Black Scholars Confront White Supremacy in Classical Music

Black composers had entered the edges of the limelight somewhat earlier. In 1893, the young singer and composer Harry T. Burleigh befriended Antonín Dvořák, who had come to New York to serve as the director of the progressive-minded National Conservatory. Stirred by Burleigh’s singing of spirituals, Dvořák declared that Black melodies should be the foundation of future American music. A couple of generations later, the work of a few African-American composers—William Grant Still, William Dawson, and Florence Price—began to appear on orchestral programs. Black opera singers gradually made headway in the same period, culminating in Marian Anderson’s breakthrough appearance at the Metropolitan Opera, in 1955. The Met has yet to present an opera by a Black composer, though a production of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is planned for a future season.

In the long view, the marginalization of Black composers and musicians was not only a moral wrong but also a self-inflicted wound. Classical institutions succeeded in denying themselves a huge reservoir of native-born talent. Dvořák’s acknowledgment that African-Americans were in possession of a singular body of musical material—one that broke open European conventions of melody, harmony, and rhythm—went largely unheeded. Instead, much of that talent found a place in jazz and other popular genres. Will Marion Cook, Fletcher Henderson, Billy Strayhorn, and Nina Simone, among many others, had initially devoted themselves to classical-music studies. That jazz came to be called “America’s classical music” was an indirect commentary on the whiteness of the concert world, although it had the unfortunate effect of consigning Black classical composers to a double nonexistence.

Of course, racism was endemic in the pop sphere as well, as a host of scholarly studies have made clear. In an essay titled “Race, Blacksound, and the (Re)Making of Musicological Discourse,” Matthew Morrison marshals a formidable array of research and theory to argue that the American pop-music industry is inextricably rooted in the racist routines of nineteenth-century blackface culture. Some historians and critics have tried to find redeeming features in a practice that pervasively ridiculed African-American voices and bodies; Eric Lott, in his classic 1993 book, “Love and Theft,” argues that working-class blackface performers demonstrated a “profound white investment in black culture” even as they carried out appalling acts of exploitation. For Morrison, these “counterfeit and imagined performances of blackness” are better understood as affirmations of white identity, with racial mockery integral to the act. (Mockery of “élite” European art was part of the formula as well.) Black performers eventually took up careers on the minstrelsy circuit, but only at the cost of playing along with white fantasies.

That dismal history may help to explain why such Black leaders as Du Bois and King found sustenance in European music. White as the canon was, it appeared to stand outside of America’s racial horror. Du Bois’s veneration of German culture—cultivated during his student years in Berlin, in the eighteen-nineties—partly blinded him to the depravity of German racism, which led not only to the Holocaust but also to the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples in what is now Namibia. Slavery was a European undertaking before it was an American one, and it left its marks on the repertory. A few years ago, the scholar David Hunter made the disturbing discovery that George Frideric Handel was an investor in the Royal African Company, which transported more than two hundred thousand enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and the Americas.

The racism embedded in classical and popular music alike is the necessary background to understanding the hard-won achievement of Florence Price, who is the subject of a new biography, “The Heart of a Woman,” by the late musicologist Rae Linda Brown. Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887, to middle-class parents, and won admittance to the New England Conservatory, which had a history of accepting Black students. She initially made a living by teaching and by composing parlor songs and other short popular pieces. But in her forties, having escaped an abusive marriage, she broadened her ambitions and turned to symphonic composition. She won some high-profile performances but found herself isolated. Her bonds with Black communities weakened; the white world treated her as an interesting oddity. The resistance that she faced as a female composer made her progress all the more arduous.

Nevertheless, she stuck to her path, and her Third Symphony, which premièred in 1940, is increasingly recognized as a landmark in American music. Variously majestic, sinuous, brooding, and playful, it gestures toward African-American spirituals and dance styles yet seems to enclose them in quotation marks, as if to acknowledge their ambiguous status in a white marketplace. Brown analyzes Price’s work in terms of “double consciousness”—Du Bois’s concept of the “warring ideals” inherent in Black and American identities—and then enlarges that tension to include Black traditions and European forms. Brown writes, “A transformation of these forms takes place when the dominant elements in a composition transcend European influence.” The tradition will not survive without such moments of disruption and transcendence.

Classical-music institutions have just begun to work through the racist past. Scores of opera houses, orchestras, chamber-music societies, and early-music ensembles have declared solidarity with Black Lives Matter, in sometimes awkward prose. Because of COVID-19, most performance schedules that had been announced for the 2020-21 season have been jettisoned, and the drastically reduced programs that have emerged in their place contain a noticeable uptick in Black names. When the virus hit, we were in the midst of the so-called Beethoven Year—a gratuitously excessive celebration of the two-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday of a composer who hardly needs any extra publicity. It remains to be seen whether this modest shift toward Black composers will endure beyond the chaotic year 2020.

In the same vein, mainstream organizations are giving more attention to a Black classical repertory: the elegantly virtuosic eighteenth-century scores of Joseph Bologne; the folkloric symphonies of Price, Still, and Dawson; the African-inflected operas of Harry Lawrence Freeman and Shirley Graham Du Bois. Yet such activity goes only so far in challenging an obsessive worship of the past. These works remain largely within the boundaries of the Western European tradition: if Schenker could have overcome his biases, he would have had an easy time analyzing Price’s music according to his method. Furthermore, this programming leaves intact the assumption that musical greatness resides in a bygone golden age. White Europeans remain in the majority, with Beethoven retaining pride of place in the lightly renovated, diversified pantheon.

Classical music can overcome the shadows of its past only if it commits itself more strongly to the present. Black composers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have staged a much more radical confrontation with the white European inheritance. A pivotal figure is Julius Eastman, who died in near-total obscurity, in 1990, but has found cult fame in recent years. Eastman’s improvisatory structures, his subversive political themes, and his openness about his homosexuality give him a revolutionary aspect, yet he also had a nostalgic flair for the grand Romantic manner; his 1979 piece “Gay Guerrilla,” for two pianos, makes overpowering use of the Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

With a vibrant roster of younger talents moving to the fore—Tyshawn Sorey, Jessie Montgomery, Nathalie Joachim, Courtney Bryan, Tomeka Reid, and Matana Roberts, among others—the perennial solitude of the Black composer seems less marked than before. Still, Black faces remain rare in the rank and file of orchestras, in administrative offices, and, most conspicuously, in audiences. Price once described how strange it was to see an all-white crowd vigorously applauding her Black-influenced music. That experience remains all too common.

A deeper reckoning would require wholesale changes in how orchestras canvass talent, conservatories recruit students, institutions hire executives, and marketers approach audiences. A Black singer like Morris Robinson should not have to live in a world where—as he recently reported at an online panel discussion—he has never worked with a Black conductor, stage director, or chief executive at an American opera house. At the same time, institutions must recognize that the Black-white divide is not the only line of tension in the social fabric. Asian musicians have often complained that blanket descriptions of classical music as an all-white field efface their existence. They are well represented in the ranks of orchestras, but they have little voice in the upper echelons, and routinely encounter the racism of disdain.

At bottom, the entire music-education system rests upon the Schenkerian assumption that the Western tonality, with its major-minor harmony and its equal-tempered scale, is the master language. Vast tracts of the world’s music, from West African talking drums to Indonesian gamelan, fall outside that system, and African-American traditions have played in its interstices. This is a reality that the music department at Harvard, once stiflingly conservative, has recognized. The jazz-based artist Vijay Iyer now leads a cross-disciplinary graduate program that cultivates the rich terrain between composition and improvisation. The Harvard musicologist Anne Shreffler has said of the new undergraduate music curriculum, “We relied on students showing up on our doorstep having had piano lessons since the age of six.” Given the systemic inequality into which many people of color are born, this “class-based implicit requirement,” as Shreffler calls it, becomes a covert form of racial exclusion.

The sacralized canon will evolve as the musical world evolves around it. Because of the peculiarly invasive nature of sound, old scores always seem to be happening to us anew. A painting gazes at us unchanging from its frame; a book speaks to us in its fixed language. But when modern people play a Beethoven quartet it, too, becomes modern, even if certain of its listeners wish to go backward in time. The act of performance has enormous transformative potential—an aspect that musicologists, so accustomed to analyzing notation on a page, have yet to address in full. Naomi André, in her 2018 book, “Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement,” evokes the dimensions of meaning that opened up when Leontyne Price sang the title role of “Aida” in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Of the passage “O patria . . . quanto mi costi!”—“Oh, my country . . . how much you have cost me!”—André writes, “The drama onstage and the reality offstage crash together. . . . This voice comes out of a body that lived through the end of Jim Crow and segregation.” The music of a white European had become part of Black experience—become, to a degree, Black itself.

Jean-Jacques Nattiez, the musicologist and semiotician, has described two dominant ways in which we construct musical meaning: the “poietic,” which reads a score in light of its creator’s intentions, methods, and cultural context; and the “esthesic,” which takes into account the perceptions of an audience. We live in a determinedly poietic age: we give great stress to what artists do and say, particularly when they stray from contemporary moral norms. That project of demystification is often useful, given the rampant idealization and idolatry of prior eras. But listeners need not be captive to the surface meaning of the scores, or to the biographies of their creators, or to the histories that accompany them. We can yoke the music to our own ends, as W. E. B. Du Bois did when he improbably reinvented Wagner as a model for a mythic Black art.

The poietic and the esthesic should have equal weight when we pick up the pieces of the past. On the one hand, we can be aware that Handel invested in the business of slavery; on the other, we can see a measure of justice when Morris Robinson sings his music in concert. We can be conscious of the racism of Mozart’s portrayal of Monostatos in “The Magic Flute,” or of the misogyny of “Così Fan Tutte,” yet contemporary stagings can put Mozart’s stereotypes in a radical new light. There is no need to reach a final verdict—to judge each artist innocent or guilty. Living with history means living with history’s complexities, contradictions, and failings.

The ultimate mistake is to look to music—or to any art form—as a zone of moral improvement, a refuge of sweetness and light. Attempts to cleanse the canon of disreputable figures end up replicating the great-man theory in a negative register, with arch-villains taking the place of geniuses. Because all art is the product of our grandiose, predatory species, it reveals the worst in our natures as well as the best. Like every beautiful thing we have created, music can become a weapon of division and destruction. The philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, in a characteristically pitiless mood, wrote, “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime.” ♦

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