NY Times tones down musicology racism row

NY Times tones down musicology racism row


norman lebrecht

February 15, 2021

The paper sits squarely on the fence of the ugly row that has soiled the teaching of music theory at universities for the past 18 months.

Briefly: It began when Philip Ewell, a Black music theory professor at Hunter College, New York, denounced the supreme theorist Heinrich Schenker as a racist. Tim Jackson, of the University of North Texas, called Ewell out for antisemitism. A mob of 900 music theory professors and students around the world was whipped up to demand Jackson’s dismissal. He is now taking legal action against his own employer.

There are major issues here of cancel culture, check-your-privilege and Afro-American antisemitism. Ewell refused to speak to the NY Times. The issue of Critical Race Theory that has invaded so many universities is barely touched upon. We have been reporting these important free-speech issues in Slipped Disc for a year and more.

The article as a whole is a fudge. I see the fingers of many editorial managers in the editing of this apple pie. The NY Times does not want to stray beyond the bounds of political correctness. It does ‘balanced’ journalism of barely readable blandness.

Read it here.



  • Rogerio says:

    In normal times, Critical Race Theory would be something pretty bad to come out of America.
    But today, we can brace ourselves for something much worse.
    As for musicology;
    The post above says that the NYT text is barely readable. That is much more than can be said of 99% of all musicology texts.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Because I got curious, I went to the library and got Schenker’s tome on Urlinie. But whatever effort I made, I could not make any sense of it, not even with the help of a strong scotch. After an hour it appeared I held the book upside down. But it made no difference.


    • Patricia says:

      Critical race theory is marxist, not American, but has been adopted by the marxist and racist left in America.

  • Anon says:

    From the NYT article:
    “Schenker penetrated to the heart of what makes music enduring and inspiring,” said Professor Wen, who teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. “He was no angel and so what? His ideology is problematic but his insights are massive.”
    Very well said by the Professor.
    Is anything else necessary?

    • Manuela Hoelterhoff says:

      Just a question: why are there so many music theorists and students? Why?

      • All about the music says:

        Those who can’t do, teach.

        Those who can’t teach, find BS sidelines like music theory. Unless it’s in public school, in which case: those who can’t teach, teach gym.

        • Save the MET says:

          Hogwash, most orchestral instrumentalists I know teach to help pay their bills. Many who don’t need to teach do so to pass their skills and knowledge to future generations. Others, highly skilled don’t enjoy playing nights and or travelling. There is a wide range of fields within music and each have their value, their strong points and weaknesses. By the way, to be a successful, well rounded musician, music theory is a must.

        • Hahahahaha! says:

          Oh my god, take that tired trope somewhere else. There are those of us who “do,” AND teach, AND write, AND compose, AND do research, and on and on. By your measure, I suppose Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt were slouches? Just ridiculous.

      • Dimsky says:

        Because they’re still trying to prove the theory maybe?

      • JoshW says:

        Why are there so many journalists? Ms. Hoelterhoff, what do you feel is the appropriate number of music theorists? What number do you deem appropriate? Are there other professions and areas of specialisation that you feel also need a maximum number?

      • V.Lind says:

        Not enough jobs in journalism.

  • J Barcelo says:

    Beethoven wasn’t great; he was propped up by white racism. Do people really believe that crap? Political correctness destroys everything it comes into contact with and the left won’t be happy until all of western civ is gone. My family is from Mexico and Beethoven’s music was part of our daily background. His race had nothing to do with it – great is great.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    As a card carrying Liberal, I must say this has gone too far. People are not looking at the context and the historical frame in which we all live.

    People will look back at our era and “correct” present day thinking to fit their means.

    Can we go all go back to fixing what really needs to be fixed and not get our knickers caught up on text in a journal that only has 30 subscribers?

    • Alan Karnovitz says:

      “Can we go all go back to fixing what really needs to be fixed and not get our knickers caught up on text in a journal that only has 30 subscribers?”
      If only this this poison was limited to some esoteric journal then your point would be valid. Sadly, like COVID, it has permeated the entire “educational” complex of America. Read this and you will be appalled if that is possible any more. https://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2021/02/why-math-is-racist.php

      These people are truly demented. Are we living in China circa 1972? When are today’s leftists going to rehabilitate Stalin’s favorite biologist Trofin Lysenko?

      • Le Křenek du jour says:

        >”When are today’s leftists going to rehabilitate Stalin’s favorite biologist Trofim Lysenko?”

        Anytime soon. I bet it’s already happening somewhere.
        See, for a dire warning of what’s beating in the bush, this apologetic paper on Darwin’s legacy:

        When such a sensible and historically informed scientific writer as Adam Rutherford feels the need to pussyfoot defensively about Darwin, taking the by now *de rigueur* precaution of contrasting his legacy with that of his allegedly evil cousin, Francis Galton, you know the heat’s up.

        Heck, Darwin’s and Galton’s heydays were 150 years ago. It’s almost a miracle that so much of Darwin’s scientific insights stood the test of time and find themselves increasingly confirmed, despite biological sciences undergoing not just one, but several Copernican revolutions. We should not expect his private views (which are not relevant to his scientific legacy in any case) to fare any better than those of his contemporaries; yet, as Adam Rutherford shows, even there, Darwin was more clear-sighted than the average Victorian. How many of his critics will enjoy comparable intellectual longevity? How many of Schenker’s critics, for that matter?

      • BrianB says:

        If anything, worse than China 1972. Tell Katherine Johnson and her ethnic minority colleagues at NASA that math and right answers were racist and correct answers didn’t matter. She would have been appalled. We have truly gone down the rabbit hole.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      You might be interested in what Alan Dershowitz says about being ‘a liberal’. Today that’s synonymous with “authoritarian”. Many on the left have said that the centre left has the responsibility to rein in its loony Left. They could start with the White House!! Executive Orders for ‘trans’ people!! What the??????

  • nwa says:

    The most extraordinary paragraph in the article:

    “For music programs to require mastery of German, (Ewell) has said, ‘is racist obviously.’ He has criticized the requirement that music Ph.D. students study German or a limited number of ‘white’ languages, noting that at Yale he needed a dispensation to study Russian. He wrote that the ‘antiracist policy solution’ would be ‘to require languages with one new caveat: any language — including sign language and computer languages, for instance — is acceptable with the exception of Ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, French or German, which will only be allowed by petition as a dispensation.’ ”

    I am surprised Ewell didn’t come straight out to require all musicology Ph.D. students to learn Ebonics and to write their dissertation in rap. (Obviously, the dissertation oral defense will be in the form of a battle rap.)

    • Marfisa says:

      It could have been worse. Ewell could have been even more radical, and have advocated banning the use of English altogether, allowing everybody to use whatever other language (the many African ones preferred) they wished. It might make for difficult communication, but it would certainly be anti-racist (in the new sense of the term).

      But he is only talking about the choice of a second language requirements for PhD students, and given that musical culture is global, he has a point, that prioritizing German, French or Italian might deter students wishing to research, for example, Indian, Arabic, Chinese, or African music, either for themselves or in relation to the Western European tradition.

      Why are SD commenters so obsessed with rap? As if the only choice is between the Viennese School or hip hop!

    • PaulD says:

      Ebonics is now being joined with something called “ethnomathematics” . Insisting that 2+2=4 is now considered racist.

      • V.Lind says:

        What does it = ? I merely ax.

        • Marfisa says:

          V. Lind – I believe it depends on what base you are using, or what units you are adding, or something to do with quantum theory, but I never got beyond basic maths at high school, so I can’t give an answer. Sorry!

      • John Borstlap says:

        2 + 2 = 5 is more fair, and any problems arising from such reform, are of less importance than the liberation of assumptions that 2 + 2 = 5, which has its own, original point of view as an alternative reading.

    • marcus says:

      Quite. I think in future Ewell should be compelled (to avoid the charge of cultural appropriation of the English language, which would be clearly racist) to submit his work in heavy Jamaican Patois.

      • Marfisa says:

        Jamaican patois *is* English-based. The level of ignorance among SD commenters about almost anything (apart from music?) is astounding. But I suppose facts don’t matter when you want to make cheap racist points.

    • Genius Repairman says:

      English is made up from almost all the languages listed as restricted, so that’s right out then!

    • Patricia says:

      I studied Latin, German, French and Italian in high school and college. I am happy to say that no ebonics was a requirement for my music history studies.

    • BrianB says:

      The bigotry of low expectations. Tragic.

  • Alank says:

    The NYT, a former newspaper is nothing more than a purveyor of leftist propaganda staffed by members of its own version of the “Red Guard” Just look up what they just did to Don McNeil their Pulitzer prize winning science reporter. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/public-confessions

  • Morgan says:

    “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” Shall we begin, yet again, the Wagnerian debates?

  • clefwalker says:

    I studied Schenkerian theory with William Mitchell in the 1960s at Columbia. It was an amazing experience, with chalkboards circling the room filled with the analyses. After the initial shock and of course in hindsight later, I realized that this Goethean way of looking at a piece of music was a redemption of all other ways, merely starting at the beginning and labeling chords, etc.
    That said, I’m sorry that Schenker was a racist. However, I have absolutely no idea how his biased political views affected the theory analysis that he projected, which was an innovative way of seeing and hearing music that influenced my whole perception, performance, and teaching. Musicology does need cleansing, but not like this.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There are a couple of serious mistakes that Schenker made, like his theory of the Urlinie, and the idea that a thorough final analysis of a piece would come down to a simple mere cadence V – I which actually says nothing at all about the music. His great insight was the multidimensional nature of tonal music, with a fore- and background: the ‘deep structue’ of music, sometimes with a middleground. This is how composers thought-out the music they wrote, not because they had schenkerian insights but because it is in the nature of tonal music. That he thought that German classical music (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms) was, because of this threedimensional structure, superior to any other type of music, and defining this as a typical German achievement, was the result of his missing the point that culture – any culture – is accessible by anyone dependent upon talent and perception, and that nationality in itself is irrelevant. He did not see, for instance, that his own deep structure method is equally enlightening on Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, etc.

    • Patricia says:

      Just how does musicology need cleansing?

  • DAVID says:

    The ultimate irony is that, within a few years’ time, most of the people involved in this controversy will either have retired or plainly switched careers. I hope these graduate students have a plan B in place, or at least have started working towards one, because the laws of supply and demand will definitely not be working in their favor in a post-pandemic world. What a waste of energy — both intellectual and otherwise — involving for the most part people who somehow were able to make a career out of talking about music, but who probably wouldn’t be capable of composing a decent melody — including Schenker himself, I would presume. I doubt that the great composers of the canon were too concerned about the underlying logic allegedly regulating their works — they were just too busy writing them. It’s probably already quite hard as it is to find a job as a tenured musicologist or music theorist. I would imagine it might become close to impossible in a brave new world from which the Western Canon had finally been expunged, and this for the simple reason that non-Western music simply doesn’t quite speak to our still very Western ears — this, by the way, includes the very people engaged in this silly witch hunt. Only a Western mind would think it appropriate to dissertate ad nauseam about Balinese gamelan music — the gamelan players themselves don’t talk about it, they just play it. Yet, it might provide wonderful material for yet another publication destined to make it to the “remaindered” section of used bookstores.

  • Ludwig's Van says:

    Can everyone please just grow up??? Geesh…

  • observer says:

    When it comes to racism in classical music, one need only read the readers’ comments on Slippedisc.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Wrong. Most of the comments which criticise antiracist unfounded rants want to preserve classical music as an art form separate from racist questions. Racism happens among practitioners, but that is something else from the art form.

  • Scott says:

    Ewell teaches rap, and rap is misoginist to the extreme. Ewell should be cancelled for his sexism.

    • Marfisa says:

      You know nothing about hip-hop, and you can’t spell, and you know nothing about what Ewell teaches. (One third-level Honors course “Rap Music in Hip-Hop Culture” out of more than 30 on aspects of music theory.)

      • John Borstlap says:

        I’m sure that Schenkerian deep-structure methods would not reveal any depth in those forms of entertainment.

    • Scott says:

      From Ewell’s Hunter College bio: “Philip’s specialties include Russian music and music theory, twentieth-century music, twentieth-century modal theory, and rap and hiphop music.”

      • Marfisa says:

        As I said, he teaches a course on Rap Music in Hip-Hop Culture. This doesn’t mean that he ‘teaches rap’. He teaches about rap; he very probably encourages his students to think critically about the misogynistic element present in some (not all) rap music. I think it most unlikely that he endorses misogyny.

        But it may be your first comment was an ironic parody of the faulty logic so prevalent in both left-wing and right-wing polemical rants, and if so, I apologize for having misunderstood your intention.

  • Béla Hartmann says:

    Heinrich Schenker was openly and strongly racist to the degree that he praised Hitler for purifying Germany of lesser races. He himself declared his analytical method to be reflective of and linked with his views of German racial supremacy. Whether we wish to use and teach his method is up to us, but surely it must be possible to discuss this in a rational manner, without misrepresenting what others write. As far as I could read in Philip Ewell’s paper he was not at all calling for Schenker studies to be stopped, merely for these historical facts to be included in the studies. Sounds fair enough to me.

    • Le Křenek du jour says:

      Every time I’m reading about Schenker’s racism and his alleged praise of Hitler’s racial policies, I’m left wondering if the writer is familiar with Schenker’s marital situation and the fate of his wife Jeannette after Schenker’s death and the Nazi annexation of Austria.


      For those who don’t find it necessary to read that short page, just the final line:
      “As a Jew, Jeanette was persecuted by the Nazis in the early 1940s; despite having allegedly twice been rescued from the Nazis by Erwin Ratz (Fink, p. 22), she was eventually deported from Vienna on transport IV/2-48 on June 29, 1942, and died in Theresienstadt concentration camp on January 8, 1945.”

  • Herbie G says:

    Was it Klemperer who said someting like ‘musicologists know nothing about music and everything about ology’?
    Why don’t all white people simply take the knee and apologise for persistently being white; then we could all move on.

    • M McAlpine says:

      It was Thomas Beecham who said that, “A musicologist is someone who can read music but can’t hear it.” If only some of these untalented idiots would get on with making music there might be some point to their existence. As it is they have no aptitude whatever for the wondrous arts and everything for making trouble and strife. The sooner they get jobs as office cleaners the better!

    • Patricia says:

      I am a trained musicologist who knows a lot about music. Academic training should teach more than how to read journal articles. I refuse to take the knee whilst listening, as I now am, to Handel.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    The New York Times sits on the fence!! Preposterous. It’s a love-in for the Democrats which will sooth Biden’s ego for the next 4 years. And bat away contrarian narratives like flies at a barbeque.

    • Max Raimi says:

      Did you read the article, Sue? It seemed to me that if anything, it tilted towards Prof. Jackson, although the writings of both gentlemen cited in the article contained elements that I found rather outlandish. That said, you do have a point. Like any sane group, the writers for the Times seem to have a soft spot for the elements of the political spectrum that have data and rationality on their side. So they tend to take Biden a bit more seriously than QAnon and Trump.

  • Midwest Branch says:

    One of the reasons we need Slipped Disc is because the NY Times has a habit of publishing articles on very controversial musical subjects but not allowing readers to make Comments on them.

  • Alexander T says:

    Here today, gone tomorrow.
    Beethoven on the other hand………..

  • Greg Bottini says:

    I hear the racist dog whistles a-blowin’….

  • Shane says:

    The woke leftists are destroying this country. People need to speak up against their hypocrisy.

    On another subject, Music schools and teachers are frauds and most of them are failed musicians who just need a job. There should be just a few music schools in this country, not hundreds. Going into debt to go to a music school is hard to justify. “Recruiting” students is a scam. Teachers need to recruit to get a raise by luring students to their school, but is it really beneficial for a student to go into a debt for a few years of lessons and music theory? There needs to be less mediocre musicians in the world and less “teachers” who actually destroy their students with their broken egos. American tenure system encourages a lazy, arrogant older generation. They suck every dollar from the system, doing the bare minimum until they die, while making it tougher for any younger, talented student to win a job.

    • Max Raimi says:

      “The woke leftists are destroying this country.” As threats to the country go, I would put climate change and rampaging QAnon rioters in the Capitol a bit ahead of “woke leftists”. As well as a few hundred other problems.

  • Freddy says:

    As ever, the comments on this thread manage to make Lebrecht’s ornery rants respectable. Whether or not you buy critical race theory doesn’t really matter, but these comments all do savor of “back in my day…”

    Worse, the disdain for these current scholarly trends is a matter of such concern– one wonders why, really, when the stakes are so low– that few find it worthwhile thinking about the asinine things that the implicit hero of this story, Jackson, said. If you read his response to Ewell’s bilge, it is plausible and commendable until it becomes unhinged.

    He uses an article almost thirty years old to talk broadly about black anti-Semitism and assumes that Ewell’s critique must be anti-Semitic. By that logic, since Jackson is white and there is a history of white racism against blacks, Jackson’s critique must be racist. See the logical problem here?

    Unfortunately, Jackson does give reason to believe his is ultimately a racist rant. Lumping Ewell with rappers (and citing Wikipedia!!! to do it), suggesting that black families essentially don’t like classical music– a claim that is so obviously false, unless you think that black people are all gangster rappers hooked on crack in those scary cities outside of Denton, Texas.

    (Note that black people have long been under-represented in other fields, such as history– it must be because black parents are allergic to the past!!!!).

    I could not care less about all this academic backbiting and I’ll listen to Wagner or any of those anti-Semitic and racist folks whose music I love. But, please, let’s choose reason over passion, even against our intellectual enemies.

    Of course, people should have the right to say racist and anti-Semitic things if they want to and I am so happy that the folks here are so openminded on that front.

  • Patricia says:

    It’s African-American, not Afro-American.An Afro is a dated hair style. Or better still, black American.

  • Max Raimi says:

    Of course it didn’t come down on either side of the fence. It was a news story, not an opinion piece. I personally found it a well written, even handed summary. It did a particularly good job of explaining the significance of Schenker to a non musical public.

  • Max Raimi says:

    There is a story of Schoenberg examining Schenker’s analysis of “Eroica”. After squinting for a time at the microscopic indications, he finally asked Schenker, “Where are all my favorite passages?”

    • John Borstlap says:

      Good story.

      The method of rigorous reduction seemed to concentrate on the ‘essence’ of a work, stripping away all inessential layers. But in fact that ‘final essence’ appeared to be so banal and uninteresting that it merely shows-up the flaw of the method. What is the essence of a musical work? Its reduced skeleton or its elaboration? Schoenberg was right.