Posted on August 21, 2021

Classical Music’s Suicide Pact

Heather Mac Donald, City Journal, Summer 2021

Classical music is under racial attack. Orchestras and opera companies are said to discriminate against black musicians and composers. The canonical repertoire—the product of a centuries-long tradition of musical expression—is allegedly a function of white supremacy.

Not one leader in the field has defended Western art music against these charges. Their silence is emblematic. Other supposed guardians of Western civilization, whether museum directors, humanities professors, or scientists, have gone AWOL in the face of similar claims, lest they themselves be denounced as racist.

The campaign against classical music is worth examining in some detail, for it reveals the logic that has been turned against nearly every aspect of Western culture over the last year. The crusade began within days of the death of George Floyd in late May 2020. {snip}

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. Opera Omaha sent a message to its “black community”: “We know that you are exhausted and recognize we will never fully understand the depth of your suffering. We know that part of your exhaustion comes from the heartbreak of our silence, inaction, and half-measures.” Every communication that the opera sends out now concludes with the tagline: “We will listen more than we speak, but will not be silent in the face of injustice.”

Black musicians produced manifestos complaining of their mistreatment at the hands of white administrators and conductors. Weston Sprott, a trombonist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, along with three musicians from three other ensembles, declared in the New York Times that the reason there are not “more Black artists in orchestras” is “racism.” Six black opera singers made a YouTube video about opera racism at the invitation of the Los Angeles Opera. L.A. Opera’s president, Christopher Koelsch, introduced the discussion. “I come to you today as the white male leader of this institution,” he said, staring dazedly at the camera. L.A. Opera was committing “anew to self-examination and . . . to do our part to heal wounds that are hundreds of years old.” {snip}

Professional disappointments were likewise chalked up to racism. Soprano Lauren Michelle claimed that the reason she has not had a more prominent career in the United States was that she was black. “The truth is I am an award-winning international opera singer who has only been hired once at an A-house in the United States,” she wrote on her blog. Michelle did not address why her contemporaries, such as Angel Blue, Pretty Yende, Eric Owens, and Lawrence Brownlee, have sung in “A-houses.”

Music conservatories admitted their racial backwardness. The Juilliard School’s president, Damian Woetzel, and Juilliard’s Director of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Initiatives pledged that the school would become a “community that not only rejects racism, but that is actively anti-racist, working to tear down systemic racism and injustice.” As part of that “work,” the school created a blacks-only Zoom “space for healing.” Juilliard’s head of music theory wrote his colleagues that “it’s high time the whiteness of music theory is examined, critiqued and remedied.”

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. For good measure, he invoked a standard from the student gripe portfolio to buttress his argument for classical music racism: Mozart’s portrayal of the Moor Monostatos in The Magic Flute.

The lead reviewer for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini, urged that orchestra auditions no longer take place behind a screen, in order to address the “appalling racial imbalance” in orchestral ranks. Currently, musicians’ identities are concealed by a screen through most, if not all, stages of an orchestral audition to prevent favoritism or bias (a process known as a “blind audition”). But colorblindness is now regarded as discriminatory, since it favors merit over race.

Fellow Times critic Joshua Barone called for reforming “opera’s culture” by placing “anti-racism front and center.” A Washington Post critic alleged that systemic racism “runs like rot through the structures of the classical music world.” 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. (Note to readers: if you have not heard of Tines and Dieudonné, you are not alone.)

Classical music radio announcers and executives instructed their audience to hear inequity in the cascade of human feeling coming from their speakers. 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.” (Handel held stock in a slave-trading company.)

Academia, the source of today’s race obsession, weighed in with gusto. The Music Library Association decried its complicity in the “marginalization and extrajudicial killing of people of color, particularly Black and indigenous individuals.” A music theory professor from Hunter College, Philip Ewell, received widespread acclaim for his denunciations of classical music racism.

Ewell has whiteness on the brain. During the Floyd riots, Ewell compiled a glossary of music-related euphemisms for whiteness: “authentic, canonic, civilized, classic(s), conventional, core (‘core’ requirement), European, function (‘functional’ tonality), fundamental, genius, German (‘German’ language requirement), great (‘great’ works), maestro, opus (magnum ‘opus’), piano (‘piano’ proficiency, skills), seminal, sophisticated, titan(ic), towering, traditional, and western.” Since everything is about race, according to Ewell, any time you seem not to be talking about race—referring to someone’s piano skills, say—you are actually talking about race by dint of ignoring the topic. (Connoisseurs of deconstruction will recognize the rhetorical technique here of turning an “absence” into a supposed “presence.”)

Ewell also engaged in the mandatory Beethoven takedown. The only reason we deem the Ninth Symphony a masterpiece is Beethoven’s whiteness and maleness, he wrote on his blog. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is “no more a masterwork than Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells,” Ewell insisted. Spalding is a jazz singer; Twelve Little Spells is an album of experimental jazz numbers about 16 body parts and functions. The texts (“Our eyeballs are hollow but presently hold shape/ Around a gooey filling”) are not the equivalent of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” To place Spalding’s slight compositions at the same level of complexity, emotional force, and historical significance as the Ninth Symphony is objectively ludicrous.


With such near-unanimity regarding classical music’s racial sins, it is no wonder that the demands issued to compensate for those sins have been breathtaking in ambition. Those coming from the influential Sphinx Organization were typical. Sphinx has been advocating for race consciousness in classical music since 1997. It holds separate competitions for young black and Hispanic musicians, supports minority-only ensembles, and provides color-coded training and financial assistance. Since the Floyd riots, it has been churning out a series of diversity demands more extensive than any it had previously proposed.

Its first set of demands opened with a call for orchestras, opera companies, and conservatories to “examine the supremacist logic embedded in traditional Western art and music/repertoire.” After impugning the Western music tradition, Sphinx then laid down racial quotas for that allegedly white supremacist activity: at least 20 percent of soloists each concert season should be black and Latinx; 40 percent of candidates for auditions and administrative jobs should be black and Latinx; and 20 percent of the repertoire performed each season should be “reflective [sic] of Black and Latinx composers.” At least 10 percent of every musical budget should be spent compensating for past racial inequities in programming (what such compensation might mean was not explained).

Sphinx’s next set of demands was published in the New York Times in September 2020. The numbers had changed, suggesting a certain arbitrariness in how they were computed. Sphinx president Afa Dworkin, writing with Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, now insisted that 15 percent of a music organization’s budget (up from the previous 10 percent) should go toward “addressing systemic racism” (what that meant was again left unspecified). This 15 percent reallocation should continue for the next decade. The diversity component in every audition was down to 25 percent from 40 percent, but if an orchestra or conservatory did not rustle up the requisite diversity quotient, it could not select a winning candidate, no matter how qualified the finalist.

In January 2021, Sphinx issued more audition guidelines. Traditionally, if a musician is of a known high caliber, having played with another prestigious orchestra, say, he may skip the early stages of an audition and go right to the semifinals or finals (which may still be blind). Sphinx now proposed that those automatic advancements include a whopping 25 percent or more of “Black and Brown” musicians. This is mathematically impossible, and Sphinx should know it, since it has been decrying the low numbers of minorities in orchestras for two decades. Blacks make up 1.8 percent of all orchestral musicians, which includes noncompetitive community ensembles. The larger and more competitive the orchestra, the fewer blacks it has. Filling at least 25 percent of all automatic advancement slots with minorities from top-ranked orchestras is not doable, even assuming that there were so many automatic advancements in each audition to be able to set aside 25 percent of them for any type of quota.

Sphinx’s January audition guidelines suggested selecting musicians on nonmusical grounds, as Anthony Tommasini had recommended. Orchestras should hire diversity consultants to develop “extra-musical evaluation” criteria for orchestral positions, such as serving as an institutional spokesman.

Board members also found themselves in the crosshairs for being too white, with the added infraction of being too rich. Simon Woods, head of the League of American Orchestras, apologized for his whiteness during a discussion at the Peabody Institute in February 2021, and then lamented that non-diverse board members were given power to help define the “vision” of orchestras. Anyone in the classical music business today should be down on his knees in gratitude that there remain wealthy donors who want to contribute to the “vision” of orchestras. Supporting social and racial justice organizations confers a thousand times more prestige, as the stampede of New York’s wealthiest to the galas of the antipoverty Robin Hood Foundation demonstrates. But the pressure is now enormous to find “diverse” board members, no matter their connection to music or their ability or willingness to help finance struggling ensembles. Few cultures, however, have embraced philanthropy as vigorously as the Anglo-American one.

{snip} Orchestras and opera companies rushed to adopt racial hiring benchmarks and to take on costly new diversity bureaucracy.


In light of such changes, the evidence for current discrimination in the classical music field must be overwhelming. In fact, it does not exist.

The primary fact adduced to prove systemic bias is the underrepresentation of black orchestral musicians. Blacks’ 1.8 percent representation among the nation’s orchestral musicians is up slightly from 1991, when they were about 1.6 percent of orchestra members. Meantime, the proportion of Asians rose nearly threefold from the early 1990s to 2014, from 3.4 percent to over 9 percent (and more in some top orchestras), though Asians, too, are nonwhite in an allegedly white supremacist field. When Asians began their conquest of Western classical music in the second half of the twentieth century, there were fewer Asian instrumentalists and composers to serve as ethnic role models than there were black instrumentalists and composers to serve as role models for blacks.

The official explanation for that steady underrepresentation of blacks in orchestral ranks is racism. Suggesting that there aren’t enough competitively qualified blacks in the audition pipeline is taboo. {snip}

{snip} Leonard Slatkin has served as music director in Detroit, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, London, and Lyon, and has served as principal guest conductor in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Cleveland. Filling Sphinx’s quotas for auditions would be “impossible” at the present time, he wrote by e-mail. “There are not enough black and other minority musicians studying at music schools or conservatories, let alone in the audition pool.” By one estimate, the combined black and Hispanic student population at conservatories ranges from 5 percent to 8 percent, but that estimate represents students in all arts programs at a school, which may include theater and dance. At Juilliard, blacks make up 8 percent of the total student body in music, drama, and dance. The drama division is nearly 50 percent black. Asians make up 28 percent of the total student body. The school would not provide the breakdown for the music division alone.


In July 2020, in the New York Times, bassoonist Monica Ellis accused the orchestral profession of protecting a “white framework built to benefit white people.” To the contrary, the field has been obsessed with diversity for decades. Since the early 1970s, fellowship programs for black and Hispanic musicians have poured forth, including from the New York Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Typically, these programs allow the grantees to play with the orchestra, train them for auditions, and give them priority in tryouts. At present, more than a dozen of the country’s top orchestras provide fellowships for black players, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, while many others give stipends to minority musicians as audition support. Orchestras have also sent their musicians into public schools in the hope of creating more minority players.


So prized have been black students and musicians that they are treated with kid gloves. Violinist Earl Carlyss was a member of the Juilliard Quartet for 20 years and a teacher for even longer. In the 1960s, Carlyss helped determine whether students at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore would continue into their next year of study. One violinist played so poorly that Carlyss mentioned him to the dean. “We know,” came the answer, “but no one has had the nerve to boink him.” At Michigan State University, Carlyss tried to correct a student’s sloppy playing. Two weeks later, nothing had changed. Have you practiced? Carlyss asked. “I don’t have to,” the student responded. “I’ll always have a job.”