Posted on July 17, 2020

That Sound You’re Hearing Is Classical Music’s Long Overdue Reckoning with Racism

Michael Andor Brodeur, Washington Post, July 16, 2020

“Racism is so pervasive in this country and in the world at large that it has, in many instances, become unconscious. It can slip into the daily discourse and go unrecognized, even by people who clearly ought to know better.”

The late, great soprano Jessye Norman reserved just one chapter of her 2014 memoir, “Stand Up Straight and Sing!” for discussion of the discrimination she faced so often throughout her career, even as one of the most decorated performers on the international opera stage.

But it’s safe to assume race was a running theme in her magnificent life. A dissonant motif that emerged again and again in the form of careless slurs and slights from conductors, TV roles that would have reduced her from Dido onstage to the maid on screen, offensive questions from bumbling critics, and nosy security guards challenging her right to exist in the hotel pool. She once committed to recording accounts of these micro- and macro-aggressions in a journal titled “Racialism as she is spoke,” but abandoned the project after a few months, when her journal grew too thick.

Those who would imagine that the rarefied realms of classical music or opera are removed somehow from the rancor of racism would be, as Norman put it, “mistaken. Sadly mistaken.” {snip}


Data collected from 500 American orchestras for a 2016 study by the League of American Orchestras paints a starkly white picture when it comes to diversity in classical organizations. Its key finding: the “proportion of nonwhite musicians represented in the orchestra workforce — and of African American and Hispanic/Latino musicians in particular — remains extremely low.”

The proportion of Hispanic and Latino musicians grew from just 1.8 percent in 2002 to 2.5 percent in 2014; while over the same 12-year period, the proportion of black musicians languished at around 1.8 percent. Meanwhile, since 2010, when the league started examining organizational metrics, the percentage of nonwhite staff of American orchestras has hovered at around 14 percent, with black staff accounting for just 5 to 7 percent. And between 2010 and 2016, black conductors and music directors have accounted for just 2 to 6 percent of the field.

The league will analyze updated data in 2022, but the urgency of the cultural moment, along with the expectation that those growth curves will stay flat, inspired them to post a statement on the league’s website in early June that feels more like a call to action: “There is an urgent need for White people and predominantly White organizations to do the work of uprooting this racism,” it says. “We recognize that for decades, in our role as a national association and voice for orchestras, we have tolerated and perpetuated systemic discrimination against Black people, discrimination mirrored in the practices of orchestras and throughout our country.”

The systemic racism that runs like rot through the structures of the classical music world exists somewhere between broad statistical data and intimate personal disclosure. And right now, in what seems like a promising turn, a range of responses to it — individual, artistic and institutional — feels, at long last, audible.

On the individual level, many in the classical community are turning to anonymously operated social media accounts as a way to air personal experiences with racism in the classical world, from the conservatory classroom to the orchestra pit.


Some of that work is being done in the form of music itself. The bass-baritone and composer Jonathan Woody recently teamed with the countertenor Reginald Mobley (who also serves as a programming consultant for Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society) for a collaborative choral piece entitled “Nigra Sum Sed Formosa: A Fantasia on Microaggressions.”

Composed for five singers, keyboard and viola, the piece assembles accounts of assorted racial microaggressions — including the time Mobley was mistaken for a janitor and asked to open the hall for his own performance — and sets them in a haunting baroque choral arrangement.


“So much of what needs to change in classical music is what needs to change in the country writ large,” Woody says. {snip}

While art can shine much-needed light on the problem, it’s up to institutions to correct the imbalances that keep the classical stage so habitually tilted and tinted white. And the conversations required for this task must have concrete goals, including full accountability, a broad range of community stakeholders and an understanding of not just what the problem is but why fixing it is so essential to the survival and development of the art form.


Initiatives, statements and studies, call-outs, cancellations and cantatas — they’re all pieces of the work that has to be done. But at the heart of both the music we love and the problems seemingly written into it is the importance of actively listening — a responsibility to truly hear one another, that falls upon every one of us.

Or as Norman, a self-described eternal optimist, put it: “Society will, inevitably, come to the understanding that racism is mindless, lacking in all the light that is within us.”