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.