Classical music needs to confront the white-male frame

For diversity initiatives to last, classical music needs radical institutional change. 

Original article published on Sharps & Flatirons here.

Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, the white male trinity of classical music, have finally been joined by Black composers in 2020.

Four in particular, both male and female—Florence Price (1881–1953), George Walker (1922–2018), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912) and Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)—are popping up frequently in programs, as orchestras scramble to address classical music’s pervasive lack of diversity, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and widespread calls for racial equality.

As welcome as they are, will these sudden attempts and inclusiveness last? Are classical musicians and organizations really confronting European male supremacy for the long-haul?

In fact, such diversity initiatives will only last if classical institutions are willing to radically reimagine and revamp an outdated framework, built by and for the white elites.

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The lack of diversity in classical music is obvious.

“What I think is needed in the orchestral world is music that is diverse in terms of country, gender, race and modern(ity),” James Bailey, former music director of Boulder’s Dairy Arts Center, says. “In those four areas alone, anyone can look at the data of most orchestras and realize there is a significant lack of diversity.”

In an analysis of 120 orchestral seasons, the Institute for Composer Diversity found that 35 orchestras, including the Colorado Symphony, played no music by women or minorities for the entire 2019–2020 season. The rest mostly hover at or below 15% of the season, though the Chicago Sinfonietta notably stands out at 58%.

Locally, 22 percent of the Boulder Philharmonic’s 2019-2020 season featured diverse composers (two pop concerts not included). Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra stood out. Seventy-five percent of their scheduled 2019-2020 season featured diverse composers, most notably their pre-COVID February concert, “Diverse Voices,” which featured four Black composers, two of them women.

On the whole, though, orchestral programs are filled with white, male composers. According to the League of American Orchestras, the top three composers in the 2010-2011 season were Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky—all male, all long-dead and all western European. Sound familiar?

So how do classical musicians and institutions tackle this pervasive lack of diversity?

To start, they must adopt a broader understanding of diversity as including anyone of underrepresented racial, cultural and ethnic heritages. It is not enough to chuck in a Black or female composer and declare victory for diversity. True diversity begins when institutions move beyond adding minorities for political correctness to achieve overall inclusivity, in repertoire, in personnel and in audience.

This doesn’t mean throwing out the canon entirely or “canceling” Beethoven; rather it means making programs more equal and representative of both canonical and diverse works. These changes will help to create safe, welcoming musical spaces, where non-white, non-traditional audiences feel acknowledged, represented and understood.

Then, classical musicians need to acknowledge the white racial frame governing their academic institutions and build an updated, diverse curriculum.

“You can’t change it out there,” Austin Okigbo, professor of ethnomusicology at CU-Boulder, says. “People in charge are trained in the white patriarchal system. So you have to change the curricular diversity in the academy.”

This is no small undertaking. Since the 19th century, American music education has thrived on a Eurocentric, German-dominated system of training.

“America always looked to Europe as a source of their cultural inspiration,” Okigbo says. “Black composers didn’t earn the respect they deserved. There was an attitude that this is not artistic enough.”

Lowell Mason, known as the “father of American music education,” started the trend with his elitist “Better Music Movement” in the 19th century. This movement dismissed American composers, including William Billings, Daniel Reed and Justin Morgan, in favor of European composers, especially Germans.

Music theory in academic institutions also followed Mason’s Eurocentric ideology. Influential music theorists, particularly the German Heinrich Schenker and the Belgian François-Joseph Fétis, viewed music by white, male composers as inherently superior to music by female and Black composers. Schenker wrote that “the man ranks above the woman.” In his Histoire générale de la musique from 1869, Fétis wrote, “Contrary to the other races . . . the white race . . . possesses a sentiment of beauty, of grandeur, and it is to it that we owe the creation of pure art and the progress of science.”

In his presentation “Fétis’s Racial Frame of Tonality,” Thomas Christensen argues that Fétis’s racist philosophies to a large extent shaped his definition of musical greatness. Because only Europeans could make great art, only traditional European tonality could underlay great music. Given this “historical and cultural positioning,” Christensen comments, “Maybe the whole regime of our taxonomic-centered discipline might be due a rethinking.”

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Now is a time to dismantle the racism and sexism in music theory and pedagogy and to rethink the curriculum. This begins with raising awareness of the white-male frame.

Music schools need to teach students to confront the concept of genius, masterpieces and greatness as synonymous with white European men, particularly Beethoven and Bach. They need to create a culture of inclusivity in their classrooms and concert halls through diversity in audition requirements, ensemble and solo repertoire, pedagogy, textbooks, faculty and administrators. Ethnomusicology, the study of non-Western music, needs to be cohesively integrated into mainstream music teaching.

If an updated, diverse curriculum were implemented, a new generation of musicians would become more empowered to become active crusaders for diversity in their musical communities. Once these musicians were in positions of power, as educators, conductors, directors and leaders, they would be more likely to program diverse repertoire. Diversity would become a learned habit, rather than an uphill battle against ingrained ideologies.

Yet, even if classical music can overhaul its institutions, will this idealized diverse and inclusive musical world be appealing to audiences? Will audiences pay to hear music by unknown diverse composers rather than their favorites?

“Music is hard to sell if no one’s heard it before,” Bailey says. “Music that we really love is music we have heard hundreds of times.”

The economics of the classical music industry are already tenuous at best. Large classical music organizations often operate at a financial deficit, as ticket sales from a rapidly shrinking and aging audience prove insufficient.

“Lack of diversity has to do with lack of money,” Bailey says. “Orchestras need a large donor and attendance base. If they are programming music that the audience is not familiar or comfortable with, they will lose audience and donors. They don’t want to do that.”

The barrier of conservative audience taste is difficult to overcome. Musical institutions cannot force their audience to choose novelty over comfort, especially given hundreds of years of tradition and precedence.

Rather than force-feeding too much diversity to their current audience, classical musicians should refocus their efforts on younger and quickly diversifying future audiences, by playing diverse repertoire in non-traditional, smaller concert venues on a lower budget. Chamber music, which is cheaper and more flexible, is already leading a shift in this direction with groups like Kronos, Imani Winds and the Turtle Island String Quartet.

One simple solution is to slip in diversity with canonical repertoire, in an effort to build familiarity over time, until diverse composers can enter the mainstream consciousness. Orchestras are trying this in 2020, but influencing the audience’s preferences could take decades.

The rapidly growing Asian and Latinx communities will be an important part of this new, younger audience. According to the Pew Research Center, Asian-Americans are the fastest growing ethnic or racial group in the US, growing 72% between 2000 and 2015, to 20.4 million from 11.9 million.

Latinos are the second-fastest growing ethnic or racial group. Their population has increased significantly to 60.6 million in 2020 from 50.7 million in 2010. In 2019, the median age for Latinos was 30, far younger than 44 for whites. And the white population is predicted to experience a gradual decline between 2018 and 2060.

This cultural, demographic shift away from whiteness will require an equivalent shift in the classical music repertoire. A younger generation of Americans are fed up with the canonical status quo and stuffy, elitist classical music. They want to shake up the white-male frame of classical music on Spotify and in the concert halls.

To attract and retain this potential audience, classical music needs to radically diversify its institutions and programming before it’s too late. “Change has been coming,” Okigbo says. “But people are scared. They don’t like change.

“We have come a long way from 100 years ago, but we have to keep evolving. We have to be patient for however long it takes.”

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