhumane?

            Right-wing extremists in the streets gain legitimacy from above, as the White House fish rots from the head down.

            Gun sales are at historic highs. Ammunition is scarce and expensive, because right wingers are stockpiling.

            As I previously wrote, even people to the left of Bernie Bros, are still to the right of most mainstream left-wing European parties.

            You are either misinformed, or lying.

            Nice try, though.

          • Dave says:

            Sue, you still haven’t gotten help like suggested have you?

          • William Safford says:

            Representatives of your “minority/fringe” right-wing extremist element were just arrested for trying to kidnap the Michigan governor.

          • Haydn70 says:

            Good ole Charlie would write the same kind of fourth-rate, technically and aesthetically bankrupt garbage he wrote before.

          • William Safford says:

            Actually, Chris, that is false.

            In western Europe, Bernie Sanders would be center-left, and the current Republican Party and its leader would be about even with France’s National Front (or whatever its current name is).

          • M2N2K says:

            If that is so, then it would mean that Western Europe is moving faster toward self-destruction than USA is.

          • William Safford says:

            M2N2K, actually, countries such as Norway, Sweden, and Finland seem to be doing just fine as social democratic democracies (Norway and Sweden with figurehead monarchs).

            We can learn from them.

            The much greater danger is from the likes of the ascending anti-democratic parties in Hungary and Poland. They are subverting their democracies in the name of political power, just as the orange enemy of the people wants to do.

            National Front in France (with its historical roots in Vichy France), and several other of the ultra-right-wing parties in places like Germany and Denmark, also pose potential risks to democracy.

            The current iteration of the Republican Party is close to joining this infamous club. Certainly its orange enemy of the people leader is a threat to democracy. The only good news is that his bellicosity is only matched by his incompetence.

            Let us work toward the virtuous goal of voting him out of office in November.

          • M2N2K says:

            What looks like it has been so far working decently in Scandinavia cannot possibly work at all in USA – the “climate” is very different in many ways.

          • William Safford says:

            I don’t propose that the U.S. copy Scandinavian programs exactly, but we can certainly learn from them and adapt them to our country.

            Exhibit A: health care.

            Of course, we have the problem of those people who don’t want “those” kinds of people to get health care.

            These are the sorts of people who scream “socialism” at anything that actually helps their fellow man (and woman), despite the fact that the single largest socialist program in the world is the U.S. military….

          • Sue Sonata Form says:

            I’m sorry for you. Wider reading required.

          • William Safford says:

            I’m not sorry for you. You choose to live in your right wing fact-free bubble.

            I recommend that you actually do some research, rather than accepting uncritically the right-wing propaganda that is spoon-fed to you.

          • Harrumphrey says:


    • Karl says:

      I saw that about Beethoven. But Beethoven was black. It’s been proven. I saw it on twitter.

    • Morgan says:

      To cite The Washington Examiner speaks much of your bias.

      • M2N2K says:

        And your comment speaks even more of yours, so what? Perhaps this entire exchange speaks most explicitly about the increasingly extreme biases in nearly all of US media.

        • William Safford says:

          That is a false equivalency.

          There is a right wing propaganda machine.

          There is a factual mainstream press.

          The two are not equivalent.

          • M2N2K says:

            Of course not. Maybe the “right” wing is called that for a good reason.

          • William Safford says:

            I suppose that the “right” wing is that, if your desire is to destroy American democracy.

            Let’s be clear about this: there is nothing conservative about the orange enemy of the people and his minions.

            Any conservative with a conscience has left the Republican Party, is working from within to counter these forces, or has been purged from it.

            What we see now is a reactionary white supremacist movement, with the intent of making sure that they grab and hold onto power at all costs.

            They give lip service to conservative values, but it’s really a power grab.

            This is a struggle for the future of our republic: the evils of revanchist white supremacy, or the light of pluralist democracy.

          • M2N2K says:

            That is your opinion and it is very different from the way I see it.

          • William Safford says:

            The orange enemy of the people specifically and explicitly said that he will not accept the results of an election that does not reelect him.

            Even many Republican officeholders are backpedaling at least a little bit from this–at least for the moment.

            Your opinion is presented within this context.

          • Martin says:

            William Safford is almost comical spewing his relentless propaganda. What a fantasy world.

          • William Safford says:

            Your fantasy world is confined within the fact-free right wing propaganda bubble.

  • PHF says:

    Musicolorgy enters in action again.

  • Lance Hulme says:

    Couple of comments:
    As a “white” male teaching traditional theory at an historic black university music with a strong jazz program, it is interesting to note that no student or faculty have ever brought the subject up or objected to my teaching. Only I have initiated the subject and there isn’t much resistance to my emphasis (as a composer) that we can change the future, not the past. Our jazz faculty are focused on teaching jazz theory in parallel with my sequence and showing how the two systems interlock. Our “classical” faculty regularly perform music of black composers, both living and of the past. All belong to the Gateways festival which I have yet to see mentioned in the debate. Secondly, when I was in Vienna on a Fulbright, I took part in theory and composition seminars. Schenker was never mentioned (neither was Allan Forte). Something to note – and I’m not at all sure how much this means – is that German, especially 19th century Austrian German, has a strong imperative quality. The Angle-Saxon couching of strong beliefs isn’t/wasn’t part of the culture. Lastly, Ross doesn’t mention it, but the entire discussion has a whiff of Marxism about it: the purpose of art being to educate the masses. As a composer, I’m still baffled about explaining the purpose of what I do, but I’m delighted to share the delight of music with everyone, regardless of color, gender, orientation or beliefs and I’m excited to hear what they are doing.

  • Lancelot Spratt says:

    They have forgotten 12 tone “wrong note”.

    They will be after the pentatonic scale next. The birds had better watch out!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Ironically, the major/minor system represents the humanistic side of European culture from 17C onwards. It is the 12-tone idea which clearly, in opposition to the tonal tradition, wanted to dominate the musical field, and getting all other music out of the way. Schoenberg himself wrote about his 12-tone idea in 1922 that it would garantee the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years. So, attacking the tonal, humanistic tradition for entirely invented nonsense reasons is just very stupid.

  • Ricardo says:

    “music do wishes to be heard that often it calls on unlikely characters to give it voice” (spot the quotation)

  • christopher storey says:

    Drivel from start to finish

  • CarlD says:

    Interesting accounting of certain personalities and events, tied up in — what seems to this white guy — an unwarranted claim of racism. Maybe the western canon is simply the grand musical accomplishment it seems to be. How else to explain the millions of kids in China practicing Beethoven at this moment?

    • John Borstlap says:

      That is true. It is very mysterious.

      By the way: China produces quite some interesting composers who blend elements of their own tradition with the Western tradition. It seems that the Western elements gives them wings to express particular Chinese aesthetic concerns, because of its developed technique. And composers like Bright Sheng (American/Chinese) bring back Western expressiveness to Western music, making the cirkel round.

      • Sam says:

        You really think such music is “interesting”?
        I don’t.
        And it’s just just silly compared to the great western canon.
        Then again, most new music which is billed as being “interesting” is also quite silly and has no place in the great repertoire.

        • V. Lind says:

          I think it is vastly unknown to our ears, at least as unfamiliar as the Chinese language is. Most westerners have more difficulty with Chinese than they do with a Romance or even a non-Cyrillic Slavic language. It has to do with the many tones, slight variants on which can alter the meaning of a statement incredibly (a widespread source of humour).

          I went to a concert of Chinese Opera arias, and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. But when I went to a whole, fully-staged opera, it lost me musically about half-way through. I could not tell you if it were good or bad — it was just musically totally outside my ken, and there were no English-language programmes to clarify what it was about, though I managed to follow some of it.

          Not something to be introduced to the ROH rep, but not “silly” just because we do not know it.

        • John Borstlap says:

          With all due repsect, but this is a very [redacted] comment.

          I think this is truly good music:

          …. with a surprising touch of very Western expressive capabilities:

          Ignorance and prejudice are as threatening to the art form in the West as the current wave of populism and social justice warriors.

    • Haydn70 says:

      A big thumbs up on your post, CarlD, thank you for it. You wrote: “Maybe the western canon is simply the grand musical accomplishment it seems to be”. Well, I will go a step further: it is the GRANDEST musical accomplishment in the history of this planet…it doesn’t seem to be, it IS…no maybes about it.

      • John Borstlap says:

        If it is the grandest musical accomplishment in the history of this planet (leaving other planets out of the equasion for a moment), then this does not in the slightest diminish the value and meaningfulness of any other musical tradition. Because the Western musical tradition – which only existed up till 20C modernism which killed it off – was never meant as something with which to bang on the head of its neighbours.

        But to call this tradition a ‘canon’ is open to debate…. Apart from the military associations, which are quite sensitive in the light of this post, the cementing of a group of works with fast-hammered value always reeks of the inquisition. These works don’t need an academic accolade to maintain their value.

      • F. P. Walter says:

        Here’s an eternal verity for you: Just because you say so doesn’t mean it IS so.

    • William Safford says:

      Your comment is nebulous.

      Are claims of racism warranted? Well, sometimes yes, sometimes no, and sometimes it’s legitimately debatable.

      China is not a reliable bellwether. During the Cultural Revolution, those Chinese musicians who previously studied classical music were sent to the fields to harvest rice, or worse.

      Right now, classical music appears to be acceptable to the powers that be. But if you’re Uyghur, you’re probably in a concentration camp. So who knows which way the wind will blow next.

  • Kenneth says:

    This isn’t about the ‘Western tonality, with its major-minor harmony and its equal-tempered scale’ at all. This is the same rhetoric we see the Postmodernists use against establishment they dislike. The ‘disaffected’ have no power and don’t want to participate or work, therefore they attempt to destroy or discredit what they paint as the ‘Oppressive’. Honestly, this is a disappointing, sad claim, which hurts my heart to witness. The rhetoric and all the identity politics confirms that these are young postmodernist deconstructionists who may have been a little too influenced by the likes of Foucault or Derrida. And no, nobody in their right mind is against meritocracy or equality of opportunity. That must be said as a disclaimer…

    It is important to understand that ‘classical’ isn’t something they need to measure their worth against in a contest, and therefore by devaluing the ‘establishment’ or ‘patriarchy’ or whatever rhetoric the kids are running with these days, they think they solidify their position or gain value themselves. This is a dangerous, insipid expression of ego. True art is about the pursuit of beauty / inspiration / pleasure and much more – and in a time where so much of our artistic world is under siege, this attack is irresponsible. It wrongly paints what ‘classical’ music is about, and what it is worth.

    Beethoven is a master because his art is – it can shine a light through the cosmos for humanity to behold; and the same goes for most great artists. He can take us along on his journey, while embodying the concept of Tragic Heroism and confronting fate in an unparalleled way – and we have so much to learn from him and the other masters. No, most art of the world does not accomplish (or come close to) this. And Beethoven’s ‘An die ferne Geliebte’ or his Klavier Trio Op. 70 No. 2 doesn’t care if Beethoven was white, black, tangerine, or aquamarine – it is IRRELEVANT.

  • E Rand says:

    Ok! Acknowleged..I guess? Now what? Can we go back to making great music? Or are we better off as a society listening to “WAP”?

  • D** says:

    There is truth to some of Alex Ross’ comments, but here’s the important information he omitted. You can’t have greater diversity if you don’t provide children of color with a solid music education!

    I was a public school (state school in the U.K.) music teacher in a large U.S. city with a majority African American population. There were many wonderful students, and a large number went on to achieve fame in the music profession. For them, everything began with a strong music foundation begun at an early age.

    For the majority of children, these foundations are taught in public school. Many school districts understand this fact, and offer general music, band, orchestra, and choir from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Unfortunately, other school districts (like mine) didn’t understand this simple truth. There are no shortcuts!

    The leadership of my school district was almost entirely African American, and they were the ones who made the decision to eliminate music programs from most schools. In a way, they were acting like the leadership of the former USSR–close most churches and synagogues, but keep a few open for show. They maintained a marching band (even if most of its members could barely read music) to march in parades.

    My school district wasn’t the only one, and I certainly don’t mean to single out African American school administrators. The same thing has happened and is happening in many cities across the United States. It’s very sad.

  • Alex Ross Resign says:

    This coming from a white man who has made his entire career off of writing about white composers in his books and most of his articles. If he wants to help the situation he should give up his post at the New York to someone of color and thank the world for the fortune he has made off of supposed systemic racism. He is a hypocrite pure and simple especially with his lavish book contract writing about Wagner.

    • V. Lind says:

      His lavish book on Wagner — 700+ pages as I recall — is out.

      Apparently he talks about just about everything except the music.

    • Larry D says:

      I’m sure that Alex Ross would be surprised to learn he has “made a fortune”. Equally would he be surprised to learn that he could inspire such loathing as to inspire you to rebaptize yourself as “Alex Ross Resign”. Is this moniker forever? Will it be on your driver’s license?

  • John Rook says:

    This is all getting very silly.

  • Ralph Bateman says:

    Why does Ross capitalise the adjective “Black” mid-sentence ? Bit annoying

    • Bruce says:

      It’s a recent thing, meant to show respect. Who knows if it will last. (In writing from the 50s-70s, it’s common to see the word “Negro,” capitalized, as a descriptor; that gradually gave way to lower-case “black.”)

      • V. Lind says:

        I refuse to do it while “white” is not capitalised. (I don’t think either needs to be except as collective nouns, and possibly not even then).

    • John Borstlap says:

      It’s self-protection, to avoid being accused of looking-down on smaller type.

    • William Safford says:

      This article will answer your question:

      If you do a web search, you will find similar articles by the AP, almost every major and many minor American newspapers, and more.

      This topic was prominent in the news earlier this year.

      A quote from the article:

      “It seems like such a minor change, black versus Black,” The Times’s National editor, Marc Lacey, said. “But for many people the capitalization of that one letter is the difference between a color and a culture.”

      • M2N2K says:

        That “explanation” would have maybe made any sense if there was one “black” culture, but that is most definitely not the case: there are many different “black” cultures on our planet just like there are many different “white” cultures. Makes our lives much more interesting, by the way! Thank goodness, we are not talking about one “yellow” culture these days (Anymore or yet?) as if for example Japanese and Chinese were one and the same which would be absurd. So, capitalizing one skin color but not another has little to do with “culture” but looks like a clear implication of superiority (or at least of greater importance) of the former over the latter and is therefore racist.

        • William Safford says:

          You make one valid point about there not being one “black culture.”

          That notwithstanding, you otherwise completely ignore the greater point.

          If you have not yet read the article, and commented based only on the one quote that I excerpted therefrom, then I recommend that you read it.

          If you wish to be more informed about this topic, then I recommend that you read several more articles on point. They are readily available via web search.

          • M2N2K says:

            If you are so well-informed, it should be easy for you to explain what is “the greater point” that I supposedly ignored and how it invalidates the conclusions I reached in the last sentence of my previous comment above here.

          • William Safford says:

            Did you read any other articles on this topic? I read ones by the AP, the Washington Post, and several others.

            The information is there.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    The picture of Wagner family implies that he was a thoroughgoing racist. In truth his racism was only confined to antisemitism. He also held a grudge against the French, largely due to his miserable experiences there.

    • Edgar says:

      “Je tannhause, tu tannhause, elle tannhause, il tannhause, nous tannhausons, vous tannhausez, elles/ils tannhausent” – such was, if I remember correctly from Martin Gregor-Dellin’s massive biography published in 1983, the satirical response to Wagner’s Paris Tannhäuser in Paris. Wagner failed to see the humor in this. C’est d’hommage:-)

      • John Borstlap says:

        There was not much humor to be discovered in the way Tannhauser was torpeded by the Jockey Club members. The work did not fail, but was killed-off by illiterates.

    • John Borstlap says:

      And even his antisemitism was cultural, rather than racist – he had many Jewish friends and supporters. It was a cultural critique of the modernism of his time, regrettably clothed in racist terms.

      • Larry D says:

        In other words, you consider it to be the “good” antisemitism, sort of like “good” cholesterol?

        • John Borstlap says:

          W criticized destructive industrialization, the destruction of the environment, wild capitalism, the commercialization of culture. Many leading proponents of those trends in his time were Jews. He thought their misconduct was ethnically-ingrained and thus sought to explain it in racist terms. His obervations were correct, his explanation wrong – like someone concluding after seeing many red-haired communists that it must be their hair colour.

    • William Safford says:

      In 19th century America, Jews were not considered white. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that they became assimilated and accepted as white.

      Hitler based a great deal of his antisemitic theories on the writings of Henry Ford and other Americans, who themselves were influenced by Wagner.

      Food for thought.

    • Herbie G says:

      I don’t think he went a bundle on the Slav ‘untermenschen’ either.

  • John Borstlap says:

    “At bottom, the entire music-education system rests upon the Schenkerian assumption that the Western tonality, with its major-minor harmony and its equal-tempered scale, is the master language.”

    Only in a totally illiterate, stupid brain such nonsense could come-up. Populations, living in the West, take-up this language in music education because it is THEIR language, nothing wrong with it. Anybody can explore other musical languages any time. Language education begins with one’s own language – is English for toddlers in the USA and in the UK wrong because it would imply a ‘master language’? The mind boggles.

    What Schenker thought about Western tonality and the major-minor system, is irrelevant. No serious classical music professional combines an admiration for and love of Western tonality with the notion of a ‘master language’. Of course the musical language of Western classical music, including modality and other extensions, is a ‘masterly musical language’, that has no equal in the world. But that does not mean that it is the ‘master language’, with its fascist overtones. By existing, it does not look down on other musical traditions, outside the West, who have other ways of expressing their musical imaginery. It is again the idiotic slander from under the rocks that want to destroy the art form because they cannot do anything with it themselves. It is the lamentable whining of the mentally retarded.

  • Adrienne says:

    I lost patience with this a long time ago.

    I enjoy Handel’s music and belong to an amateur choir that performs it on a regular basis (or used to). However, I now discover that:

    “George Frideric Handel was an investor in the Royal African Company, which transported more than two hundred thousand enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and the Americas.

    The racism embedded in classical and popular music alike …”

    So Handel invested in a company which was involved in slavery. As a result of this investment, which might have been at arm’s length, Mr Ross is saying that racism is “embedded” in Messiah and Samson?

    I would be grateful if Mr Ross could get hold of copies of the contaminated scores and mark the “embedded slavery” bits so that I can keep my black mouth shut at appropriate moments during the next performance.

    Thanking you in advance.

    • Bruce says:

      Somebody also claimed to have found evidence of Handel’s homosexuality in his voice-leading some years ago. So maybe that should help rehabilitate him a little? He was white, but at least he was LGBTQ+ (according to his compositional style).

      • John Borstlap says:

        Big sigh of relief. This will compensate for his indirect involvement with slavery.

        But also his presentation of a one-eyed giant in Acis and Galatea: Polyphemus, should redeem him.

    • John Borstlap says:

      We are not far removed from the burning of scores, like the nazis did with books in the thirties, but now for protecting a moral highground that only exists in the brains of the deranged.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        And now the Woke Taliban is after J.K. Rowling. So, yes, book burning is on its way. The DNA of the Left lends itself to this kind of authoritarianism; there is a history. Their ancestors in the USSR taught them.

        • William Safford says:

          A fascinating juxtaposition: NASCAR is currently doing an excellent job of confronting and remedying its racist past, with the full support of its drivers as well as management; but J.K Rowling maintains her blind spot re trans people.

          There is a meme about this. I would embed it, if that were possible.

  • Bruce says:

    A couple of things stood out to me in this article:

    The Harvard musicologist Anne Shreffler has said of the new undergraduate music curriculum, “We relied on students showing up on our doorstep having had piano lessons since the age of six.” Given the systemic inequality into which many people of color are born, this “class-based implicit requirement,” as Shreffler calls it, becomes a covert form of racial exclusion.

    She has a point. If you base your requirements on something only relatively wealthy families can afford, then you tend to end up with mostly white students. (It’s not just fancy schools either; no-name public university music departments also expect students to show up with several years of private instruction behind them.) It’s not a racist policy, but it has almost the same effect as one. It’s worth addressing; without going into a detailed analysis of what changes Harvard’s music dept. is making, however, it’s hard to tell if they are “making adjustments” or “trying to destroy Western civilization.”

    And the couple of sentences just before Norman’s quote: There is no need to reach a final verdict—to judge each artist innocent or guilty. Living with history means living with history’s complexities, contradictions, and failings.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The requirement for entering the undergraduate curriculum is in no way racist, and its effects are also not racist. It is an articulation point on a trajectory of musical education, nothing more, nothing less. The responsibility for the problem of inaccessibility lies elsewhere: politics, economy, sopcial justice, etc. To burden professional requirements with extra-professional responsibility is entirely useless, it is elsewhere that a solution has to be ound.

      The same with accessibility at orchestras for blacks: auditions are the result of such very long educational trajectory and then it is too late to change something that is rooted outside the profession.

      • V. Lind says:

        Universities are not the places for teaching people how to read music and play their scales.

        Mind you, “Remedial English” has been a programme at many universities for decades. Initially at least requiring scholars to teach high school “graduates” how to form a basic English plural, let alone subject-verb agreement.

        I see a common problem here. But I can assure you that the schools are teaching the little angels how to be diverse and inclusive and all that, meaning that there are no Christmas pageants any more. (So no carols, the first songs many kids learn, and there is damned good music in some of them). Thus eliminating a central story in western thought right at cradle level. (The commercial aspects keep the secular mythology of Santa active — for now).

      • William Safford says:

        This is part of what many people, including many commenters to this blog, either will not accept, or are not intelligent enough to understand: the fact that someone or something can be simultaneously not racist, and also part of systemic racism.

        Let’s use your example of being accepted into an undergraduate curriculum.

        It is entirely possible that those who choose students for a particular undergraduate curriculum are not themselves racist. Presented with a qualified student who is Black, they will accept that student, irrespective of the color of that student’s skin.

        I’ll even put aside for the purposes of this comment, whether or not there is racism built into that application process. Let’s assume for the moment that there isn’t.

        However, the fact that many Black students suffer extensive racism before reaching the undergraduate admissions, makes the undergraduate admissions another cog in the gears of systemic racism.

        The students can’t gain admission, because they have been denied the very training and education that would prepare them for acceptance into the program. In many cases, they were denied it because they are Black–not in the blatant Jim Crow way of yesteryear, but often in more subtle and insidious ways.

        Those university requirements are not in and of themselves racist, because they are being applied equally to all applicants. The adjudicators in this example, are not racist, because they will readily accept the Black student.

        Yet, those very requirements are an impediment to the advancement of students who might otherwise be fully capable of entering the program, had they not been held back in their educational and professional development because of the color of their skin.

        Of course, this can be true of any individual student. There can be discrimination against poor people, irrespective of their skin color. This dynamic is not limited to Black students. And, of course, there can be and are individual Black students who transcend these limitations, or who are fortunate enough to come from families with strong music backgrounds, or who attended schools with strong music programs.


        As Alex Ross wrote: “A deeper reckoning would require wholesale changes in how orchestras canvass talent, conservatories recruit students, institutions hire executives, and marketers approach audiences.”


        “Given the systemic inequality into which many people of color are born, this ‘class-based implicit requirement,’…becomes a covert form of racial exclusion.”

        As youth are wont to say: “This.”

        • John Borstlap says:

          I know, it is very difficult to make distinctions.

          “The students can’t gain admission, because they have been denied the very training and education that would prepare them for acceptance into the program. In many cases, they were denied it because they are Black–not in the blatant Jim Crow way of yesteryear, but often in more subtle and insidious ways.”

          Exactly. But that is not the result of the educational trajectory. The problem has to be solved outside music education.

          Is understanding such clear thing a matter of intelligence? I don’t think so, it is the result of wishful thinking, that a solution can be forced by changing the curriculum, or lowering the standards, or to create some inverted racism like ‘positive discrimination’.

          Racism is a problem of mentality first: people’s mind and heart have to be opened-up. From this all possible solutions can be derived, and general education is one of them, from elementary school upwards. Trying to change music curriculae or labelling musical works with political nonsense won’t solve the problem of people’s mindset.

          • William Safford says:

            I’m confused.

            The fact that many Black students receive inadequate musical and academic education, is not the result of the “educational trajectory?”

            I agree that there is much to fix outside of music education. But is that the end of the story? We should just wash our hands of them and say that it’s someone else’s fault?

          • John Borstlap says:

            Accessibility to the educational trajectory is a problem different from the nature of the trajectory itself. Where talented young people don’t have access because of poverty, or underdeveloped social background, it is THESE problems that have to be addressed, not the nature of the curriculum. Standards of ability are neutral and should be neutral, but they should be accessible to any young people with the necessary talents.

            Should untalented youngsters from poor, backward social environments be helped to enter the educational trajectory? By lowering the standards because they have been deprived of education? Such ideas may result from confusing the two different contexts….. Isn’t it the obligation of any civilized society to prevent unfair accessibility from happening? But that is something different from the standards of the curriculum – otherwise, the curriculum is used for political reasons and will go corrupt.

          • William Safford says:

            Standards are not neutral.

            They can be implemented in fair and equitable ways, but that is different.

            Standards can deprive entry to the educational trajectory.

            Standards can serve as barriers to entry for various groups.

            This is not to diminish the importance of standards, but to put them into proper context.

        • James Weiss says:

          What utter rubbish. There is no such thing as “systemic racism.” There are racists but not “systemic racists.” Just repeating it over and over without concrete examples won’t make it so.
          I’m a professor on an American college campus. This is where the far left lives and breathes. The fights here are between the reasonable left and the totalitarian far left who don’t believe in free speech and see teaching as indoctrination not learning. There is little center here and the right is non-existent. People need to get their heads out of the sand and see what’s going on: a wholesale attempt to “cancel” Western civilization by a narrow-minded, totalitarian left.

          • William Safford says:

            Systemic racism exists. Denying its existence does not make it go away.

            I can cite countless examples:

            – poor majority-Black inner-city neighborhoods that were created by redlining, and that continue to exist to this day

            – funding systems for public schools that direct monies towards white districts and away from minority ones

            – the high ratio of the murder rate of Black people by police

            – the high ratio of incarceration of Black people — I recommend that you read “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander:


            And much more.

            If you want to open your mind and learn about the fact of systemic racism, the resources are readily available.

            If you prefer to maintain the fiction that it does not exist–well, that is on you.

    • Derek says:

      All relatively poorer families will struggle to provide for years of private lessons and good instruments as well as the necessary support (or even sacrifice).

      It is clearly social and economic circumstances that make a difference.

  • Bruce says:

    Another thought: it’s worth noting the difference between “systemic” and “systematic.”

    Systematic means “done according to a plan.” It implies something done on purpose.
    Systemic means “pervasive throughout a system.” It carries no implication of purpose.

    There’s been talk on this site about the classism of classical music, i.e. that the playing field is tilted in favor of wealthy kids who can afford great teachers, good instruments, fancy summer festivals, and expensive tuition at a conservatory. It’s not that music schools refuse to admit poor kids, they just have expectations based on having a lot of money. (As I said in another comment, it’s not just fancy music schools: any college music program expects its applicants to have several years of private lessons behind them. Even if you need a scholarship for college tuition, all those years of lessons — plus, hopefully, a decent instrument — had to be paid for somehow. Even a kid who has to get an after-school job to pay for lessons is at an economic advantage over a kid who has to get an after-school job to pay for food.)

    Systemic infection, for example, is when someone steps on a nail, gets an infection that spreads, and dies of blood poisoning. (Their foot is no longer the main problem by that point.)

    Systematic infection is when the US Army purposely supplied indigenous populations (who had no immunity to measles) blankets contaminated with the measles virus, thereby killing enormous numbers of them.

    They’re not the same thing, but a lot of people on both sides of the argument seem to think they are.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Thank you, I think it is important indeed.

    • Ken says:

      Oh for Christ’s sake, it was supposedly smallpox, and it’s a long-debunked myth. Grow up some day.

    • M2N2K says:

      Yes Bruce, you may be linguistically correct, but this is not how the word “systemic” is being used these days. Current usage of it definitely implies that racism or whatever else we are being accused of is embedded into the “system” – not accidentally but fully deliberately. In any case, all I see here and elsewhere, when talking about USA, are references to old sins from several generations earlier and not an iota of proof that any of this is true for the last several decades. As for the accusation of “systemic racism in classical music”, it is so utterly ridiculous that it does not really deserve serious discussion.

      • William Safford says:

        I disagree. The term “systemic racism” is being used correctly by many people, including me.

        Systemic racism is exactly on point: one does not have to be a racist, or behave in an overt racist way, to be in the midst of systemic racism.

        That said, look at how many racist comments that are routinely and shamelessly posted just to this forum. One does not have to be racist to be a cog in the gears of systemic racism, but many people are racist.

        Systemic racism persists to this day. I posted about this in some detail in another comment.

        Racism permeates this country. Racists compose a substantial percentage of the U.S. population. Systemic racism persists.

        We have a lot of work to do in this country, especially in the wake of the current failed presidency and all the racism that he has enacted, espoused, and validated for his minions.

        • M2N2K says:

          We disagree about “systemic”, but you are definitely correct in saying that “many people are racist”. This is a serious problem that must be addressed carefully and with utmost patience, in my opinion mostly by improving education and helping children from economically struggling families regardless of race. Unfortunately all governmental measures that are based exclusively or mainly on skin color produce the opposite of the desirable effect by exacerbating this malady and increasing racist attitudes both qualitatively and in their intensity, which is very unfortunate and seems to becoming downright dangerous these days.

          • William Safford says:

            You confuse the (imperfect) solution with the problem.

            It is the very systemic racist barriers to advancement (among other things), that lead to the necessity of such virtuous programs as affirmative action.

            If you want an example of systemic racism, look no further than voting rights. The blatant attempts to diminish the voting rights of minorities, is the Jim Crow structural racist voting restrictions perpetuated into the 21st century.

            For more information about the racist ties between the U.S. and Nazi Germany, look no further than Alex Ross:


          • M2N2K says:

            There is no confusion there: what was necessary and indeed “virtuous” in 1960s is not at all the same that is needed in 2020s.

          • William Safford says:

            That is the argument that the majority in the Supreme Court used to strike down parts of the Voting Rights Act.

            Literally minutes after that decision was handed down, states started imposing barriers to minority voting, ones that would have been illegal previously.

  • John Rook says:

    A request to the USA: Please stop exporting the egregious results of your dismal, failed society. Thank you.

  • Escamillo says:

    I think the technical term is ‘a load of tosh’.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The truly best term cannot be printed or typed, Western computer keyboards are programmed to prevent people from typing it and thus sending it to culturally-suspicious websites.

  • M McAlpine says:

    The idiotic nonsense perpetrated by people like Ross is of course to keep them up with the latest fashion of BLM and their adherents. The insincerity of the whole thing stinks. Just when will we realise that our forefathers were people who had different values from us and those values do not necessarily make them racists or anti-moralists. Handel invested in a dubious company. No doubt if Mr Ross goes through his investments with a fine tooth comb he might also find some which are objectionable! Unfortunately it is the world we live in.

    • V. Lind says:

      *Handel invested in a dubious company*

      So did Edward Colston, otherwise a great philanthropist to the city that honoured him with a statue.

      *No doubt if Mr Ross goes through his investments with a fine tooth comb he might also find some which are objectionable! *

      Some people have been making sure for years that they do not invest in companies involving child labour or other dubious labour practices. Some disengage from companies with bad environment records. Some may have other criteria that influence whether or not they invest.

      All this micro-condemnation of people for one aspect of their lives, which in cases like Colston’s and Handel’s were rich in public contribution, the diminution of their very existence for one decision out of a long life, smacks of the “one-drop” racial policy of the US. What the extremists don’t seem to understand is that people are complex, life is complicated, and we all make all sorts of decisions and choices based upon the world we live in. We are not all of a oneness. Those who are tend to be fanatics.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      It’s simply fodder for Guardianistas who never do any wider reading. The victim/oppressor paradigm doesn’t require wider reading!!

    • John Borstlap says:

      There has only been one single European composer with an entirely spotless life, of which no single story has come to us, but alas that is because he is totally forgotten today: Joachim Alzheimer (18th century).

    • Ken says:

      Alex Ross has long been a convicted Arschloch. Why is anyone paying any attention again?

    • Larry D says:

      I’m sure, that Alex Ross, as a gay man, is well aware that our forefathers had different values from “us” , among which values was a delight in gay bashing, but of course that doesn’t make them homophobes. Or wait, actually it does. As to people like yourself who dismiss BLM as a “fashion”, perhaps you are more like our forefathers than like this “us” you talk about.

    • William Safford says:

      Assuming that you’re American: many of our forefathers were racists by definition.

      For every John Adams, who never owned slaves and who was an abolitionist, there were the George Washingtons, the Thomas Jeffersons, and many others who owned slaves. Jefferson raped and fathered unacknowledged children with his. Washington sent out bounty hunters after his escaped slaves.

      There is an argument to be made that standards change over time. But the unescapable fact is that the United State is founded on original sin.

      Some say that there is one original national sin: that of slavery.

      I believe that America is founded on two original sins: that of slavery, and of our near-extermination of Native Americans.

      What was that you were saying about “idiotic nonsense?”

      If you’re British, then you have your own set of issues to contend with.

  • Alexander T says:

    Western classical is vastly superior to any other type of music ever created.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    “The ultimate mistake is to look to music—or to any art form—as a zone of moral improvement, a refuge of sweetness and light. Attempts to cleanse the canon of disreputable figures end up replicating the great-man theory in a negative register, with arch-villains taking the place of geniuses. Because all art is the product of our grandiose, predatory species, it reveals the worst in our natures as well as the best. Like every beautiful thing we have created, music can become a weapon of division and destruction.”
    This is absolutely true. Just look at this comment page, and the one for the disturbingly named post “SAUL BELLOW’S UNIVERSITY CAVES IN TO BLM”. On a classical music blog…. *smh*
    Ugliness and hate. Our society today.
    Human beings, as a species, should be pitied.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    “Must acknowledge” said the teaching, leaning over the recalcitrant student with a large stick.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Interesting use of the word “strapline” in the context of this rant.

  • Minnesota says:

    The argument Ross tries to make is a mess, but it is struggling to claim causation without actually connecting the dots in a plausible way. Who besides academic musicologists give a rip about Schnecker? And does this really have anything to do with Florence Price, who wrote very pleasant but conventional music? She had to be “rediscovered” after she died, but so did Charles Ives and Charles Alkan. So it is “disturbing,” as Ross says that Handel invested in a slave trading company 300 years ago. And what does this have to do with his music or anyone else’s? Be specific. All of this really resembles the great American pastime of looking for conspiracies or evil persons in the distant past to explain current problems.

  • Scott says:

    Suddenly, everything is clear. All of society’s problems are due to racism in music theory. Thank you, Professor Ewell!

  • John Ramster says:

    Excellent article from Mr Ross. An even-handed examination of a difficult subject that ends up concluding we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I’m not about to stop working on Handel, listening to Handel because he made some awful investments – but it’s good that we know he did, that we deal with it, that black performers in their turn, as Ross says, take ownership of that music, if they love that music.

  • William Safford says:

    I am glad that Norm brought this article to our attention.

    This article is an opportunity for the reader to have his or her eyes opened to the structural and systemic racism that exists in America (and elsewhere, although I leave it to others to discuss that in detail).

    Ross invites the reader to reflect upon the issues that he presents so cogently and tactfully, and for the reader to open his or her mind to these pressing issues, especially in the context of the protests against systemic racism and bigotry in this country in general and in law enforcement in particular.

    Several commenters addressed Ross’s points head-on, with thoughtful commentary on both sides.

    Note, however, that so many of the other comments to this blog entry demonstrate the unreflective negative biases of the posters. A whole bunch of metaphoric steel traps snapped shut in their brains.

    Why should a commenter use the distraction of “leftist cultural revolution” to defend a racist status quo? Shouldn’t equal rights be apolitical? Yet is isn’t: in this time in our history, the right wing is abasing itself to a racist orange authoritarian kakistocrat, and is using discriminatory practices in a desperate attempt to hold onto political power.

    Why should a commenter dismiss systemic racism in classical music as “drivel,” when it touches so cogently on the issues that surround us in our daily lives.

    Why does a commenter feel the urge to dismiss as “idiotic nonsense” the very real desire of people to bring transparency to the racist abuses that Black people face every day, and to work towards purging our country of systemic racism.

    Why do others just dismiss all of this as “drivel” or “tosh,” without actually addressing any of the issues that Ross broached.

    These reactions, and more, actually reinforce the very points that Ross makes about embedded racism in classical music: in the attitudes of many people as well as the institutions.

    Thank you again, Norm.

  • Terence says:

    I understand that it’s hard for performers to speak up — who wants to be targeted by bigots?

    Audiences however can vote with their feet. If you program music (for whatever reason) that they don’t want to hear, then they won’t come.

    Orchestras and music directors must face this fact. People with a political agenda for music are not the majority of their audience; many of the ‘activists’ may never go to classical concerts.

  • Michael Endres says:

    “The whiteness of classical music is, above all, an American problem. The racial and ethnic makeup of the canon is hardly surprising, given European demographics before the twentieth century.”

    Thank God for that, it is after all (another) American problem.

    I want to be constructive and suggest a tariff system:

    for each work by a dead white male composer a fixed amount of money has to be allocated for higher purposes.

    This only applies to classical music, all other musical art forms (Hip Hop, Jazz, Pop, Country) are exempt, as their racial makeup is sufficiently diverse.

    Non participating countries will be sanctioned.

    • Herbie G says:

      Sorry to go off piste here but are you Michael Endres the pianist? If so, and even if not, I have to say that some years ago I was looking for a complete recording of Schubert’s complete shorter piano pieces – Landler, Waltzes etc. (Short selections of these works were available here and there but not the complete set.)

      I then saw a new release – a box set of 5 CDs from Capriccio. The pianist’s name, Michael Endres, was unfamiliar to me (though I do remember some marvellous recordings of Schubert quartets by the Endres Quartet on Vox issued in the last millennium and wondered whether there was any familial relationship here – given the Schubert connection).

      I bought this box on the basis that whatever the quality of the performances I would be able to hear all these delightful works in good modern sound.

      Any pianist undertaking this task has a mountain to climb; how can one play whole strings of very short works, mostly in 3/4 time and neatly chopped into four-bar segments, with sustained interest and appeal to the hearer?

      I put on the first CD and within seconds I was enthralled by the warmth of the sensitive and beautifully nuanced playing. One could sense the player’s affection for each dance, which emerged as an individual jewel. He’d climbed the mountain and was sitting at the summit!

      Later, I saw a boxed set of Schubert’s piano sonatas played by Michael Endres. I already had a few sets of these (Brendel, Badura-Skoda, Zimmerman, Tirimo) but had no hesitation in buying this new set. Again, I was delighted.

      I could recommend these recordings without hesitation to any Schubert lover, which, I guess, encompasses most of those who post in this blog. Don’t take my word for it – see the ratings on Amazon! Moreover, I have just discovered that there are lots of further Endres recordings on OEHMS and I shall certainly be ordering some of those too. I am amazed that his name is not up there with the others whom I mentioned above.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The idea that classical music is ‘white’ is confusing misuse of the art form with the art form itself, music is colour blind (apart from Messiaen’s music but that is another story). A culture is accessible to anyone with enough interest and talent to absorb it. Proof of this simple truth can be found everywhere.

  • Sharon says:

    I agree with Bruce. The inequality in most societies today has more to do with economic classism rather than outright racism. This makes it more difficult to rectify because it is systemic, not systematic, and is built on an entrenched economic system that has brought benefits to many people, even as it has left many people out.

    As far as western music is concerned, I believe that we are leaving out the elephant in the room. Music addresses a basic psycho-physiological need and has addiction potential. Even infants, maybe even prenatally, are soothed by music. Preschoolers, without adult assistance, learn to self soothe by singing or hitting objects rhythmically and repetitively. Every human society has some form of music.

    Music, because of its psycho-physiological connection in the human brain creates new neural connections and alters mood and creates other physiological changes.

    Like other “substances,” as the article mentions, music can be used for good or ill. For example food can be used to sustain and strengthen the human body or it can be misused to cause obesity and high cholesterol which can lead to numerous physiological problems and death. Sex can be used to enhance the self esteem of both parties and the emotional intimacy and commitment of a relationship or it can be used to humiliate, degrade, and dominate. Music can be used to create and reinforce a militaristic nationalism that leads to war or to humiliate or exclude people or it can be used to create loving and cooperative communities and alleviate anger and depression both on the personal and collective levels.

    With things that meet physiological needs humans tend to prefer experiencing them in the styles with which they are already familiar. It is a well known fact that immigrants will almost always prefer the foods that they were raised with in their home countries. People lucky enough to have a loving sex life will generally prefer the same techniques of foreplay. Likewise, people also prefer the music that they were raised on or that they heard when they first used professionally played music to self soothe, generally as preteens, and will thus listen to the same “oldies” songs again and again as adults. They will say that they are attracted to the familiar “beat” even as they may intellectually know through their later professional music training that these tunes are artistically simplistic “junk”.

    What I am trying to say is that for most classical music lovers the preference for western classical music is not about making a political or cultural statement that one form of music is “higher” or more worthwhile than another. Classical music is an important psychological habit to most listeners and players who have been exposed to it from a young age or who chose to give themselves major exposure to it when they were older, just as all forms of music are habits to their listeners. It is about experiencing that to which we have psychologically become connected because we have instinctively learned that it will regulate our moods and make us happy.

    • John Borstlap says:

      True. But it can also be learned in very different context: as in China where Western classical music has become mainstream. Cultural traditions have no physical boundaries.