“Kill A Western Cultural Institution, Wear Its Skin”: The Case of Classical Music


Scholar and essayist Heather Mac Donald has written a thorough, fascinating and depressing study of how, as absurd as this sounds (and is), the fact that a drug-addicted petty criminal died under a white cop’s knee in Minneapolis has led to the death throes of classical music. The plot is familiar: seizing upon and exploiting white guilt and using the all-purpose weapons of race-baiting and threats of “cancellation,” various alliances of progressives, activists, academics, journalists, politicians and easily recruited naive rich liberals band together to claim that institution X is a feature of white supremacy and must be eliminated, shunned, replaced or destroyed. Taken by surprise and lacking the integrity, courage and fortitude to fight for Western cultural values, the groups that should be the guardians of our icons and institutions easily fall into postures of submission.

Mac Donald’s essay, “Classical Music’s Suicide Pact,” is in two parts (I and II), both published in City Journal, where she writes regularly. Perhaps the most telling part of the work is this one, at the end of Part II:

“Though the keepers of our tradition know that classical music is a priceless inheritance, fear paralyzes them as that legacy goes down. Among the leaders contacted for this article were conductors Daniel Barenboim, Dudamel himself, Riccardo Muti, Franz Welser-Möst, Valery Gergiev, Gianandrea Noseda, Charles Dutoit, James Conlon, Neeme Järvi, and Masaaki Suzuki; pianists András Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, Lang Lang, Evgeny Kissin, and Richard Goode; singers Anna Netrebko, James Morris, and Angel Blue; and composers John Harbison and Wynton Marsalis. All either declined to comment or ignored the query. Company managers were just as tight-lipped. The Met’s Peter Gelb refused an interview; the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Matías Tarnopolsky, Jonathan Martin of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and Jeff Alexander of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were also unwilling to speak. Simon Woods’s assistant said that he was caught up in moving to New Jersey and thus unavailable. (A source said that he had been in New Jersey for months already.) Those music professionals who did speak to me, with few exceptions, required that they be referred to in so generalized a category that it would contain thousands of members.”

This is, of course, fear, but also a betrayal of the culture. Things that are important and deserve protection must be protected, and those in a position to do so have an obligation to the public and the culture not to hide from controversy and confrontation, but to engage in both. But artists are notoriously lacking in fortitude, and this is especially so when what is required of them involves defying the Left, which is where most artists have gravitated for centuries.

Mac Donald is a conservative, but the attack on classical music, like many other supposedly partisan arguments, should not face an ideological divide at all. The argument that the classical music canon is a product of white supremacy rather than quality and genius proven beyond the shadow of a doubt over generations is one of those assertions that has nothing to support it but certitude. Similarly batty is the claim that the choice of what music should be featured in opera and classical music performances should be influenced by the skin tone of the composers. (Ethics Alarms earlier discussed what is, in my view, similarly irresponsible, the practice of choosing musicians according to color, gender and ethnicity rather than skill.)

Everyone should read Mac Donald’s work, first, because it’s excellent, and second, because it is frightening. I know many, maybe most, readers don’t click on links, and maybe more don’t care about classical music. Indeed, classical music was rapidly heading into oblivion without being savaged by the woke so it could be a trophy for Black Lives Matter et al. Nevertheless, the story is instructive, and attention must be paid. Here are a few sections to urge you on…

  • The classical music profession deemed itself implicated in Floyd’s death. On June 1, 2020, the League of American Orchestras issued a statement confessing that, for decades, it had “tolerated and perpetuated systemic discrimination against Black people, discrimination mirrored in the practices of orchestras and throughout our country.” The League was “committed to dismantling” its “role in perpetuating the systems of inequity that continue to oppress Black people” and expected its member orchestras to respond in kind….That response was immediate. The Hartford Symphony Orchestra apologized for its “history of inaction to effectively confront the racist systems and structures that have long oppressed and marginalized Black musicians, composers, and communities.” The Seattle Opera announced that it would “continue to prioritize” antiracism and “make amends” for causing harm.
  • The classical music press, presiding over an art form whose salience shrinks by the year, produced a torrent of commentary explaining to readers why they should view classical music as culpably white. In September 2020, New Yorker critic Alex Ross apologized for being a “white American,” writing about a world that is “blindingly white, both in its history and its present.” The love of classical music on the part of nineteenth-century American patrons and performers was a smoke screen for white supremacy, Ross suggested.
  • Vox explained that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was a symbol of white male “superiority and importance.” BBC Magazine columnist Tom Service also purported to deconstruct the alleged greatness of the canonical repertoire: “The link between patriarchal power in the West and the fact that the classical canon is made of lookalike faces of Great Men is more than coincidental.” Slate complained that referring to well-known composers only by their last names exacerbates classical music’s exclusionary practices. The Louisville Orchestra, for example, had advertised the performance of a Beethoven symphony and the debut of a composition memorializing Breonna Taylor by “Davóne Tines” and “Igee Dieudonné.” To assume that Davóne Tines and Igee Dieudonné need to be “full-named,” whereas Beethoven does not, replicates classical music’s “centuries of systematic prejudice, exclusion, sexism, and racism,” according to Slate.
  • Garrett McQueen, then an announcer for American Public Media, told a Composers Forum roundtable in June 2020: “You are complicit in racism every time you listen to Handel’s Messiah.”

That’s enough, and that’s only from early in Part I. Read it all. You’ll be sorry you did.

17 thoughts on ““Kill A Western Cultural Institution, Wear Its Skin”: The Case of Classical Music

  1. If they all feel guilty they should not accept any patronage from white oppressors. Let’s see how long wholeness survives on no income.

  2. Here is a link in posted on Ethics Alarms a few months ago:

    The blogger posits that classical music is, by definition, racist and white supremaist. Correlation is not causation. Why, for instance, is classical Chinese or Japanese or indian music not considered racist because it doesn’t includebor emphasize Yoruban or Maory influences?


  3. To assume that Davóne Tines and Igee Dieudonné need to be “full-named,” whereas Beethoven does not, replicates classical music’s “centuries of systematic prejudice, exclusion, sexism, and racism,” according to Slate.

    What twisted logic arrived at that conclusion? It’s not like there are thousands of Tines and Dieudonnes in the music world. I’d bet large sums of money they are the only one.

  4. Whew. So much authentic frontier gibberish from the weak-kneed professional administrators of the professional classical music industry, most of whom are simply fund raisers and grifters. Fuck them. As long as there are printed copies of the incredible works of Bach and Beethoven and Mozart and Brahms and Chopin and SCHUBERT and as long as people have instruments and the ability to read notation, classical music will survive, these fucking wimps notwithstanding. Most of them are just playing rope-a-dope and waiting for all this to blow over. And honestly, it’s probably not a bad strategy. Gutless, but probably not so horrible. I doubt there were very many classical musicians running around defending classical music during the height of the French Revolution. Classical music and opera will ebb and flow, but it’s all too great not to survive.

    Now I’m going back to working on Schubert’s Moment Musicaux, Opus 94, No. 2. I have a piano lesson on Tuesday morning to get ready for. And who cares what Mitsuko Ushida had to say or not say to Heather McDonald. The great Japanese pianist can let her playing speak for her. Take it away maestra: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=moments+musicaux+no+2+mistuko+ushida&qpvt=moments+musicaux+no+2+mistuko+ushida&view=detail&mid=19AE53F63FDDEA9CAF9F19AE53F63FDDEA9CAF9F&&FORM=VRDGAR&ru=%2Fvideos%2Fsearch%3Fq%3Dmoments%2Bmusicaux%2Bno%2B2%2Bmistuko%2Bushida%26qpvt%3Dmoments%2Bmusicaux%2Bno%2B2%2Bmistuko%2Bushida%26FORM%3DVDRE

  5. Beethoven is overrated? Bollocks! Just listen to Robert Greenberg’s lectures on the development of and artistic significance of the Beethoven symphonies and you’ll be convinced that – while a bit of a social boor – the composer was a musical genius. Beethoven didn’t earn his well-deserved reputation by being an uninformed social media “influencer”:

    Different topic: For what seems like every few months, my Gilbert & Sullivan adoring friends and I reminisce about our favorite G&S operettas and how much fun it would be to attend (or even organize – some colleagues have such experience) a production – The Mikado, f’rinstance. Then reality hits and we realize how viciously the ‘woke and self-righteous’ of our university town would respond to such an act of “unmitigated hate”. So we reluctantly suffice ourselves with audio recordings and DVDs of G&S and revisit the topic a couple of months later.

    • Well, unfortunately, nerds and weenies make up too much of the G&S fan base, and they lack the guts to defy the barbarians. I was prepared to assist one professional group under fire for The Mikado and travel there at my own expense, but they caved after reaching out to me for help. It would not be a difficult debate to win if facts rather than deliberate distortions, ignorance and fear weren’t the main factors. I know how to do The Mikado, and when I am asked to direct a G&S show, I respond that it’s “The Mikado” or nothing.

        • That lyric was cut a hundred years ago, by D’Oyley Carte, the pair’s production company. Ditto Ko-Ko’s reference to “the nigger serenader and the others of his race” who “never would be missed.” “Princess Ida” has a song about social advances that contained the line, “and the niggers they’ll be bleaching by and by.” Also gone; I don’t think those words have been sung since the original production. (“And they’ll practice what they’re preaching by and by” is the replacement.)

          It would be interesting to find out if Gilbert had a hand in any of the replacement lyrics.

  6. It’s a new Gospel. Before you go “huh?” please hear me out. As you are aware, or should be, a good chunk of the greatest classical music was either religious or religiously inspired. Bach was court composer to two nobles and produced over 200 cantatas “to the glory of God alone.” That’s before we even talk about the passions or other oratorio works. Mozart was composer to the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg and produced 16 settings of the Mass, plus the famous Requiem, plus several other religious works. Haydn likewise produced 14 masses, plus the great oratorio The Creation. Handel, of course, was the king of the oratorio, although most of his oratorios, except Messiah and possibly Judas Maccabeus, are surpassed in popularity by Mendelssohn’s romantic masterpiece Elijah (he also wrote one called St. Paul and started one called Christus, but only got about 3 movements in before his untimely death). Sir Edward Elgar, who gave the world a lot more than “Pomp and Circumstance” actually composed a very grandiose oratorio on death and the afterlife to the mystic poem “The Dream of Gerontius.”

    Religion, especially Christianity, has been the driving force behind a substantial portion of Western music, including most of the choral side of things. Many of the composers were religious themselves, either sincerely like Bach, Brahms (who once boasted that he could lay his hand on his Bible on his study even in total darkness) and Haydn or nominally like Verdi, but even if they were not really religious at all like Saint-Saens, who, although he was organist at 2 of the major Paris churches, once said “as science advances, God retreats,” they assisted their patrons in the mission of spreading the Gospel. The idea of spreading the word of God however you can has been a big part of Christianity ever since Matthew the Evangelist wrote “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Matthew 28:19) It should come as no surprise that those talented in the arts or with the resources to support those who are have, at least in the past, done just that. It’s not for nothing that there are pocket coins and posters that ask “What have you done to spread the Gospel today?” I still remember the ending of a kids’ poem about the Nativity that went:

    “The news was spread
    From town to town
    The whole world must be told,

    Till every person,
    Rich or poor,
    Or young or very old,

    Has heard about
    The coming of
    The Savior of all men,

    Whom God has sent to earth
    Because of His great love for them.”

    At this point, I think it’s safe to say that the message of Black Lives Matter has assumed the force of a new Gospel. It’s a system of beliefs that has complete certitude, brooks no argument or nuance, and insists that it be spread until the whole world had heard it and agrees with it. It lays a commission on not just all who hear it, but everyone everywhere, to spread it and do your part affirmatively to make the world less racist. That includes everyone who is skilled in or patronizes the arts. Of course now there’s a lot more than music, but music must do its part. It’s time for Christmas performances to give way to singing in praise of King and for every concert to have at least one anti-racist piece on the program and clear, unambiguous anti-racist messages printed in every playbill, plus pass a portion of all donations and proceeds to the appropriate anti-racist causes. The point is that, just like in the days when Christianity and its message were everywhere, where church spires stood highest, crosses were ubiquitous, and Christmas and Easter markets were the highlight of the seasons, now BLM is going to take its place. You won’t be able to turn anywhere without seeing that slogan, seeing the pan-African colors, or being reminded of that message. You better get with that message too, and start taking it home. Start asking your family and friends if they believe black lives matter, and if they hem and haw, witness to them, just like if you were preaching the gospel. Don’t stop until they say it. If they resist, or won’t say it, then treat them like they are dead to you. Tell them you want them to come out to the events. Push until they say yes. Go to the meetings of all those local organizations and tell them they need to go on record in support, and if not, you and your friends will be leaning on them until they do. Start moving the municipal council to change the landscape of town, and tell them either they do it, or you’ll do it for them.

  7. Jack, it makes perfect sense that you bring Heather Mac Donald’s very long, two-part screed to your readers’ attention. It’s gotten a lot of notice in the music world. Personally I respect Ms. Mac Donald’s place in the overall cultural and political discussion, whether I agree with her writings or not. I’ve noted either her research or simply her references to the variables of two-parent families and basic levels of educational attainment as fundamental explainers of personal achievement, independent of ethnic background. Her views are part of the overall discussion in America today, or should be.

    All that said, her big article about classical music is flawed in at least three ways. Here are those issues:

    1. A lot of the article confuses music with musicology. The latter field has been kind of nuts for a while, extending way back before last year. The principal educators of today’s and tomorrow’s performing artists are not theoretical musicologists. They’re a combination of distinguished performers themselves and effective pedagogues, often combined in the same person. I’m not going to excuse some of the crazier things that have recently come out of Juilliard and elsewhere, but conservatory education remains very rigorous and performance-focused, indeed arguably too much so given the supply-demand imbalance for classical music talent.

    2. The article is not really fair to the Sphinx Organization. One of the things that Sphinx does is to deal with the same overwhelming problem of expenses for families of limited means that you see in sports such as baseball and soccer. This time of year they bring in, for example, string players – yes “black and brown” ones – to top schools and institutions for intensive education and opportunity for rehearsal and performance experience. An example of someone who came out of the Sphinx Organization is the fantastic violinist Melissa White – yes that’s her name. Melissa has performed in our region at the Phillips Collection in D.C. and the Richmond Symphony, and she has numerous recordings to her name with the Harlem Quartet (which actually performs a huge range of traditional classical and other, adventurous music). And as you know, I believe it is completely valid to assert that, just as in other fields of employment, classical music employers should assess the whole person and what they can bring to an institution, even if their performance chops are obviously the primary criterion.

    3. The article spends some time asserting the supposed relative mediocrity of such newly fashionable composers as Joseph Boulogne and Florence Price and bewails their widespread inclusion in coming programs. I’ll add to those composer names William Grant Still (whom she does like) because I wasn’t aware that he was programmed nearly as much before this year as she says. I agree with Mac Donald’s opinion on some of these composers and not others. But the question for her is: Compared to what? For years, indeed decades, symphony orchestras have inflicted the most unbelievable dreck on their audiences and lionized it as “new music,” often absurdly hyped as “World Premieres.” Most commonly the composers of this garbage are older white guys with their own sinecures in music departments of private and state universities.

    If you don’t believe me, ask any symphony section member who’s had to prepare this stuff only to throw it away later, or any emerging pianist or violinist on the competition circuit who has had to learn many “compulsory” compositions just to titillate the judges – excuse me, “juries” – of these competitions, with nothing of value to take away from it later. Give me Price or Still or any of the many other forgotten musical riches of my own country, including several minority groups, any time over that.

    Of course I do find extremely funny and ironic some of the incidents that Mac Donald brings up even beyond what she observed. Tonal music as unfairly privileging the majority culture? Well, that would wipe out every R&B song ever written. In fact, I’ve long found the predominance of tonality in pop and rock music and the predominance of atonality in lots of “serious” contemporary music one of the great cultural ironies of our time, when you think about it.

    Finally, a note about “Beethoven.” I’m putting that name in quotes to indicate that I’m not so much speaking about the historical individual but rather the persistent tendency to name him as the totemic example of “classical music.” I am not questioning that Beethoven’s body of work is one of the signal achievements of Western civilization, and absorbing it over a lifetime brilliantly enriches one’s own cultural appreciation for the aesthetics of life and the universe. However, I feel strongly that the tendency of people to direct people to Beethoven to get started with classical music appreciation is a mistake. Much of his work requires patience and an eventual understanding of musical structure, and long passages of his music outside of this understanding are boring. Even the ridiculous whistling mockery over the PA system at Yankee Stadium when one of the Red Sox (okay, or any other opponent) strikes out is only the first half of the opening motive of the Fifth Symphony – they can’t get through the whole eight notes.

    This is a theme I’ve taken up in some of my writings. Again, since I believe this crowd is okay with articles from The Federalist, check out my article there in May, “Rock Out To Russian Classical Music With This Metallica-Inspired Guitarist.” Or just remember to start off the teenager of your choice on classical music with Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev or Shostakovich, not Beethoven. You’ll be glad you did. Here’s the link:


    • I regard this terrific comment as expanding and clarifying Mac Donald’s brief. And as you point out, “classic music” has a lot of problems, many of the area’s own making, but also just a problem of stasis. It’s a great point about Beethoven,of whom the average listener couldn’t explain why he was “great” except that some pieces are familiar and everybody says he was. Ditto Bach, Mozart, and many others. Eventually stars fade. Who was the last “classical” composer to die? Copeland? Does Bernstein count? Gershwin? Surely it can’t be John Williams!

      As for the Federalist, its not the medium, it’s the message. I have caught the Federalist in a lot of misinformation and bias.

  8. Who coulda seen there was a problem creeping up on the horizon with classical music in the USA, oh wait…

    The Classical Music Critic Of The New York Times Thinks That Symphony Orchestras Should Choose Members According To Race, Gender, And “Other Factors” That Have Nothing To Do With Music

    (I see Jack linked to this in the post.)

    So why am I bringing up Jacks previous post again?

    Back when Jack wrote that previous post I sent a personal questionnaire out to some people that I know that are directly involved in classical music orchestras etc and asked them what they thought about the blog post and the issue that was being discussed. It’s been about two and a half months since I sent my inquiry and to my surprise there was absolutely no reply from any of them, it appears to have been conveniently swept under the rug. As long as people directly involved in classical music in the USA continue to sweep these kinds of issues under the rug, their silence creates a leadership black hole sucking reality into into the blackness and leaving behind a classical music world that will be run and performed by social justice lunatics. The result will be the quality of classical music performance in the USA will be destroyed which will likely drive the high quality musicians from the larger orchestras into chamber music performed for small groups of classical music “junkies” (I use that term affectionately because I’m pretty close to one too). My favorite piece these days is Joyce Yang’s piano version of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise Op. 34 No 14, in fact I’m listening to it right now; I got to see and hear her play it live in a chamber music venue in Dallas a few years ago, the entire performance was superb.

    Nearly everything in our culture is undermined by an army of irrational scourage of social justice warriors.

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