Confronting racism in classical music

Posted on: September 17, 2020

“Since nationwide protests over police violence erupted, in May and June, American culture has been engaged in an examination, however nominal, of its relationship with racism,” writes Alex Ross in the September 21 issue of The New Yorker. “Such an examination is sorely needed in classical music…. The whiteness of classical music is, above all, an American problem. The racial and ethnic makeup of the canon is hardly surprising, given European demographics before the twentieth century. But, when that tradition was transplanted to the multicultural United States … the white majority tended to adopt European music as a badge of its supremacy.… Little effort was made to cultivate American composers…. As Aaron Flagg recently recounted in Symphony magazine, the professionalization of the musician class in the late nineteenth century led directly to the segregation of musicians’ unions—a system that lingered into the nineteen-seventies…. In the long view, the marginalization of Black composers and musicians was not only a moral wrong but also a self-inflicted wound…. That jazz came to be called ‘America’s classical music’ was an indirect commentary on the whiteness of the concert world…. Classical music can overcome the shadows of its past only if it commits itself more strongly to the present.”