This post got kind of long. tl;dr executive summary:
1. Classical music's racism is tied up in its over-reliance and devotion to the past. You can't change one without first changing the other.
2. Various factors subtly reinforce that reliance, especially from the recording era (1920's) onward. One is the plummeting incentive from that time on to write down music note-by-note. The other is the false choice in classical music between the comfortable past and a disorienting, avant-garde present.
3. As such, changing the culture requires much more than just playing more music by black composers.
4. In education, we teachers need to think outside the box in terms of how we teach and what music we teach, which ideally should include guidance and help from our institutions.
It’s time we admitted it: classical music is racist. It’s not good for the music, for the culture, or for the people who are pushed away as a result. In this post, I’ll explore how classical music got to this point, why it matters, and what institutions and individuals can do to make it better. This is by no means meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive, but perhaps the start of an overdue conversation.
Just a word about me, for those who don’t know me or where I’m coming from. I’m certainly not the final authority here; I’m a white male who’s benefited hugely from the institutions set up that vaguely fall under the “classical music” umbrella (schools, jobs, performances, and so on) though I also have a foot out of that world, partly because I like to write and perform other types of music (though a big part of the issue here is what gets to be, or gets to not be, defined as classical music). At any rate, I’ve grown up with, participated in, and seen the overwhelming whiteness around me in my educational, performing, and teaching life as a musician, so I’ve been part of the problem. It’s easy to be cynical about changing the culture in my (kinda-sorta) field, since I don’t hold too much sway over anyone but myself, but that’s also a dodge, so this post is in the spirit of tackling big problems that need collective action.
A Culture Overly Devoted to the Past
The racism of classical music comes from and is perpetuated by two basic factors. Most of what most people consider to even be “classical music” comes from the distant past when racism in the world was a fact of life. Today, the world of classical music maintains an at best innocent, at worst lazy and pernicious devotion to that past. And even if it is innocent and passive today, leaning so heavily on the past benefits neither the music itself nor the long term health of “concert music” or “art music” as an idea—though it certainly benefits some people and institutions in the field that don’t want to change it. But changing the culture from a tradition of recreating the past to one that’s more in the present is necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) for making it less white, and in any way anti-racist.
Now, that’s not to say there’s no overt racism and discrimination in classical music too, and certainly there’s been plenty when you reach back to the recent past. You may recall the scene from the movie “Greenbook” where black pianist Don Shirley laments the inability to get a gig playing his preferred music, the music he’d “been training his whole life to play” (ie, Chopin). (Yes, he loved the past, too, even more than his own music, it seems, somewhat complicating things!)
The Music Post
The Music Post is a blog / podcast for reflecting on all things musical, informed by years of writing, playing, and teaching music.