As yet, there is no death rattle coming from the body of Western classical music, but a decline is not fanciful. Recently, we witnessed its sudden demise in Afghanistan. Orchestras which had flourished since previous Taliban rule stopped the music when the militants returned to power.
The Taliban prohibit music, considered dangerous according to their Islamist ideology. Although such extremists are not challenging music in the West, a constellation of ‘progressive’ ideologies, not yet coalesced, is on the offensive, aiming to rid our society of its cultural ills. Nurtured by critical theory, these overlapping ideologies include critical race theory, postmodernism, wokeness, cancel culture, identity politics, political correctness, victim culture and intersectionality.
Caught in this crucible of social protest, the Western music canon is facing revisions that pass through the lens of ‘systemic racism’. The alleged racist offender is a formidable, privileged white elite cultivating racial superiority and inequality while exerting institutionalised oppression against non-white minorities.
Energised by the Black Lives Matter movement and ignited by the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, racial turmoil in the US reached the music fraternity. Music organisations rushed to embrace transformation through racial equity, inclusion and diversity. In an outpouring of mea culpa, the League of American Orchestras apologised for their ‘systemic discrimination toward Black people,’ and vowed to repent ‘past failures’. Symphony orchestras and opera companies fell in line, seeking atonement for ignoring the suffering caused by racial injustice of white conductors and administrators.
The National Philharmonic pledged to achieve a 40 per cent quota for soloists and living composers of colour. Seattle Opera presented an online panel discussion, ‘Crescendo for Racial Justice in Opera’, mindful of racial stereotypes and the ‘urgent need for systemic change’.
New York Times music critic, Anthony Tommasini, went a step further. He recommended that ‘blind’ auditions for hiring orchestral musicians should be replaced with a racial quota, despite the standard practice to avoid bias by concealing the identity of candidates behind a screen.
At the renowned Juilliard School of music in New York, compulsory diversity education for students and faculty was already part of the curriculum, but after Floyd’s death, students reportedly circulated a petition calling for an end to the ‘almost completely Eurocentric’ academy and demanded a ‘complete in-person season of works by BIPOC artists’ (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour). In an unforeseen and paradoxical twist, an anti-racism drama workshop presented by a black theatre professor led to charges of racism after black students felt ‘traumatised’ by audio excerpts of the slave-auction scene from the 1977 miniseries Roots.
Hoping to meet student demands and avoid censure, the Faculty of Music at Oxford University reportedly intends to ‘decolonise’ the syllabus and address the ‘colonialist representational system’ of musical notation, ‘white hegemony’ and ‘white European music from the slave period’. Composers such as Mozart and Beethoven could be sidelined in favour of ‘African and African Diaspora Musics’, ‘Global Musics’ and ‘Popular Musics’. Aware of the ‘great distress’ for students of colour caused by the focus on European repertoire, lecturers have suggested that courses to learn piano performance or conducting should no longer be mandatory. Clearly, there is room for reform. But the radicals are unlikely to curb their demands while guilt-inducing racial language lends them moral superiority, and the surrender of ‘white elites’ is amplified by self-censorship under the threat of cancel culture.
Historical composers have not escaped the cross-hairs. Handel is vilified for his investments in the transatlantic slave trade, prompting London’s Royal Academy of Music to review their portraits and sculptures of the composer, as well as 18th-century violins and pianos crafted with colonial ivory.
Music as a meritocracy is also problematic. The art exemplifies talent, hard work, examination grades and rankings in competitions, but according to progressives, equity of outcomes is preferable to equity of opportunity. Furthermore, the meritocracy is faulted for the racist exclusion of minority groups, although this allegation does not correlate with the disproportionate number of Asian students and performers.
Today’s politicisation of music owes much to the influential philosopher, musicologist and composer, Theodor Adorno, who conceptualised music in the service of social change. He was a leader of the Frankfurt School, formed by a group of Marxist intellectuals, who developed critical theory, and in the 1930s, fled Nazi Germany for the United States. Their re-conceptualised neo-Marxist ideas held that cultural revolution was the prerequisite to an economic revolution, as opposed to the reverse concept in Marxist theory.
Adorno believed the commercialisation of music by the culture industry adopted the same immoral methods as authoritarian regimes for pacifying and infantilising the masses, thereby inhibiting the critique required for social change. His antidote was new, atonal music. Impervious to profit-making, he believed ‘new music’ could reflect the authentic human condition and express dissent. Later, he deplored the use of violence by 1960s student revolutionaries imbued with weaponised neo-Marxism. The genie was out of the bottle. During the subsequent ‘long march through the institutions of power’, the original aims for social reform gave way to nihilistic demands to demonise and dismantle the capitalist West through control of culture via universities, schools, media, churches, literature, music, etc. During this process, academics, bureaucrats and the media acted as enablers. For the neo or cultural Marxists bent on tearing down society in favour of their utopia, music represents a threat owing to its iconic status in Western civilisation and powerful vocabulary of emotions. Stalin understood its force when he purged Russian composers, attempting to control and fashion music for his ideological purpose.
Unlike verbal language, music is subjective and idiosyncratic. We seem programmed to seek pleasure and social bonding from this art that offers beauty, joy, solace and intellectual challenge, even therapeutic and transcendental experience. However, the progressive warriors pitched in a fervent, destined cultural battle are challenging the ‘white’ elitism and patronage they condemn in Western music institutions and meritocracy. Fueled by outrage and zealotry, activists are less concerned with the aesthetic worth of music than coercing submission to their ideologies. These new elites now call the tune.
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Ida Lichter is the author of ‘The Secret Magic of Music: Conversations with Musical Masters’
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