Why this New York professor won’t take questions

Why this New York professor won’t take questions


norman lebrecht

February 21, 2021

Philip Ewell of Hunter College, a public university in New York, has been chasing headlines by calling for the decolonisation of classical music and denouncing any scholar he doesn’t like as a racist. Beethoven, in Ewell’s view, is just another over-promoted white male.

This might be harmless and amusing were it not for the mob that follows Ewell and tries to cancel honest scholars who disagree with him.

Ewell himself is hands-off in the mov violence so much so that he refuses to answer questions from Slipped Disc and the New York Times, hiding behind a gown of academic privilege – we use the word advisedly – that really needs to be pulled down.

Others arestarting to question the substance of his musical knowledge and musicianship. The attached polemic by David P Goldman sheds some light on Ewell’s gifts as a cellist.

Goldman writes:

It’s all about envy.

My childhood piano teacher kept a recording of Florence Foster Jenkins, the deluded society lady portrayed by Meryl Streep in a 2016 comedy, as a horrible example for youth. Her voice would de-feather a screech-owl, but no-one was allowed to tell her she couldn’t sing. The only classical musician still active who bears comparison to Ms. Jenkins is a certain Philip Ewell, now a professor of music theory at Hunter College, who posts videos of himself torturing a cello until it squeals in pain. Prof. Ewell is African-American and has won his fifteen minutes of fame by denouncing whiteness in classical music….

Read on and listen here.

Any questions?



  • Forza says:

    Regardless of what his musicological comments are, right or wrong – it is completely besides the point to comment on his cello playing only to arrive at the conclusion of… envy? Here we are again with the idea that behind every musicologist is a failed musician. Give me a break!

    Also – PJ Media? What a wonderful source of journalism, right? The same level of quality as Breitbart. Lemme just cite the headline of an article right below the Ewell article : “Who Cares About Cruz? Where Was the Outrage Mob When Obama Was MIA During Times of Crisis?”

    • David K. Nelson says:

      I found his Chopin Cello Sonata on Vimeo. The playing is bland (the pianist was good, however) and has some intonation issues, sort of a student recital level of performance.

      I agree that in general the soundness of a musicologist’s musicology is not to be judged by their powers of execution on an instrument.

      Still, his views would command more consideration if he was a marvelous executant. Talent earns its own kind of respect, a kind of respect that is hard to acquire otherwise.

    • The Cohens says:

      Ewell embodies “black fragility” as do BLM supremacists who are domestic terrorists.

      These sad souls only attempt to make others feel lesser than themselves in order to boost their low self esteem the same way bullies do. They have no valid points so they threaten and use violence and mob force to compensate.

      If they only had a POSITIVE narrative more people would listen to them, speak with them, work with them, use their services and buy their products. They thrive off of NEGATIVITY and SELF-PITTY instead. Fortunately it’s only that group and society is shutting down their hysterical violence along with the courts. A prime example is in our ethnic, proudly Jewish neighborhood in New York. We fight them off and keep them OUT!!!

      • V.Lind says:

        “We fight them off and keep them OUT!!!”

        Them? Them who?

        Your post is revolting.

      • PFmus says:

        SO comrade, do you really think your transparent attempt to sow enmity between black sand Jews is worth the time you’ve spent typing it? Or is this how you pay your heat costs in Moscow?

  • Miko says:

    As you sit under the velux framed stars in your Hampstead loft, persistently searching for new ways to outrage your ultra right wing following, might I point out that “freedom of speech” is a principle applicable to all? Or is it only seen as the preserve of the alt right?

    Why constantly throw meat to the dogs? It only makes them froth at the mouth. It doesn’t beautify your otherwise decorous and endlessly enlightening blog.

  • Terry says:

    Yasss finally. Glad that Slippedisc is making these articles as it’s important!

  • caranome says:

    As an Asian-American, I can’t believe why such a big % of the white (liberal, “progressive”) population is intellectually, emotionally n psychologically cowed into submission by minorities, esp. blacks. Never in the annals of history has there been a dominant group/race who prostrates itself before such flawed narrative from a minority that’s based on so much ignorance n racism. It’s basically white is bad n racist; black is good, blameless n above reproach. Anyone who rejects the narrative n points out that blacks (esp. the urban underclass that’s the real problem) have many pathologies that are keeping them at the bottom of society n causing havoc to themselves as well as those near them, as well as perpetuating the not unjustified stereotypes that plague them, are racists. That term has now become useless n meaningless because it’s flung about so casually n baselessly. This kind of abasement only happens in the U.S. n pockets in Europe. Don’t try this anywhere in Asia, Latin America or Africa. Imagine what will happen to a minority tribesman in Africa screaming daily “racist, bigot etc.” to a dominant tribesman, or a minority to a Han Chinese? So why are whites so meek n willingly taking the abuse heaped on them daily from just about every institution? I know millions of them are resentful but are afraid to speak out due to fear of losing job n social retribution. Just don’t understand.

    • Patricia says:

      Not all of us are quiet about this, and not all of us voted for Biden-His-time, who supports this inane idea.

    • Alexander Graham Cracker says:

      As someone who has lived in Asia for the last decade, I can vouch for the accuracy of Caranome’s analysis.

    • JussiB says:

      That’s because all those other Asian countries you mentioned do not have history of immigration and democracy and it’s hard to for foreigners to become citizens. OTOH, I would argue American democracy pendulum has swung too far to the left and that’s what Trump tried to correct, albeit in a misguided way.

    • Adrienne says:

      As a black person, I don’t understand it either.

      It fills me with trepidation because the various narratives following George Floyd are creating a situation which is intrinsically unstable. A new grievance is being created every week, hatred is being stoked up and, sooner or later, it is going to rebound.

      • Jimmie says:

        George Floyd was a career criminal and represents the legions of blacks who refuse to take their place in society as civilized productive members. The black community refuses to acknowledge true heroes of their race, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Clarice Thomas, etc. Instead gangster rap thugs are their models. Grievance leaders like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, etc. only stir the pot of racism to achieve a taxpayer payday for themselves and their associates. Corporations bow at their feet out of fear of boycotts. Far too many including Ewell and the idiot composer with the Albany Symphony have bought into race grievance to make up for their lack of talent. Using race as a crutch for their lack of success is getting a bit old. It’s long past time to tell them to shut up and stuff it.

    • V.Lind says:

      Do you have some constitutional objection to the word “and”? Or has someone done something to stunt your second-language teaching?

    • JImmie says:

      “WHITE GUILT” written by Shelby Steele explains a lot of what you speak. This all started in the 60’s and is reaching a boiling point. The “Long March” through the institutions of higher education has achieved cultural control with the cancel culture. The USA is totally upside down and headed towards civil war.

  • M McAlpine says:

    The only people who need cancelling are those like Ewell. Using racism to gain a moment of so-called fame.

  • Cynical Bystander says:

    It’s good that none of the ‘mob’ who support this critical justice warrior will never have to live off their talent. It firstly allows them to play the victim and secondly they can always fall back on their tenure or their family trust funds. Of course should they ever have to make their own way in the world they may have, paradoxically, to check their own privilege and actually face the reality of playing the works of dead white men, or even dead composers of other ethnicities or genders. Having in the process of earning a living to also rationalise the views of securely employed professors in universities who are making a very comfortable living out of telling them that the security they enjoy in the ivory towers of academe is somehow a mark of how oppressed they actually are.

  • Le Křenek du jour says:

    A period of benign neglect may be beneficial to the Ewells and their target audiences.

    If being ignored doesn’t becalm them, the din they will inevitably be driven to raise once they realise the echo is dying down may reveal their fatuous vacuity to all and sundry.

    (For the benefit of younger readers, I must declare a debt to the great Pat Moynihan for his deeply misunderstood, hence automatically and reflexively maligned, formula of ‘benign neglect’. Moynihan, whose poverty-stricken immigrant background and sociologist’s insight qualified him as one of the last true, reforming, pragmatic liberals, was intellectually endowed to deal with the dialectic of reality.
    This ability to perceive the other side of an argument is completely lost on the young Savonarolas of any hue or shade who are claiming a spot in the limelight, and who have two things in common: a huge chip on their shoulder, and an unassailable, continent-sized bedrock of self-righteousness.

    As Moynihan wrote shortly before his death in 2003:
    “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society.
    The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

    This is the dialectic balancing act which will decide whether we, as a civilisation, may succeed or perish.)

  • sam says:

    After listening to his videos, I now understand: Those who can’t do, teach, those who can’t teach, teach musicology.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Often musicology is a kind of gynaecology of music. You get to know a lot, but somehow the practice suddenly seems farther away than ever.

  • Marfisa says:

    This attack on Philip Ewell is unworthy of SD. It consists entirely of distortions of Ewell’s views, words taken out of context, made-up insults, and unjustified slurs on his professional competence.

    “chasing headlines”. No. He gave a paper on “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame” at a plenary session of the annual conference of his professional body, later published it in fuller form in an open-access peer-reviewed academic online journal (https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.20.26.2/mto.20.26.2.ewell.html), and wrote on the subject in his blog. All of this is normal academic practice.
    Far from chasing headlines, he has declined to comment on the matter in mainstream and social media, and for this he is accused of “hiding behind a gown of academic privilege”.

    “denouncing any scholar he doesn’t like as a racist”. No, he does not. Read his work.

    “Others are starting to question … his musical knowledge and musicianship”. Who, apart from David P. Goldman?

    “It’s all about envy”. Really?

    The comparison of Ewell to Florence Foster Jenkins is simply absurd. Ewell is not in the league of Mischa Maisky or Stephen Isserlis (he is, after all, only a Professor of Music Theory), but he is a perfectly competent cellist. The clip singled out for ridicule is this (from 1993, when he was still a student): https://vimeo.com/68307155. Judge for yourselves.

    I know this is all about Schenkerian Analysis, Professor Tim Jackson, criticism of Jackson by some of his students and colleagues, and action taken against him by his own University. But (as far as I know) Ewell had nothing to do with instigating these attacks and has played no part in them.

    Ewell’s paper is a serious examination of a serious issue, and deserves intelligent and well-thought-through counter-arguments, not knee-jerk journalism of this type.

  • RW2013 says:

    And how far did David P Goldman (who?) get with his childhood piano?
    Come Home to Jesus in whole notes?

  • Rob says:

    Just live your life and do good things.

  • Bone says:

    I sampled two of his performance videos. His Chopin is, indeed, pretty terrible. Bach 5th cello suite, though, was not bad at all. For a non-performance professor, he doesn’t seem to be a poor musician as insinuated by the story.

    Still a complete bum for his Woke version of music history, but I can’t really fault his playing too much.

    • Larry W says:

      “Not bad at all.” Really? The Bach Prelude never met a metronome. Every single quarter-note eighth-note tie was shortchanged. The same bad rhythm was in the Allemande. The tone was strident on the top strings. Intonation aside, the Fugue had no structure or harmonic basis. These problems are not a matter of technique but musical analysis or understanding. After listening, my ears need some Scotch brand cello-pain tape.

  • Alexander T says:

    Him again.
    Classical Music isn’t a symbol of White oppression or privilege, it is a symbol of White achievement of which Europe/the West has every right to be proud.
    (I strongly suspect that it is this transcendence that is the root of these polemics as it makes obvious the relative shortcomings of other cultures’ achievements. If you can’t match it, tear it down).

    • John Borstlap says:

      Western classical music is not a symbol of white achievement, because it is entirely colourless. It is a symbol of achievement of the European civilisation and one of its typical characteristics is that it is entirely accessible to any people of any other culture, since it is based upon universal values and natural phenomenae (i.e. tonality). This explains the high performance standards of players in Asia (China!), South America, Russia, you name it. Also ethnically-challenged composers can easily absorb this musical culture and produce worthwhile works. Needed is musical talent, good ears, openness of perception, and persistance if born in unlucky circumstances.

      But all of this is something else than racist discrimination which does happen everywhere, in every field, to some extent – and which is hard to prove if administered in small but suffocating doses. Therefore, some patience is required to understand protests like Dr Ewell’s, however clumsily delivered.

      • Terry says:

        As a white person yourself Mr. Borstlap, you have missed the obvious. Many ETHNICITIES are included in the enormous DIVERSITY of the race known as “White”!

        When certain Black people (ONLY the swath of angry, Leftist losers) conjure up hate for specifically the white race and no other, it makes THEM the racists! They are blindly discriminating against a segment of society they aren’t entirely educated on. That’s showcasing themselves as xenophobes. It is THEY who need to be “schooled in self-awareness”.

        Mr. Ewell is a man in a position of immense privilege, standing FREELY in a world among those who are truly oppressed and literally enslaved is a sick joke! To be taken seriously, he and his ilk would be raging against the Nigerian slavery occurring NOW!!!!!!!

        Blacks in the USA apparently have no problem with the following headline from just 2018: “Africa is again the world’s epicenter of modern-day slavery.”
        Sound offensive, inflammatory, incendiary or flat out TRUE?!?!


        Guess who is responsible for selling these human beings? Here are some FACTS!


        “My great-grandfather, Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku, was ‘what I prefer to call a businessman’, from the Igbo ethnic group of south-eastern Nigeria. He dealt in a number of goods, including tobacco and palm produce. He also sold human beings.”

        There’s much more for most Black people to be educated on but it behooves them to check their privilege and right wrongs perpetrated in THEIR OWN PASTS!!!

        Indeed the new Democrat President (savior Joe Biden) just announced his backing of a “Reparations Study” as Congress formulates a Bill.


        Makes one wonder how Black American families who brokered slaves and are current legal citizens will accept having to pay THEIR fair share when they are outed for what they are…slave traders! Can’t wait for that truth along with the other surprise families, races and religions brought bear for their crimes.

        • John Borstlap says:

          It’s a generalizing, misinformed comment to be taken-up with pincers and to keep it in a safe little box, until it expires of its own accord.

  • I have a degree from Hunter College, and was a victim of “open enrollment”….the total ruination of a storied New York educational institution, once part of the Seven Sister Schools. CUNY adopted an “open admissions” policy in 1970 that guaranteed any New York City high school graduate admission to a college within the University, and first imposed tuition for under-graduates in 1976. The end.

    • Marfisa says:

      What does that have to do with this post? And how were you a victim of open enrollment? And what is wrong about tuition for undergraduates? I am really curious to know what you are trying to say.

      (Philip Ewell was not a New York City high school student, if that was your implication .)

  • marcus says:

    This all makes sense now. Could not hack it as a jobbing pro so gets a season ticket on the outrage bus. I guess we all have to make a living one way or the other.

  • Enquiring Mind says:

    Well, the ne’er-do-well is the pied pipers for the never-did-nothin’s once again.

  • anotherprof says:

    The interesting thing to me is the obsessive need to dismiss Dr. Ewell out of hand, distort his statements, and malign his competence – though I suspect none of the commenters has so much as an undergraduate degree in music theory. Mr Lebrecht feels very free to denigrate scholars in fields in which he has no competence, e.g., musicology: in his novel he has a violinist practicing a Bach etude, of which there are none.

  • Rich Patina says:

    “The grudge that mediocrity bears against genius is the purest form of evil.”

    That says it all, does it not?

    • John Borstlap says:

      What has mediocrity to do with racism? Is protest against racism meaningless if the protester is mediocre in another field than racial equality?

    • Marfisa says:

      It says nothing, except about David P. Goldman. To unpack the implied narrative of his article, Ewell must have wanted a stellar career as a cello soloist, he wasn’t good enough, and as a result he now envies anything better than him! Goldman ignores the fact that Ewell is a successful Professor of Music Theory (with many published articles), which may well have been his real career choice.

      We can turn this round with the same degree of probability. Goldman himself studied Music Theory (see his article, first paragraph), wanted to continue in an academic career but was not clever enough, and now envies successful Professors such as Ewell and seeks to destroy their reputations with ridiculous and (as others have pointed out) irrelevant rants about their performance skills.

      This now tired ‘envy, genius, and mediocrity’ theme is of course well explored in Pushkin’s play ‘Mozart and Salieri’ and Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’ – where again there is absolutely no basis in reality for the accusation against Salieri that he envied (and murdered) Mozart!

  • phf655 says:

    If the only way we can refute Ewell’s despicable ideas is through commentary from the hard-right PJ Media, which includes an ad hominem attack on his cello playing – whose competence, or lack thereof, has nothing to do with the issues at hand – than we are in serious trouble. Here’s hoping that the inevitable calming of the culture wars in a benign Biden administration will have the effect of weakening the attraction of screeds such as Ewell’s to a few fanatics.

  • Douglas says:

    I have not followed the Ewell debate, so my comment is only about this (curious) idea that you would expect a musicologist to play to a professional standard on an instrument. When I read the book of musical history or analysis, I don’t expect the writer to be able to play Liszt’s “Feux Follets” flawlessly. Perhaps one could turn the argument around. I don’t expect a musician to be able to speak about music and indeed they can often be embarrassing when they do.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      The “Ewell debate” is not about his cello playing. It’s about his activism-focused writtings and litigations.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In my Cambridge days, brilliant musicologist John Deathridge played Bach’s Four Duets in a class about structural perception, and his piano playing was so rude that any structural perception dissipated in the struggle to restrain one’s laughter.

      • Marfisa says:

        How refreshing to see the words ‘brilliant’ and ‘musicologist’ conjoined on this site. I hadn’t heard before of Professor Deathridge, but I shall try to get hold of his book Wagner beyond Good and Evil, which sounds very interesting — and rather relevant to the sort of debate Philip Ewell’s work is now stirring up. Thank you for this anecdote. (Did you mean crude?)

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yes, it should be crude. It was, definitely. But his analysis of the Duet was excellent. And his writings also are. Only, he is not a musician, not at all. He needs a brilliant intellect and desperate efforts to say something about music.

      • I knew John Deathridge well in his pre Cambridge days in Munich when much of his time was devoted to Wagner. He was indeed brilliant.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yet I would not trust such scholars at all with Wagner. He will know everything about biographical facts and scores, but there it stops.

      • JJC says:

        I too had a piano playing professor who liked to illustrate a point from the keyboard. But here our experiences diverge as his name was Charles Rosen…

        • George says:

          Wow what was studying with Rosen like? How was his playing?

        • John Borstlap says:

          I never thought Rosen was a really good pianist. Too dry, too intellectual, too pedantic. His ‘The Classical Style’ is, surprisingly, a rambling book, a mere collection of random insights.

  • christopher storey says:

    Well, I had a look at some of the videos of him playing the cello. I did not think it was all that bad as amateur playing goes,( I listened to some Chopin and Rachmaninoff as well as the Bach ) although the Bach cited by NL was indeed awful. But, what shone through was the overweaning conceit of a very average amateur player in recording so many videos of himself and then publishing them .

    • Marfisa says:

      Just as an exercise in lateral thinking, try to give possible reasons other than ‘overweaning [sic] conceit’ why a Professor of Music Theory might want on his web page to give representative samples of his cello playing, along with his list of publications, and details of his teaching experience. Think hard. Write on one side of the paper only.

  • IP says:

    What use would the questions be?

  • jt says:

    I think he can say whatever he wants to say, as we all can here. We need not be so fragile when Beethoven is insulted. It’s not us being insulted, it’s a dead composer, and I for one know I love Beethoven so it doesn’t bother me one bit what someone else thinks on the matter

  • I am only an old piano student and generally illiterate in music theory but I still await Prof. Ewell’s fulfilling his statement that he has “only begun” to bare the racism in Schenker’s music theory so that his claims can be put to the test