The fightback begins against Critical Race Theory

The fightback begins against Critical Race Theory


norman lebrecht

January 27, 2021

Professor Timothy Jackson’s lawsuit against the University of North Texas is more than just a bid to clear his name of slurs that were spouted by a howling mob of musicologists who sought to cancel his career.

According to the National Association of Scholars,

Jackson’s lawsuit also illustrates the damage that Critical Race Theory (CRT)—the intellectual background for radical academic social media campaigns—has done to scholarship. CRT seeks and succeeds in annihilating scholarship that analyzes the actual substance of any domain of inquiry. In this case, CRT scholars seek to replace actual Schenkerian musical analysis with ritual condemnations of that analysis. Western music theory is taken to be prima facie invalid on the grounds that Schenker allegedly said something unpleasant about blacks in the course of his lifetime. The very premise must be rejected if scholarship is to survive. 

Watch this space for the next move.



  • Great Britain’s Helen Pluckrose deserves praise and support for her book Cynical Theories and her new blog called counterweight, in which CRT is exposed and shredded. She understands what most people still don’t: that scholarship, science, reason and academic education are all threatened, and that CRT represents the height of anti-intellectualism and take-over of the realm of knowledge and science by vacuous Philistines motivated b blind ideology. This is how low civil society has become, catering to the most destructive elements of society and entrusting them with our children’s future. It is time for liberals to join the battle and not let the slimy right wing
    get the credit for opposing wokeness and defending free speech and inquiry, and to tell the left that they are not trusted and need to rethink their whole ideology.

    • John Borstlap says:


      The problem is that an argument is an argument, entirely independent of who is saying it. If Hitler claims that 2 + 2 = 4, does that mean that it cannot be true? The attack on Schenkerian analysis says it all.

      The justified fight against racism should never be fought at the expense of reason.

    • Patricia Yeiser says:

      Slimy right wing? (It’s spelled ‘slimey.)

    • Y says:

      The “Right” is already the home of most, if not all, classical liberals. Believe me. I meet more of these people every day, and they all have the same story to tell: They were once considered liberals, usually ten or twenty years ago, but are now called racist, homophobic, transphobic Nazis by everyone on the Left. Their politics didn’t change, but the Left did. The Left has now grown so intolerant that classical liberals are no longer welcome in their midst. More and more, we see how the Left is comprised primarily of extremists, many of whom are unapologetically racist.

    • wendy says:

      Are the former Green Party candidate, Lorna? If so, I would be interested in hearing how you got from there to here.

  • Jack says:

    No link?

  • nimitta says:

    I’m rooting for Jackson, and grateful to SD for continuing to cover this story. However, the choice of photograph for this article strikes me as more than mere provocation. It is not only absurdly disproportionate but also deliberately cruel to equate the CRT mob’s misguided ‘cancel’ attempt with the vile act of lynching a human being to death. Doing so trivializes the horror of lynching even more than crying ‘racist’ trivializes racism. Please use a different image, Norman.

  • Scott says:

    Here is the next move: Counterweight Media.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Seems like a good idea.

      The tragedy is that the justified fight against racism, and for the emancipation of ‘minority groups’, reduces people to representing a group, in which the individual is submerged. So, the attempt to produce justice and more humanity, often has a dehumanizing effect – the opposite of what has been intended.

      This paradox has already been analysed by French philosopher Alain Finkelkraut in his ‘The Defeat of Thinking’ where he took apart multiculti thinking, which dehumanizes the individual and pushes him back into an imagined homogenous sameness, ignoring individual life stories and character.

      Group think is always destructive, in any context.

  • Karl says:

    Critical Race Theory is doing more than destroying musicology. On his first day in office, President Biden rescinded the Trump administration’s executive order prohibiting critical race theory training for federal agencies and federal contractors.

    • Omar Goddknowe says:

      In my state I have to sit through 12 hours of that crap in order to renew my teaching license, under the guise of cultural competency. At the end of the 12 hours I didn’t know any more about other cultures. Also, I wondered how so many seemingly rational/intelligent people could fall for this nonsense. The state’s requirements for it are so strict I will have to waste another 12 hours of my life listening to this crap in 4-5 years.

      • K says:

        We had to sit through 4 years of The Orange One’s whacko rIght-wing BS – deal with it. Or you can go to Moscow and attend Putin’s reeducation seminar at the Center for Social Justice. I hear there’s an opening.


  • Patricia says:

    CRT is marxist.

    • HugoPreuss says:

      Nope, it is not. It is postmodern. For Marx, race is a completely minor concern (quite apart from the fact that Marx himself was pretty racist). The biggies are exploitation and the entire complex mechanism of “Überbau” and “Unterbau”. Not race. If CRT pretends to be Marxist, they know nothing about Marx’ theoretical ideas. And neither do you, apparently.

      • Hayne says:

        Marxism divides by groups. That CRT does it with race is the same thing.

      • Herb says:

        Critical Race Theory most certainly fits within a Marxist framework. It is very obviously a subset of Critical Theory, uses its Marxist methodology, and is 100 percent ideologically aligned with it. Especially, Critical Theory works according to the principle of dividing humanity into general groups that represent the oppressors and oppressed according to various criteria). Surely you would agree that the Frankfurt School, which helped define Critical Theory via figures like Marcuse and Adorno (who also wrought much mischief in music historiography as well) is generally conceded to be thoroughly Marxist in orientation.

        Google is your friend. I don’t generally recommend Wikipedia, but inasmuch as that is the first article returned in a Google search, you can start there, especially since the folks at Google are undoubtedly very sympathetic to Critical Theory in its many guises.

    • K says:

      Sorry to be harsh, but when you and your ilk say anything with “Marx” in it, you actually don’t know what the f**k you’re talking about. Fast-food lexicon for a fast-food intellect.

  • Anonymous says:

    In the ~20 minute SMT talk that provoked the controversy (, Ewell says Schenker was a racist and that altering “… a 4 semester undergraduate music theory sequence that focuses solely on western theory to a 2 semester sequence, clearing a path for 2 new semesters of non-western, non-white music theory core classes …” will lead to structural changes that reduce the racism inherently embedded in music theory.

    Why did the Journal Of Schenkerian Studies respond to this criticism at all?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Which leads to the nonsensical question: how does ‘non-white’ music compare with the bulk of ‘white’ music? There does not exist ‘white music’ or ‘non-white music’. Is gamelan or jazz or carnatic or Chinese opera music ‘non-white’? It is like saying that a picture ‘sounds’ right or wrong.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        Does this one sound right or wrong?

        Is jazz music by Dave Brubeck, Jimmy Giuffrè, or Barry Guy “white” or “black” music?


        • John Borstlap says:

          The Lichtenstein sounds wrong, because there are no clefs so the notes are entirely random. As for the jazz: it’s music that is black on the inside and white on the outside. Or, because of the mix, one could decide it’s capuccino coloured – with cream. And as we know, capuccino sounds always right.

      • Herb says:

        A very useful angle to contemplate. Could one posthumously analyse and determine the precise skin tone of Arriaga or Saint-Georges simply by listening to their music? Imagine being able to apply such analysis with, dare I say it, a Schenkerian level of sophistication. Now that would be something new for CRT scholars to try.

        Mixing metaphors (so to speak) in this way, has also yielded humorous results in the past, as with Hanslick’s famous comment that Tchaikovsky’s music gave rise to the shuddering conclusion that there could indeed be music that stinks to the ear.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    These cancellers would have loved living in the old USSR. But I guess they wouldn’t like their own friends betraying them on any day of the week, or being sent to a salt mine in Siberia. Actually, on reflection; I think that’s a great place for them all now!!

    • K says:


      That didn’t take long – twisting the narrative to fit your own misinformed conclusions. The situation has more nuance than you could even conceive of, yet you and your cohorts jump on the “cancel” bandwagon at the first sniff of a “gotcha” opportunity.

      Why don’t YOU join Trump, your hero, in the Putin theater in Moscow (in the new Russia- it’s a whole lot better than the old USSR- personal freedom up the wazoo, and you can storm the offices of the government without impunity. Check your panties daily though; you never know when they may have been laced with poison. (I’ll bet His Fat Ass would have loved to have been able to do that.) )

      As you munch on some rancid popcorn you can spout endless red-hat conspiracy theories while you watch the new Trump bio-pic, “Golden Showers”. (Be sure to-stay for the credits; all of your favorite miscreants are there.)

      And be careful: just because you think you’re towing the party line doesn’t mean Vlad won’t ship you off to a Gulag yourself. All in all, however, that might be a great place for you now. Enjoy!

  • Le Křenek du jour says:

    “The very premise must be rejected if scholarship is to survive.”

    Why should scholarship survive? It isn’t supposed to.

    The *class* interest of the proponents of CRT demands that scholarship be suppressed. We can analyse the mafia-like vested interests of the CRT bunch in strictly Marxian terms: a collective struggle for money and power. But mostly for power. Class power. Swarm power.

    Scholarship requires an ethic: caring about truth, and achieving the closest approximation to it that one can achieve.
    Scholarship requires humility: the joyful acceptance of the provisional nature of all knowledge, which stands or falls with new facts and insights.
    Scholarship requires relentless work:
    « Vingt fois sur le métier remettez votre ouvrage :
    Polissez-le sans cesse et le repolissez ;
    Ajoutez quelquefois, et souvent effacez. »
    Scholarship requires dedication, honesty, self-doubt, critical discernment.

    In short, scholarship requires the very attributes that are a nuisance and a hindrance when you’re out to help yourself to a big piece of the cake. Why toil and sweat, when the only thing that is required of you in order to get along is to go along?
    Adhere, assimilate, and advance. Resistance is futile.

  • mary says:

    “a howling mob of musicologists”

    Quite an imagery.

    Now, in any other time, anything “howling” would be antithetical to the very enterprise of musicology, but in today’s world, howling *is* music (I’m sure someone will find a youtube example of a howling composition) and worthy of at least a PhD if not a professorship.

  • Scott says:

    I just got an email from the Met Opera asking me to give them money. I contacted then, and asked whether the money would go to the musicians or the new diversity officer. You can do the same at

  • Alan says:

    Good, about time.

  • Anon says:

    “The National Association of Scholars (NAS) is an American non-profit politically conservative advocacy group, with a particular interest in education. It opposes a perceived political correctness on college campuses and supports a return to mid-20th-century curricular and scholarship norms, and an increase in conservative representation in faculty.”

    In other words, an organisation committed to the politicisation of scholarship. Which is what I thought everyone got upset about on here.

    In other words, an organisation that would like to return the academic norms of the Jim Crow period, when those pesky “blacks” knew their place (and if they didn’t, there were laws to remind them).

    • John Borstlap says:

      A defence against politicized nonsense is not in itself a politicization. If conservative people manage to achieve something of truth, that does not render this truth conservative, nor is it political.

      • Alviano says:

        All true John, but Anon’s post reminds that there are plenty of axes being ground here, including some we may not even know about. Me, I am staying off the barricades.

      • Anon says:

        What absolute nonsense. Which part of “politically conservative advocacy” and “increase in conservative representation” do you not understand?

        • Alviano says:

          Yes, Anon, I understand, and my point is simply that there are numerous agendas–yours is another–coming into play here and further that there are probably a few others that we don’t even know about. Best to stay out of the way.

          • Anon says:

            My reply was to John Borstlap’s fantasy that conservative advocacy is somehow apolitical.

          • John Borstlap says:

            No, what I meant is that arguments have to be considered for what they are. Otherwise we end-up politicizing and instrumentalize things that are not political, like mathematics being an attempt to overrule the world. This way of thinking stems from French postmodern philosopher Foucault, whose ideas have sipped into American academia and created havoc there. Of course there are motives behind any argument and action, but there is a difference between the power of arguments and the arguments of power. Seeing in everything an attempt at illegitimate power wielding, destroys argument and thus, reason, rational thought.

  • The National Association of Scholars is a reactionary group in a long line of neocons who have objected to progressive thought in American universities. Their goals align closely with Trump’s recent call for a more “patriotic education,” so nationalistic and blinkered it verges on a kind of ethnocentric chauvinism. They’re really big in places like Texas, of course. Their association with Jackson does not speak particularly well of him. And no surprise to see the howling reactionary SD mob commenting here.

    • Food for thought says:

      This is not really a reactionary mob. When the left goes into nonsense, they simply loose more support. Remember, most people, especially in classical music, are centrists, and are able to catch bs from both sides.

      • william osborne says:

        Which center? The center in the USA would be quite right wing in most of continental Europe.

        • Food for thought says:

          It’s less far from Europe than you might think, since there is nearly zero chance writings akin to those of Mr.Ewell would be taken seriously in Europe, much less so published. Nobody here defends Trump (or very few). You can disagree with Ewell and sympathize with many liberal causes.

        • John Borstlap says:

          My fly on the wall informs me that the center in the USA is in the middle of nowhere.

        • Hayne says:

          Well, that’s quite a broad brush:)

        • From today’s NYT: :Republican Ties to Extremist Groups Are Under Scrutiny”

          “A number of members of Congress have links to organizations and movements that played a role in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.”

          • Hayne says:

            I’m not joking at all. Do you really believe what the Times puts out? I read it and was appalled by the smears. Let me rephrase it this way. Did you believe the media after 4 years of lies about the Russian collusion hoax? You know, the pee-pee tapes? I’ll also say it again. Operation Mockingbird still exists.

  • I think the classical music fans here on SD would understand the debate better if they knew a little more of the history of Schenker’s life and times and what evolved shortly after his death. The Nazis deeply politicized German art, and no field was more affected than classic music, thought to be the most German of all the arts.
    The Kampfbund der deutsche Kuenstler (Fighting Group for German Artists,) for example, reflected the deeply white supremist views espoused during the Third Reich that led to ethnic cleansing in the field:

    “Since we do not value, that a watered down internationalism is identified with German artistic genius, we must require, that in the future German art is represented abroad only by German artists, that carry in their person and their attitude of mind the seal of the purest Germaness.” [Source: “Deutsches Operngastspiel in Suedamerika”, Deutsche Buehnenkorrespondenz, II/31, October 1933, pg. 4.]

    The Vienna, Berlin, and Munich Philharmonics were put into service of the Reich and toured to symbolize German cultural supremacy in the conquered lands.

    Forty-seven percent of the Vienna Philharmonic’s members were National Socialists, and many belonged to the party well before 1938 when it was still illegal in Austria. Six Jewish members of the orchestra died in the concentration camps, and another eleven were able to save their lives by timely migration. Nine additional members were found to be of “mixed race” or “contaminated by kinship” (“Versippte”) and reduced to secondary status within the orchestra. With 47% of the members belonging to the National Socialist Party and 26 “non-Aryans” either murdered, exiled or reduced in status by the Nazi regime, the orchestra clearly exhibited its strong fascist tendencies.

    Naturally these views, which were also quite prevalent in the decades leading up to the Reich influenced music many German theorists and musicologists. Schenker who died in 1935, absorbed those cultural values earlier in his life. And to make things even more problematic, his work was instrumentalized by the Nazis.

    Discussing these issues is an important part of researching and understanding this history. It is unfortunate that both sides have fallen to hardened ideological battle-lines. Truth can be lost in the fray.

    I find it reasonable enough to make room for Philip Ewell’s perspectives as a black man on this topic. Tolerance is in order. Jackson went overboard when he accused Ewell of black anti-Semitism–in itself a racist generalization that even a Texas court is likely to recognize. And the UNT faculty went overboard in their outrage and mobbing.

    The ability to turn away from this unprofessional fight, and turn to good academic debate will be a measure of the professionalism of all involved. At the moment, this community needs a mediator.

    • John Borstlap says:

      We know, we know, we know. Apart from criminals, the nazis were philistines, so any association of classical music with racist ideas should be seen for what they are: projection by association, and therefore wrong. The more German a classical musical work is, the more it is European and part of the world culture of humanity. Things – like people – can have more than one identity, and music has multiple layers of identity, and none of them are mutually exclusive.

      • The issue is not just music but its use and abuse. For example, see Pamela Potter’s book: “Most German of the Arts: Musicology and Society from the Weimar Republic to the End of Hitler`s Reich” The blurb from Amazon:

        “This important book investigates the role played by German musicology in buttressing Nazi institutions and ideology. Pamela Potter examines the social, economic, and intellectual factors that caused some German musical scholars to support with such fervor the ideological aims of the Nazis. She argues convincingly that many of the ideas that served the regime not only predated Hitler’s rise to power but survived the Nazi period to influence the conception of music history including that of American musical scholarship down to the present time.

        “Potter reveals that prominent German musicologists went beyond other scholars in serving the state by publicizing the German musical legacy as a source of national pride; exploring politically relevant research topics, including pseudo-scientific race theories; and participating in the Germanization of occupied and annexed territories during World War II. Nazi leaders recognized musicology’s potential service to Nazi causes, says Potter, and musicological ventures enjoyed generous support from the government, party, and SS. Scrutinizing private papers, archives, and rare publications, Potter breaks the silence imposed by the postwar German musicological establishment and demonstrates the extent to which the entire profession was politicized during the Nazi era.”

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yes, and it’s disgusting indeed – no need to underline that. Ironically, some of the most fervent ‘Germanizing’ musicologists were Jews who had to flee to the USA.

          There is nothing against seeing ‘Germanness’ in great music that happened to emerge from the cultural humus of the German lands, since these characteristics can be spotted and described and analysed, and which are mere accents of a universal range of aesthetics to be found anywhere. To instrumentalize them for political reasons is philistinism, whenever and wherever it is practiced. The point is to make a distinction between musical characteristics and their instrumentalization.

          By the way, that the German classical tradition from Haydn onwards has become an aesthetic standard in the developing concert world and musicology since the beginning of the 19th century, is not a political phenomenon, but one rooted in the nature and qualities of the works themselves – something that French composers enviously looked upon.

          • Some argue that the ethos of classical music was shaped in part by the patrician concepts of the aristocracy. Musicians to this day, for example, still where tails because that was the uniform of the household servants (like butlers) with which the musicians were categorized. The aristocracy’s concepts of a God-given elitism shaped what were considered to be noble aesthetic values in the court’s music. These same concepts of elitism were appropriated by nation-states who used the arts to assert their superiority. The artist-prophet spoke as the voice of his nation and was seen as an embodiment of its genius seed. These artists were to have an uncompromising will toward transcendent superiority rising above the common man and become what Nietzsche defined as a superman. In terms of your oft mentioned concerns, this sense of superiority and elitism became the basis for a type of modernism that became so rarified it no long had a public outside of others who saw themselves as musical elitists in the same vein. Art in its many manifestations is a very social phenomenon and is almost always isomorphic with the larger culture within which it exists.

          • John Borstlap says:

            “Musicians to this day, for example, still where tails because that was the uniform of the household servants (like butlers) with which the musicians were categorized.”

            Sorry to have to correct you: ‘tails’ have been the chique outfit at chique occasions from the 19th century onwards. Look at photos of receptions around 1900, and no musician is seen anywhere, and staff don’t wear them either. It is the other way around: because of being a chique outfit, tails became fashionable for performing musicians.

            Also, tails have a very different form and aesthetic in comparison with the average 18C staff uniforms of the ancien régime.

            Also the British butler type needed tails not to express his inferior social status, but in contrary to underline the chiqueness of his station and the extreme luxury of his employer.

            “The artist-prophet spoke as the voice of his nation and was seen as an embodiment of its genius seed.”

            That political elites sometimes abused the art of their country does not mean that this art was a political instrument in itself. And then: there is a difference between being proud of your national art, proud to be a member of a nation with such art, and claiming to be superior to other nationals. Generalizations that put all art into a marxist box of class struggle takes away the complexity of reality and human behavior, and pulls down a noble art form (yes, indeed) into the mud of political thinking. It is a form of populism, and a falsification. And to draw a line from the 19C exaltation of classical music towards postwar indigestible modernism is skipping the hurdles of early 20C experimentation in Vienna which insisted on a break with that very tradition. If music history was THAT easy, everybody would write a tome.

          • The traditional attire of court musicians was not established in the 19th century, but already in the 18th. Styles of clothing were even codified according to class. Tails became a code for domestic servants in high courts, where musicians were also servants. The aristocracy in the 18th century did not wear tails, but quite elaborate and colorful outfits. Even the use of wigs had cultural definitions.

            These flamboyant fashions subsided in the 19th century and led to the scenarios you describe. For domestic servants, the attire relatively remain consistent and influenced what orchestra musicians wear to this day.

            The second issue is not that art in itself is necessarily a political instrument, but that it can and often did embody or signify social status, and with the rise of cultural nationalism, political statements. Verdi’s Requiem is a classical example and the role it played in the Risorgimento. As a rule, art was used as soft power just as it is today.

            There are also interesting examples in the 18th century of art being used to subtly criticize or parody power such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Far from being philistinism, understanding the political meanings of art is an essential part of fully understanding and appreciating it.

            We see, however, that your views of music are deeply absolutist and built around concepts of natural law beyond cultural identity. As such, art is a rarified object based on physical phenomena disconnected from culture and society. There can be no discussion with such totalizing and absolutist concepts of presumed natural laws so we will just have to disagree. No real point in discussion.

          • John Borstlap says:

            But to some extent I agree with you. I only don’t see why the art form has to be politically seen as a whole. My point of view is not absolutist but essentialist, i.e. characteristics of a work of art are part of the work itself, apart from their interpretation; they are not projections from outside the work. That some interpretations can have a political nature, I would not deny, I only think it always diminishes the inherent, essentialist quality and nature of the work. Verdi’s Requiem does not need political associations to be entirely Verdi’s Requiem, and the political appendix is, in my view, something from outside the work which has been connected to it, and it does not add anything meaningful if we consider the work as such.

            BUT….. if we describe or analyze or consider political contexts, all of this changes entirely. And that is justified if the subject is political context. In that sense I fully agree with your descriptions. Only, they are not a musical subject. So it depends upon what the subject is.

            Interestingly, books like Toby Thackers ‘Music after Hitler’ or Esteban Buch’s ‘Beethoven’s Ninth, a political history’ or Arun Rao’s ‘Claude de France: Debussy’s Great War’ offer all kinds of insights in the political turmoil surrounding musical works, but they don’t add anything meaningful to the music. This is demonstrated that, after the surrounding political circumstances have retreated in history, nothing of the music is ‘lost’. The point is that historical circumstances, even personal circumstances, do not form a meaningful part of a musical work. Even the highly subjective, personalized works of Mahler do not need circumstantial evidence to make the music ‘understandable’: they ‘say’ themselves completely for anybody with musical ears. Any information about biographical details is only furnishing the experience with material that have no impact upon the understanding of the music as such. Well, I can’t explain it more clearly, it is a psychologically complex issue but interesting.

          • Anon9 says:

            This Osborne/Borstlap discussion is interesting. On a point of detail: I regularly hear the claim, made here by Osborne, that modern orchestras dress in white tie and tails because, historically, musicians employed by aristocrats were servants and wore livery, to distinguish them from their masters who dressed quite differently. Is this claim even correct for court musicians? And how did orchestral musicians not employed by the aristocracy dress? — e.g. opera and theater orchestras, town bands, the Concert spirituel and the Concert des amateurs in Paris, players at the Bach-Abel concerts in London? It is hard to see from contemporary images what the musicians are wearing, but it seems to be much in line with what the audience is wearing.

            A site devoted to matters sartorial ( takes this view:

            “… for the first two hundred years of their existence, orchestras were not only associated exclusively with the upper class but also with the most formal of occasions for that class, short of attending Court. It would have been expected that the entertainment dress in finery befitting of such elite audiences, just as the livery of senior household servants was almost as grand as the attire of their masters.

            “Further, operas and private balls took place in the evening. Because the upper class designated specific clothing for specific occasions, etiquette would dictate that evening dress be worn for such functions. By the time that civic orchestras (such as the New York Philharmonic) began to appear in the early/mid 1800s, evening wear had become highly codified into what we now call White Tie. And so it would be only natural for the orchestra members to don the requisite tailcoat and bow tie when performing for high society after dark.

            “What’s interesting is that as symphony concerts became more egalitarian throughout the 20th century, orchestras elected to maintain their elite dress standards rather than lowering the bar to match their (d)evolving audiences. …”

            This is all of course peripheral to the actual music, but relevant to class-based musicological discourse.

  • There is a very good article about this dispute in “Inside Higher Ed.” I highly recommend that people read it if they want to understand the situation. As reported in the article, Prof. Jackson made some terrible remarks about Phillip Ewell and black people in general. He has to take responsibility for that. It might do more toward rehabilitating his career than a lawsuit.

  • Anon9 says:

    “In this case, CRT scholars seek to replace actual Schenkerian musical analysis with ritual condemnations of that analysis. Western music theory is taken to be prima facie invalid on the grounds that Schenker allegedly said something unpleasant about blacks in the course of his lifetime.”
    This is exactly the sort of shoddy inaccuracy that the NAS should be fighting against. Ewell’s paper, the cause of this dogfight, did not call for the abolition of Schenkerian analysis, but rather for a reduction in its role so as to make room for theoretical studies of other musical traditions; it never says that Western music theory is invalid; and Schenker *did* say unpleasant things about blacks, no ‘allegedly’ about it (and about Frenchmen, and Japanese … and about almost everybody except Germans). Ewell makes no mention of Schenker’s Jewishness, which makes Jackson’s talk of Black anti-semitism totally inappropriate. Ewell’s paper is available online, and whether or not one accepts the tenets of CRT, it is well argued and worth reading (though long).

  • Reed Perkins says:

    Using the NAACP’s “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” flag as an illustration for this post is deeply wrong in so many ways. It should be removed asap.

    The flag was flown from NAACP headquarters in New York between 1918 and 1938 when actual American Black men were brutally murdered in extra-judicial mob actions. It was not some kind of metaphor, and should not be used now for other commentary purposes, whether “ironic” or not.

    The blatant racism of some commenters to this blog is bad enough. Why our host tolerates it is a mystery. But it’s his blog and he can do what he wants. That does not change the fact that using this flag as an illustration for a post about academic freedom vs. racial justice, and its relationship to Schenkerian analytical theory (!?!?), is obscene.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The supreme greatness of a work of art is not the achievement of a nation, but of an individual artist and a gift to the world at large.

    Race, nationality, any group think muddle projected into art is a product of misunderstanding and of philistinism.

    • By this definition, a Mahler symphony would be as likely to come from China as Austria. With extremely rare exception, great artists are a manifestation of cultures and could not have existed without them.

  • Barry Carter says:

    It’s a funny thing that this is the attack on the outsized role that Schenker has played in music theory in US conservatories. It is but one way of analyzing music and it is useless for anything that is not tonal. Not to mention that most music school graduates will tell you that the exercises in graphing are of minimal use. I took Carl Schachter’s class on Analysis for Performers, for those that don’t know Schachter, he studied with Salzer, one of the two or three key students of Schenker, the very people who took Schenker’s work and made it into an actual curriculum. It all happened, by the way, at Mannes, where Hans Weisse started teaching it formally. The idea that the graph tells you the most important note in a phrase is about all most students will take away from that class. So, the indictment of Schenker should have been made long ago, which is essentially that much of the curriculum in music theory classes grew stale and unresponsive to music before Bach and after Brahms.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “It is but one way of analyzing music and it is useless for anything that is not tonal.”

      In contrary, it is very useful since it shows that atonal music is useless.

      The only truly substantial contribution of Schenkerian analysis is, apart from rejecting the simplistic chord labelling of Riemann, the understanding that music is a multilayered art form with a fore- and background, and often also a middleground, where energies move at different speeds, and have different structures. This insight greatly helps understanding any music, also non-western musics. And it greatly helps talented (!) performers with decisions like: which notes need more, or less, profile in sound? Where you hear performers (including quite some ‘famous’ ones) making none such distinctions, in a bland rendering, you know that Schenker could have helped them. Interestingly, conductors with the right instinctive insights automatically create shades in profile, which cannot be notated. The result is an uncommon liveliness and clarity.

      • K says:

        Mr . Borstlap-

        I feel that your comment “…atonal music is useless”, is unfairly applied to a wide spectrum of compositions in the “atonal” style. I still can’t abide “Pierrot lunaire” but I have listened to Ruggles’ “Sun-Treader” multiple times. Audiences get to decide who they want to listen to, which is a factor in the classical music marketplace. But I think to brush aside an entire generation of composers because we don’t immediately like the piece as a sensory experience is a limiting gesture. There are “winners and losers” in the atonal style, just as there are in any other style. (Do you know anyone who just listens to isorhythmic motets?) I think we should look at the merits of individual pieces and then decide.

        For what it’s worth I am in complete agreement about the role of analysis in complementing performance, as exemplified in Schenker’s “The Art of Performance.”

        • John Borstlap says:

          The question of atonal composers is too large to go into on this spot, but atonal music is impossible. What is thus labelled, is sonic art: sound art. And there are some beautiful works in that territory, but it is not music. Schenkerian analysis can do nothing with sound art because the notes don’t form an inner space through relationships based upon tonality, it is that simple.

          Pierrot Lunaire is a great work (which I very much love) because it is still tonal in its negation: structure, gesture, scoring, everything points towards tonal connections which are not there or only halfway, it is music on the very brink of collapse and that gives it its expressive qualities. Its inner space is in a state of dissolution but you can still hear its echos. It is music that expresses insanity and mental collapse and is still capable of maintaining a minimum of coherence. (In Erwartung the music goes into full insanity, suited to the subject.)

          I don’t know whether a Schenkerian analysis could do something with Pierrot, that should be looked into. I think it could still define fore- and background.

          • K says:

            Mr Borstlap-

            Thank you for your thoughtful and sensitive comments. Some reaction:

            1. “What is thus labelled, is sonic art: sound art. And there are some beautiful works in that territory, but it is not music.”
            We could also label a Mozart sonata as “sound art”, could we not? “Sonata” itself means sound piece, does it not? Much of the terminology of our structural forms – sonata, cantata, symphony, lieder, opera, fantasia, fugue, prelude, etc.- does not include “music” at all. With respect, this can’t just be about labels, for if it is, then anyone could label something to expediently fit into their biases.

            2. “Schenkerian analysis can do nothing with sound art because the notes don’t form an inner space through relationships based upon tonality, it is that simple.” I agree, based on my experience, that this particular aspect is true. But isn’t Babbitt’s analysis of 12-tone and atonal musics a direct descendent of what Schenker was doing with tonal compositions, that is, investigating the organic ingredients of the composition and delineating those inner spaces and relationships? I did not formally study Schenker analysis, but my own conclusions as to its benefits is how it persistently and systematically uncovers how a piece works, and that those methodologies can be applied to a wide spectrum of styles.

            3. I will give Pierrot Lunaire another listen. I would like to perceive some of the elements that you described.


          • John Borstlap says:

            I think:

            1. Music is sound plus a psychological layer which can be perceived in the listening experience. We hear how a tonal piece ‘works’. We cannot, should not, hear how a sound art piece works, because there are no musical structural dynamics that are perceptable, it is therefore ‘flat’, one-dimensional, it is an art ‘about’ patterns which can have order, but no inner space. The order in a tonal piece relates to our inborn sense of order. The order in, for instance, Boulez’ Pli selon Pli remains on paper, and does not relate to our inborn sense of order, hence the sense of randomness in the listening experience, anything can happen at any moment, there is no time perspective as in music.

            2. I don’t know enough of Babbit’s analytical attempts of atonal works, but any analysis of sound art can uncover what its structure is, but I doubt whether that structure plays a role in the listening experience. This has already been a rather embarrassing discovery in the sixties when entirely through-organized serial music sounded exactly the same as entirely non-ordered aleatoric music where all players play according to randomness or coincidence.

            There is a remarkable lecture given in Paris in 2012 which deals with perception and order, in an accessible way:


            (This lecture exploded into an affair which wound-up the modernist establishment in France, it awoke the inquisition around Boulez – the Ducros Affair of the College de France.)

          • K says:

            Mr. Borstlap-

            Thank you for the link and for your revelatory comments. I appreciate your rational discussion of this aspect of music theory and history, and for putting aside the underlying rancor of how this particular thread started. I hope that we will hear more from you.

    • K says:

      Mr. Carter-

      I studied Schenker analysis independently and I would have to respectfully disagree with your comment, “…exercises in graphing are of minimal use.” My efforts led me to conclude that the graphs and the accompanying individual mechanics do (help to) expose the compositional process. To support your comments, however, I did not take Allen Forte’s classes when I had the opportunity, but some of the folks who did were absolutely wrapped up in getting the graph “perfect”, but I often felt they were missing the overall gesture of what was happening in the piece.

      Did Schachter insist on an absolute progression of the composition, as revealed thru a Schenker graph? For if he did – and may I extrapolate that Schenker thus did also – then I would have a problem with that. No theory in this realm should have hegemony; if a method of analysis can be shown to have validity, then it should be considered. Which is why if the method can teach about the composition, even if it is limited to
      the “…music before Bach and after Brahms”, then I feel that it needs to be in our tool box.

      I do not know who Hans Weisse is, but I will do some research.

      • K says:


        I should have said “… even if it is limited to
        the music between Bach and after Brahms…”

      • John Borstlap says:

        There is music which is open to very different analytical interpretations, like Debussy’s. Any method that appears to offer insights of understanding, if checked by the reality of musical experience, can be valid – if needed.

        Music is an ambiguous art form because it is a kind of psychology in sound through fluid mathematics. To want to pin it down in a final, objective picture is as useless as a computer graph of someone’s psychological make-up.

  • Hayne says:

    “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
    Frank Zappa 🙂

  • Racism is alive and well. Good to see. *puke*

  • Rewinn says:

    He is whining because he did a lousy job editing a journal ( skipping peer review of his own contributions, for example) and suffered the consequences. Read the report

  • Paul says:

    Here’s a quick primer on the primary subject of the academic fight – Heinrich Schenker and his model for musical analysis.

    Here’s the upshot: Schenkerian Analysis has very little to do with how composers actually go about doing their work, and almost nothing to do with how good performers actually understand and interpret and perform that work. Schenker’s model for musical analysis has everything to do with Heinrich Schenker – a notorious pariah in his personal and professional circles – desperately attempting to salvage his once promising but ultimately unremarkable career as a composer. It was in part an attempt to ingratiate himself with the worst parts of the German establishment – you know, the ones that figured Hitler was probably just a clown and what harm could he do anyway? (ahem)

    Anyway his analytical model turned out to be a pretty useful tool to promote the idea of German racial superiority by establishing a framework which demonstrated that German composers were INHERENTLY superior to their counterparts elsewhere in Europe – a feat Schenker accomplished by This One Neat Trick of only accounting for the important German composers when he built his model. So if you’re not Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms – or at least aping them pretty closely, well, then, obviously




    Which would come in incredibly handy for certain kinds of propaganda efforts later on. Right? If you’re not German, or at least German-speaking, or at least partially German-speaking, then obviously you’re barely even fucking human. Hell, even the goddamned English had the good taste to import George Handel and J. Christian Bach, amirite?

    Anyway, even though Schenker was a horrific racist himself and did all the things to formulate his racism in musicological academic terms, he had the slight problem of being a Polish Jew in in 1930s Austria, so none of this really did him much good anyway. And so he spent the early 1930s whistling past the graveyard. I’d like to think that deep down he knew better but probably not. Luckily for him he died in 1935 and didn’t live to see the Anschluss, or his wife subsequently shipped off to Theresienstadt where the Nazis starved her to death.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It’s not true.

      Schenkerian analysis has quickly moved far beyond the narrow territory that Schenker had set-out. It is perfectly possible and very helpful to use some of S’s models (the inner space theorem) to analyse Debussy or Stravinsky, for instance. One could create a Schenkerian graph of fore- and background of the Sacre, apart from the Danse Sacrale because there, the music is flattened to mere rhythm.

      Also, composers DO indeed work according to Schenker’s idea of different layers of structure, because that is the only way to compose music, that is: tonal music. Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, etc. etc. till and including Britten and Shostakovich all worked with these notions, and they did not need to be aware of it, because it is in the heart of the art form. That is the achievement of Schenker that he made it intellectually understandable. His other ideas, like the Urlinie, are nonsensical, in my opinion, as his idea that Brahms was the last great composer and that only the German model ensured artistic quality. Nobody ever believes such craziness today.

      • Stephen Herzog says:

        It is true that Felix Salzer did a bit of analysis on non-tonal works and there are theorists such as Kyle Adams who have tried to apply Schenker to rap and hip hop. Nevertheless, the people who really propelled Schenker to its place in singular place in theoretical studies, which begin with Carl Schachter, saw no use for it in anything but tonal music. The real point is that Schenker should be but one approach taught to conservatory students instead of the only primary approach to analysis. The students are now playing a much wider range of music than when Weisse, Adele Katz, Schachter, or Aldwell were either living or still active. I think that Philip Ewell has a point about the hegemony of Schenker, since other approaches to theory have been largely ignored in the conservatory curriculum. Show me a theorist that teachers from Cowell, Partch, or George Russell, just to name a few. This was all part of what Narmour was getting at years ago with Beyond Schenkerism.

  • Joshua Clement Broyles says:

    The CRT arguments against keeping Schenkerism in public institutions are more controvertible than the simple argument that Schenkerism is an anti-science cult. An anti-science cult shouldn’t be given license to operate in public institutions merely on the basis that other types of arguments against it are more controvertible. But that’s basically what I’m seeing so far.

  • Sara Sutton says:

    CRT is racist, Marxist propaganda.

  • Joshua Clement Broyles says:

    PROOF: Racism in Music Academia