Now Even Classical Music Is Racist

In a world where, sooner or later, everything is racialised, it was only a matter of time before classical music became a target of the crusade against whiteness. So I wasn’t particularly shocked when I read this headline in the New York Times: ‘Obscure Musicology Journal Sparks Battles over Race and Free Speech.’

The obscure musicology journal in question is the tiny Journal of Schenkerian Studies. The journal’s editor, Timothy Jackson, a music-theory professor at the University of North Texas, is under fire for his hard-hitting response to the claim that the interwar Austrian-Jewish composer and theorist Heinrich Schenker personified the white racist attitudes that dominate classical music. Jackson’s university has launched an investigation into his behaviour, barred him from editing the journal, and suspended funding for the Schenker Center, which he runs.

Jackson has been vilified by the Twittermob and ostracised by his colleagues. Graduates who have previously worked with him are now worried that their association with this fallen professor could harm their career prospects. How did this all happen?

The story of the demise of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies began in the autumn of 2019, when Philip Ewell, a black music-theory professor, gave a talk at the Society for Music Theory in Columbus, Ohio. Ewell takes the view that classical music is compromised by its whiteness.

For Ewell, white supremacy is evident in the teaching, playing and interpretation of classical music. From this perspective, where everything is seen to involve white racism, all the values celebrated in classical music are expressions of whiteness; they are all coded in a ‘white racial frame’, says Ewell. So, the reason Beethoven enjoys such high esteem among lovers of classical music is not because of his genius but because, as Ewell explains, he ‘has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for 200 years’.

Ewell’s obsession with the invisible power of whiteness is matched only by his philistinism – he describes Beethoven as an ‘above average composer’. Evidently, the academic members of the Society for Music Theory enjoy being guilt-tripped about their privilege because they responded to Ewell’s address with a standing ovation. The society – whose members are overwhelmingly white – loved what they heard. Later, its executive board declared that ‘we humbly acknowledge that we have much work to do to dismantle the whiteness and systemic racism that deeply shape our discipline’.

In his address, Ewell drew attention to virulent racist comments made by Schenker. Like many Germanophile artists and intellectuals of his time – the late 19th and early 20th centuries – Schenker regarded other people with contempt. He dismissed the ‘filthy’ French, English and Italians as ‘inferior races’, regarded Slavs as ‘half animals’, and claimed that Africans had a ‘cannibal spirit’.

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