‘I fear for those who are made to feel guilt or shame for loving Western classical music’

‘I fear for those who are made to feel guilt or shame for loving Western classical music’


norman lebrecht

October 07, 2021

The pianist and scholar Ian Pace has written an excellent piece in the Spectator on the present critical state of academic musicology, where everything goes … except music. Ian is co-convenor of a forthcoming 2022 conference on ‘Music and the University’

His conclusion:

I fear for those in education who are made to feel guilt or shame for loving Western classical music, or those who one American educator asked to undertake an especially demeaning ritual in which students had to step forward to check their privilege if they were taught music theory, cared about notated music, or could read more than one clef.

Moreover, if the teaching of specifically musical skills is allowed to decline further, academic music may struggle to survive at all ..

It is time to reassert the value of the study of music in its own right, as something one loves or finds fascinating, regardless of whether it has achieved mass-market commercial success. Listening to the music of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven alongside some of their now all-but-forgotten contemporaries is the surest way to appreciate just why such canonical figures are so extraordinary…. The relationship of this music to its social and ideological contexts is a vital area of study, but this should be the subject of continuous critical inquiry, not dogmatic platitudes.

Read the full article here.



  • MacroV says:

    I’m as white as they come, and must not be moving in the right circles as I’ve never been made to feel shame for loving western classical music. Though as a child I was sometimes made to feel like a bit of a dork for doing so.
    Now I know I’m falling for the availability fallacy, but is this really a thing outside a couple people that nobody pays attention to?

    • V. Lind says:

      You’re usually pretty astute. Have you not seen the danger classical music is in? Lowering attendance (outside the Covid issues) in all concert and opera venues, more and more attention to pieces based on other than musical concerns, utter lack of interest in and knowledge of classical music in the young, reduced broadcast airtime, merged (or closed) orchestras and ensembles and opera companies, and the full-frontal attacks by the woke crowd…

      I’m very much afraid the answer to your final question is “Yes.”

      • David A says:

        All the issues you mentioned above have absolutely nothing to do with the questions raised here. So the answer to his final question is a resounding “No”. And if you actually believe that accusations of being a white supremacist is what’s lowering concert attendance, reduced broadcast airtime, merger and closure of orchestra etc…..then I don’t know what to tell you…but maybe start by analyzing the effects of neoliberal policies on the arts industry?

        • V. Lind says:

          I certainly do not believe that anything to do with white supremacy has any place in discussions of classical music. What I meant to put over is that classical music is in enough trouble without all this nonsense. If I put it badly, I apologise.

    • Richard Zencker says:

      It’s an invented outrage.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I remember being subjected to this rubbish as a student of Musicology in a University in the 1990s. I told the Head of Music just where she could go with her Marxist dogma.

      This garbage shouldn’t be enabled by explaining it all away; the people promulgating this mean business. They’re the usual SJW suspects.

    • David A says:

      You’re right. It is not really an issue. This blog, as well as all the paranoid alarmist right-wing populist audiences, are predominantly the ones who are making a big deal over this.

      The thing is, they feel like they have been left behind (and for good reasons), but instead of really trying to understand why they are facing their predicaments, they simply blame and demonize the minority for tainting “their” culture, or even “their” nation, and that’s what’s happening here as well. If you look at the comments section, you will see that they are attacking not the majority who yields real power and thus can do damage, but rather the minorities, both in the sense of those involved, as well as the magnitude of events. If you ask 100 musicians whether they felt they’ve been shamed to like classical music due to its association with white supremacy, I would bet 100 would say no.

  • Wurm says:

    The trick is to keep one’s standards, taste and enquiring ears when all around you are losing theirs.

  • Feeling sad for him says:

    You have to feel sorry for Pace. He’s an old-school Bolshie who has always been stridently opposed to the right wing, but the force now relegating him to a has-been is people of the left who have simply decided to redefine what leftist values are.

    • Hilary says:

      ‘always been stridently opposed to the right wing’
      Not in my experience. He’s a bit more nuanced than that.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Look at the arguments, not at the man. Reading texts as instruments of vested interests bereaves them of meaning. Stop reading Foucault.

      • Elie says:

        Sue —

        Professor Pace fails to recognise that many scholars possessing ‘musical skills’ CHOOSE to engage in scholarship that extends beyond ‘just the notes’, finding that there are much more interesting things to write about vis-à-vis music and sound.

        But what I really regret about these white men trying to keep the post-colonializing hordes at bay is that many of them are bullies in real life, and have simply been permitted to bash those who engage with methodologies other than the traditional ones they value. I recall a screed by Pace years ago about a ‘musicologist without ears’ who (1) he seemed obsessed with; and (2) who doesn’t consider themselves a musicologist. It was apparent he had failed to grasp that, wow, different intellectual traditions bear on the study of music.

        But what we’ve seen is that there are other mechanisms that enable these men in their bullying. Some of what Paul Harper-Scott has published on ethnomusicologists (in a book published by Cambridge University Press no less) would never pass peer review in a serious journal. And that so many of these types enjoy full professorships while extremely talented women and scholars of colour barely appear in the professorial ranks in British academia is also not lost on me.

        Women and scholars who bring MUCH more to the table than these narrow-minded. traditionalists. I should add that I have 10+ years of Conservatoire training, and years of training in Western art music in higher ed — I’ve got all those ‘skills’ these men love to hide behind, thinking themselves special — and I still hold these views.

        • Herb says:

          Some perspective is in order here. If your book has been published by a press as august as Cambridge University Press, it has been peer reviewed. It would not even get on a short list for possible publication with out going through a lot of rigorous scrutiny. It is an impossibly high bar that few dedicated academics can ever achieve, let alone musicians from a Conservatoire who may dabble in academic pursuits from time to time.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      They’ll always eat their own. Eventually. Pugilism is like that. And it breeds intellectual pygmies of the type defined in this disturbing read.

  • Stephen Burchell says:

    Anybody who can read music should be immediately sacked and sent to a re education camp.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      “When we meet in sweet Siberia, to protect us from diphtheria, we can toast our toes on the lady Eskimos in cheery Si-beria…
      where the fresh salt air makes us feel so fine; it is fresh salt air from our own salt mine”.

      Cole Porter wrote cleverly about people sent to Siberia because of their ideas. The difference between then and now? Nothing much; climate change and nobody with a sense of humour.

      • K says:

        Sue Sonata Form – SWK – I would find it very humorous to learn of your ending up in Siberia. Enjoy the yak; I hear it is quite good.

  • Alexander T says:

    Les chiens aboient et la caravane passe…….

    • Eulalia Johnson says:

      Alexander T, I hope you are correct, but even so, those dogs are spraying way too much urine on the camels’ hooves as the caravan passes by.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I was laughed at as a kid for liking classical music but the ignorance of the mockers didn’t bother me. But this sort of nonsense never occurred to me. It is absolute piffle and would only be believed in the ivory towers of universities and colleges. Ordinary people wouldn’t be stupid enough to fall for the tripe.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    I’m shameless and guilty of loving classical music. Western? There is no other.

  • Scott Fruehwald says:

    Excellent article. Everyone should read all of it.

    This is how the “Elite” react to any criticism. A few weeks ago, I posted about J.P.E. Harper-Scott’s resignation on SMT Discuss. Woke professor Megan Lavengood commented, “Scott, aren’t you a law prof (not a musicologist or scientist)? What exactly are your stakes in this anyway?’

    I replied with my musicology credentials, including the fact that I had a Ph.D. from the same institution she did.

    She responded, “I see. After seeing that you had only ever posted on SMT Discuss to share blog posts against anti-racism and decolonization, I then Googled your name and found that you are in legal studies, and it seemed very odd to me that you’d join this community just to post about that without any connection to the field of musicology.”

    In other words only the “Elect” are allowed to post on SMT Discuss.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      For those who trivialize this as a passing phenomenon your post should read as an ominous warning.

      • Alan says:

        I agree. I was involved in promoting contemporary music for several years. The university system is full of Marxists. Critical race theory is the mantra and Foucault still exerts a strong influence.

      • K says:

        Here’s an ominous warning: a horde of MAGA morons storming the Capitol under the banner of restoring democracy, egged on by a orange tyrant spuing a constant stream of lies about white privilege and replacement theory, a tyrant who would love to be seen as being on the same social level with said morons, feeding them an enormous mound of BS, while the reality is that he actually loathes them and would never be seen in their company, and a tyrant who would love for said morons to think that he and his ilk are anti-elite.

        In reality, it is the orange tyrant’s fondest wet dream to be one considered one of the elites, but because he is such an irreducible oaf, with the IQ of a cabbage leaf – sorry cabbage leaves – he will never belong to anything other than a heaping wad of used tissue in the dust bin of history – sorry dust bin of history. (I can only imagine that the resulting stench is overwhelming.)

        Maybe some of his defenders on this site, manifested through their proxy attitudes and comments, will have the privilege of joining him there. I know SWK has expressed an interest.

    • Anonymous says:

      So is that how one becomes a professor? Learn to casually bully and threaten others with slightly more sophisticated language than the average bad person?

  • BRUCEB says:

    I still wonder what people think “check your privilege” means…

    • John Borstlap says:

      I thougt it meant you had to check your private parts. But why, I wonder. They are always there, well at least that’s my experience.


    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      It means that over-turning the traditional establishment and putting yourself at the top of the hourglass means that it’s only sustainable once you completely de-legitimise your enemy’s right to exist.

      Have I mentioned before that I’m tired to the death of this neo-racism, neo-segregationist, identitarian RUBBISH??!!

      • K says:

        SWK – “Have I mentioned before that I’m tired to the death of this neo-racism, neo-segregationist, identitarian RUBBISH??!!”

        Yes, you have, ad nauseum!

        Have we told you how tired to death we are of your white priveledge rants, your tired, not-so-cleverly disguised racists tropes, your low-rent, completely predictable responses? You haven’t? Good to know.

    • Herb says:

      From what I have seen, it is mainly tossed about as an insult, a put down. It seeks to inculcate a state of immutable guilt for which, by definition, there is no possible redemption. The person meting out the insult then watches the target writhe in a spluttering defenseless state, issuing a tragicomedy of never-ending apologies that, also by definition, cannot ever be good enough.

      In other words, it is emotional manipulation of the most craven variety. It is all the more insufferable because it fancies itself impervious to criticism, hiding as it does behind a veneer of heavy theorizing and sophistication of thought.

    • Anon says:

      People (some people…) think it means “abase yourself because of it.” It actually means “be aware of it.”

      There is nothing wrong with being privileged, but it behoves those of with privilege to acknowledge it and make sure we don’t use it for evil.

      “Levelling up” is, I think, the current phrase.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Most of the time, the term ‘privileged’ is used to deny individual achievement, individual efforts and investment, tenacy, patience etc. etc. to get somewhere, and to explain it all as a mere result from the generosity of the environment on the expense of others, i.e. unfair. The fallacy of the null sum: ‘Your success and achievement has only been possible because of my misery – my rights were stolen so that you got success that you have not worked for’.

        The egalitarian world view that lies at the basis of such reactions wants everybody being the same and everybody getting the same chances in life. But that is something very different from fighting injustice, discrimination, and helping the downtrodden. Instead of improving the rough sides of society, it ends into organized resentment, hounding of talented and successful individuals, thinking that intelligence is elitism, and attacks upon lecturers at universities because they are already there where the students want to be without the necessary efforts and talents.

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    Marin Luther King used sing the praises of composers like Handel

  • True North says:

    It is possible to love great music and still have a social conscience. The two need not be mutually exclusive. I shall ignore anyone who says otherwise, (having spent my whole summer vacation budget on some fabulous new CD box sets this year!)

    • John Borstlap says:

      I’ve seen people, I won’t name names, who indulge in listening to Wagner and as a result treat staff in a despiccable way, correcting them all the time. That sort of music destroys any kind of social sconsiousness!


  • Alexander Graham Cracker says:

    As a perusal of new or recent releases will reveal, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean classical musicians–of whom there are a rapidly increasing number–adore the Western canon. The East is saving the West.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Because it is relatively new to them, and they want to be uplifted, coming from long periods of darkness. In the West, many people are simply blasé and spoiled and tired of being civilized. They prefer sinking back on the sofa with their beer and watch sitcoms & sports.

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    The whole subject makes me feel queasy in the stomach.

  • BigSir says:

    I’m actually digging in and supporting the orchestras and classical music stations more now.

  • Kyle A Wiedmeyer says:

    I’ve never once felt shame for enjoying western classical music, certainly not because of its history (though I am sometimes embarrassed of it when I’m surrounded by people who think it’s stuffy, dainty, and boring). However I am willing to acknowledge the problematic aspects of its history, e.g. Handel profiting from the slave trade (and Chopin doing so indirectly), Wagner’s raging antisemitism, Saint-Saens being a self-described “pederast,” etc., and I think we all should be too.

  • Nicholas Ennos says:

    Perhaps there is a difference between the US and Europe. In Europe classical music seems more popular than ever, with declining interest in popular music and increasing interest in other genres of music.

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    I’ve loved classical music since childhood and was encouraged along the way by my parents and the few enlightened teachers I encountered in my school years, although I, too, suffered the torment of contemporaries at school over my music choices and because I played an instrument; my french horn case being described as a ‘Handbag’. However, I knew that the bullies couldn’t do anything apart from hurt and humiliate others. They couldn’t play as well as I could, anyway. I began composing for my peers at school and music, particularly Beethoven’s music, helped me through the trauma of loosing my mother at a young age. Sadly, music has always been seen as an elitist occupation in Britain; culture isn’t really valued at all here, in my humble opinion. People will always be jealous of others who can do things that they cannot.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Because the UK is culturally closer to the USA, it will be much more influenced by what is happening there than on the continent.

      The school bullies hound the musical kids because they feel they will never experience something mysterious that must be something good, so the confirmation of their mental prison has to be denied. It is always amazing that they instinctively ‘know’ they are excluded and have to protest by humiliating others.

      • Sue says:

        Re: the USA link.

        Another problem, which I hope is not the obstacle it used to be, is the “Billy Elliot” syndrome. This afflicted the North of England in particular when I was at school, and had a serious impact on my brother. Things improved when my family moved south.

  • Una says:

    As far as someone from England goes, I’ve never heard of such dribble! Can’t speak for America or the rest of the world. I certainly have never been made to feel shame and guilt for loving classical music coming from the poorest part of London, and certainly in the north of England where I now live, it’s actively being promoted, certainly all over Yorkshire and Manchester, and never more so than by Leeds Cathedral, Bradford Cathedral, Halifax Minster, and a whole host of cathedrals and churches of faith or none, before you start with Opera North who have made going to the opera affordable for families, and their wonderful educational scheme for ordinary children they have set up, both black, white and brown – or is this now classed as a racist comment this day and age? And it’s the ordinary state schools from where these places recruit, often the poorest of areas again like Bradford and East Leeds with no disposable income, and so none of your posh fee-paying schools need apply! If people don’t go to concerts, they don’t go to concerts. There are many reasons why not, and there’s only so much money around as well, never more so with the rise in gas and electricity threatened, and the endless unemployment from the pandemic.

    • Sue says:

      Sounds like Bradford is putting Vienna in the shade. Must have improved since I was growing up there when it was almost exclusively dependent on the Halle. I wonder how much scope there really is with its present demographic.

      Yorkshire, the largest county in the country, shamefully lost its professional orchestra in 1955. Recent attempts to resurrect it seem to be struggling. Probably more difficult since the ENO established its Leeds branch in 1977, a fact which, in typically Yorkshire fashion, Opera North seems reluctant to acknowledge.

  • Stweart says:

    I feel no guilt or shame but I do fear the apathy and ignorance !!!!

  • David Eaton says:

    Pity all those Venezulan kids who learned to read and play classical music…and Quincy Jones went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulangier. I guess Jazz musicians who read and notate music are to be chided too for their privilege.

  • There is no question that denigrating classical music is anti intellectualism in spades; there is also no question that the great western musical tradition is being preserved by amazingly talented Asian musicians, who deserve our support and praise. To the newly woke but proudly ignorant, all western art is oppressive: music, painting, literature, etc. Who are the oppressed? The uneducated, the uncultured, the anti-history
    woke folk, who think history began yesterday. We are living in a period where all culture (and more recently science) are anathema. Pity the oppressed, whose aesthetic senses are missing and who will never experience the beauty and power of the greatest music ever written: the music of the west. This in no way is a comment on “world music”, folk music, or any other kind. A good music listener can like all of these. I and millions of others rebut the notion that music is elitist, either on its own or in a social context. It is an ancient practice, and once upon a time in the US it was taught in primary school, and nearly every home had a piano (or parlor organ, as my family had until I started piano lessons….because my father took me to see Song of Norway, with Grieg’s music, and got hooked on classical music. My parents’ generation and before all loved and appreciated classical music. All Europeans do. It is only uneducated deaf Americans who deprive themselves of one of the greatest aesthetic and emotional experiences humans are capable of. They have my condolences: I have Piazzolla, The Beatles, Art Tatum, Wagner and Brahms and Irish ballads.They have nothing.

    • John Borstlap says:

      True but thanks to influence of American culture (in the anthropological sense), there are more and more people in Europe who decide being philistine is somehow better. At least it is easier.

    • K says:

      Lorna – “To the newly woke but proudly ignorant, all western art is oppressive”: a large percentage of professional musicians and music professors don’t feel this way. I played in a orchestra that had a robust representation of women, blacks and Asians. That was ten years ago. To the best of my knowledge they were all very happy to be playing Western art music. One of the local universities had a very diverse group of professors who, again to the best of knowledge, were very happy and well compensated for teaching the theory and history of Western European music.

      Young black, Asian, gay, bi and trans musicians still practice Mozart, Brahms et al, because they want the world to know that they are up to mastering that particular style. They also recognize the need and desire to explore the musics of other genres, created by people who may be outside of the traditional notion of what a composer should look like or where they should be from. Do you have an issue with that?

      The orange-one and his reprobate democracy denouncing hordes have taken the comments of a small percentage of music professors and blown it way out of proportion. Well, what does one expect from an orange blow hard and his ardent blowholes?

    • K says:

      Lorna – an apology is in order; the second part of your comment sounded more reasonable than the first, which I focused on. Mea culpa.

      This statement – “There is no question that denigrating classical music is anti intellectualism in spades” and this one, “To the newly [ ] but proudly ignorant, all western art is oppressive: music, painting, literature, etc. Who are the oppressed? The uneducated, the uncultured, the anti-history [ ] folk, who think history began yesterday. We are living in a period where all culture (and more recently science) are anathema.”

      Sounds to me like you very easily could have been talking about those on the other side, and by that I mean the hordes – and their brethren who stayed home – who stormed the Capitol and the orange one who gave them license to do so. Do they get a free pass? Are they and their ilk really engaging in our culture in any sort of constructive way? Who is science more anathema to? The woke musicology professor or the SWK carrying the confederate flag in the rotunda? Just curious.

  • CGDA says:

    The problem is not ‘academic musicology’, but ‘Anglosphere academic musicology’. Currently, a lot of the latter is full of smoke, pseudo-musicology, pseudo-sociology, pseudo-philosophy, pseudo-politics and total nonsense written by people whose knowledge of music matches that of a tadpole!