Posted on February 17, 2021

Obscure Musicology Journal Sparks Battles over Race and Free Speech

Michael Powell, New York Times, February 14, 2021

A periodical devoted to the study of a long-dead European music theorist is an unlikely suspect to spark an explosive battle over race and free speech.

But the tiny Journal of Schenkerian Studies, with a paid circulation of about 30 copies an issue per year, has ignited a fiery reckoning over race and the limits of academic free speech, along with whiffs of a generational struggle. The battle threatens to consume the career of Timothy Jackson, a 62-year-old music theory professor at the University of North Texas, and led to calls to dissolve the journal.

It also prompted Professor Jackson to file an unusual lawsuit charging the university with violating his First Amendment rights — while accusing his critics of defamation.

This tale began in the autumn of 2019 when Philip Ewell, a Black music theory professor at Hunter College, addressed the Society for Music Theory in Columbus, Ohio. He described music theory as dominated by white males and beset by racism. He held up the theorist Heinrich Schenker, who died in Austria in 1935, as an exemplar of that flawed world, a “virulent racist” who wrote of “primitive” and “inferior” races — views, he argued, that suffused his theories of music.

“I’ve only scratched the surface in showing out how Schenker’s racism permeates his music theories,” Professor Ewell said, accusing generations of Schenker scholars of trying to “whitewash” the theorist in an act of “colorblind racism.”

The society’s members — its professoriate is 94 percent white — responded with a standing ovation. Many younger faculty members and graduate students embraced his call to dismantle “white mythologies” and study non-European music forms. The tone was of repentance.

“We humbly acknowledge that we have much work to do to dismantle the whiteness and systemic racism that deeply shape our discipline,” the society’s executive board later stated.

At the University of North Texas, however, Professor Jackson, a white musicologist, watched a video of that speech and felt a swell of anger. His fellow scholars stood accused, some by name, of constructing a white “witness protection program” and shrugging off Schenker’s racism. {snip}

A tenured music theory professor, Professor Jackson was the grandson of Jewish émigrés and had lost many relatives in the Holocaust. {snip}

And he devoted himself to the study of Schenker, a towering Jewish intellect credited with stripping music to its essence in search of an internal language. The Journal of Schenkerian Studies, published under the aegis of the University of North Texas, was read by a small but intense coterie of scholars.

He and other North Texas professors decided to explore Professor Ewell’s claims about connections between Schenker’s racial views and music theories.

They called for essays and published every submission. Five essays stoutly defended Professor Ewell; most of the remaining 10 essays took strong issue. {snip}

Professor Jackson’s essay was barbed. Schenker, he wrote, was no privileged white man. Rather he was a Jew in prewar Germany, the definition of the persecuted other. The Nazis destroyed much of his work and his wife perished in a concentration camp.

Professor Jackson then took an incendiary turn. He wrote that Professor Ewell had scapegoated Schenker within “the much larger context of Black-on-Jew attacks in the United States” and that his “denunciation of Schenker and Schenkerians may be seen as part and parcel of the much broader current of Black anti-Semitism.” He wrote that such phenomena “currently manifest themselves in myriad ways, including the pattern of violence against Jews, the obnoxious lyrics of some hip-hop songs, etc.”

Noting the paucity of Black musicians in classical music, Professor Jackson wrote that “few grow up in homes where classical music is profoundly valued.” {snip}


“I understand full well,” Professor Jackson wrote, “that Ewell only attacks Schenker as a pretext to his main argument: That liberalism is a racist conspiracy to deny rights to ‘people of color.’”

His remarks lit a rhetorical match. The journal appeared in late July. Within days the executive board of the Society for Music Theory stated that several essays contained “anti-Black statements and personal ad hominem attacks” and said that its failure to invite Professor Ewell to respond was designed to “replicate a culture of whiteness.”

Soon after, 900 professors and graduate students signed a letter denouncing the journal’s editors for ignoring peer review. The essays, they stated, constituted “anti-Black racism.”

Graduate students at the University of North Texas issued an unsigned manifesto calling for the journal to be dissolved and for the “potential removal” of faculty members who used it “to promote racism.”

University of North Texas officials in December released an investigation that accused Professor Jackson of failing to hew to best practices and of having too much power over the journal’s graduate student editor. He was barred from the magazine, and money for the Schenker Center was suspended.


Professor Ewell, who also is on the faculty of the City University of New York Graduate Center, declined an interview with The Times. He is part of a generation of scholars who are undertaking critical-race examinations of their fields. In “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” the paper he presented in Columbus, he writes that he is for all intents “a practitioner of white music theory” and that “rigorous conversations about race and whiteness” are required to “make fundamental antiracist changes in our structures and institutions.”

For music programs to require mastery of German, he has said, “is racist obviously.” He has criticized the requirement that music Ph.D. students study German or a limited number of “white” languages, noting that at Yale he needed a dispensation to study Russian. He wrote that the “antiracist policy solution” would be “to require languages with one new caveat: any language — including sign language and computer languages, for instance — is acceptable with the exception of Ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, French or German, which will only be allowed by petition as a dispensation.”

Last April he fired a broadside at Beethoven, writing that it would be academically irresponsible to call him more than an “above average” composer. Beethoven, he wrote, “has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for 200 years.”