I wrote up a thread on Twitter yesterday summarizing the worst takes in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies Vol. 12, which responds to Phil Ewell’s plenary talk at SMT 2019 on what he calls Music Theory’s White Racial Frame. In this blog post I want to build on that by pointing out how many of the responses raise concerns/questions that Ewell already addressed in his keynote. Instead of referencing the keynote video, which is a bit harder to navigate, I’ll use his recent publication that is built on that talk.
In this post I’d like to highlight what I consider one of the most egregious failings of the issue: that so many of the published critiques were already addressed by Ewell in his talk and other scholarship (and for that matter, by other scholars too). Had these comments below been given proper review, their authors might have been able to frame their comments more productively.
On that note, here are some of the common points made by the responses and including quotes from various authors along those lines, followed by Ewell’s own words that have preemptively addressed these critiques.
Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist: Schenker’s racism as a product of its time
David Beach: “I do not offer any excuses for these comments, but I do want to stress that it is important to understand the contexts under which they—at least some of them—were made.”
Timothy Jackson: “Schenker’s many earlier anti-French, anti-British, anti-American, and anti-Black vituperations— before, during, and after World War I—must be interpreted in the context of that war and its aftermath, in which these nations were all perceived enemies of Germany and Austria, and of German scientific racism. Furthermore, it must be recognized that racist and genocidal thinking was common among German intellectuals from the late twentieth century forward.”
Anonymous (yep, really, a published anonymous response in an academic journal): “That Schenker, or anyone else alive during the turn-of-the-century time period, espoused racist views is completely unremarkable. For Schenker to have not, at some point, hold those beliefs would be truly exceptional.”
Timothy Jackson: “German scientific racism—with genocidal implications—had become ubiquitous in German culture by the beginning of the twentieth century, and one would be hard pressed to find educated Germans at that time who remained uninfluenced. Therefore, we should not be at all surprised that some of Schenker’s earlier statements decrying racial mixture reflect this mindset…”
Nicholas Cook: “What we can say is that Schenker believed in some form of cultural evolutionary’theory, implying that white people represent a higher stage of human development than the ‘more primitive races’ to which he referred. Clearly we would regard that as racist today, but the fact is that such thinking is found in a great deal of writing from the high point of imperialism a century or so ago; it wasn’t exceptional, in the way that the extremity of Schenker’s political beliefs was. The difference in worldview between now and then is something we should always attend to when we engage with the writings or more generally the culture of that period.”
Schenker’s views on race were extreme, to be sure, but he was certainly not alone. Hugo Riemann, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and many others on whose theories we rely all believed in German—and almost certainly white—superiority. … In fact, much of how we understand race in the U.S. is part of a global western understanding of race that is, in fact, written by white persons. It is therefore unsurprising that white Schenker scholars do not point out the racialized aspects of the man and his work in the same way I do as a nonwhite. And it is exactly these nonwhite perspectives on race that are ignored or glossed over in global race theory, as described above by Heng.Ewell 2020, par. 4.7.1
Unsurprisingly, Ewell is already aware that a lot of people were racist in the 19th century; the impacts of this should be scrutinized, though, and not ignored or excused.
#AllLivesMatter: Schenker wasn’t just racist against Black people, and Schenker was Jewish, so.
Barry Wiener: “When Japan prepared to enter World War I on the side of Great Britain, Schenker simultaneously reviled the Japanese and the English … In fact, Schenker condemned all of Germany’s enemies equally—including the English, French, Italians, and Anglo-Americans—as members of primitive races … As we have seen, for Schenker at the time, almost everyone on earth fit into the categories of ‘wild and half-wild peoples,’ and ‘primitive nations and races,” except for the Germans.'”
Timothy Jackson: “To be sure, the Great War provides ·the essential framework within which one must interpret Schenker’s earlier anti-French, anti-British, anti-American, and also anti-Black comments in his diary and letters. Indeed, readers of Schenker’s diary cannot ignore the extent and breadth of its author’s virulent, visceral hatred of the French, a white race…”
Timothy Jackson again: “On the contrary, demagogues from the extreme right and left, Black Nationalist-and also White Nationalist-and also in academe, continue to legitimize scapegoating ‘the Jews’ for every conceivable ill. In this sense, Ewell’s denunciation of Schenker and Schenkerians may be seen as part and parcel of the much broader current of Black anti-Semitism.”
Nicholas Cook: “I am uncomfortable with a discussion of Schenker’s racism that doesn’t engage with the way in which racism impinged on his own life. … And we should never forget that Schenker’s wife Jeanette was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942 and died there in 1945; I suppose Heinrich would have shared her fate had he lived long enough. In short, Schenker knew what it was to be a member of a racially marked minority.”
One of the main goals of our white racial frame is to take the focus off of whiteness, and one of its main methods for doing so is, if the topic turns to whiteness, to immediately invoke other marginalized groups, thereby diminishing whiteness’s role. I therefore, with this work, focus like a laser beam on whiteness and how it manifests itself in our field. I look forward to turning my attention to how our white frame intersects with all marginalized groups in the future, but for now I focus primarily on whiteness—first things first.Ewell 2020, par. 1.4
Being Jewish or part of any other marginalized group does not excuse racism. Ewell notes that intersectionality is real and complex, but intersectionality isn’t meant to obviate critique of whiteness and anti-Blackness.
You’re So Articulate: Some Black Music Is Schenkable
David Beach: “My suggestion to Philip Ewell is that he stop complaining about us white guys and publish some sophisticated analytical graphs of works by black composers. I, for one, would welcome into the analytical canon works by both black and women composers.”
Jack Boss: “It seems as if Philip Ewell has portrayed Heinrich Schenker as arguing from the premise that musical works of genius build themselves out from an Ursatz through diminution, and reaching the conclusion that Black musicians cannot produce works of genius. [But we can use] the premises of Schenkerian analysis to lead to the opposite conclusion; that Black musicians did indeed produce works of genius, works which ornamented their structures in new and fascinating ways, and are worthy of our study.”
Allan Cadwallader: “I have spent my entire career involved with Schenker’s work, mostly with his theories and his analyses alone, marveling at the musical insights they can reveal about a certain repertoire. Let us expand that repertoire and celebrate diversity in scholarship and in the classroom.”
Timothy Jackson: “The great tradition of classical music includes Black, Jewish, and female composers, and remains, as Schenker ultimately recognized, an ‘elitism of the hearing of the spirit, not of race.'”
The first solution the white frame will think of to solving the racial imbalance will likely be to find examples by Chevalier Saint-Georges, William Grant Still, and Scott Joplin. But stocking our textbooks with musical examples by these black composers is not the solution to this problem, which is a result of framing western functional tonality as the only organizational force in music worthy of music theory’s consideration in the music-theory classroom. … The fact that many of the ideas from functional tonality appear in so many of the world’s musics is a direct result of the power of colonialism and hegemony. Thus, the problem of our white frame in our music curricula concerns not only the repertoire that we study, but also the music theories behind the repertoire.”Ewell 2020, par. 3.4
Ewell says that it’s not enough, or even really a solution, to make an effort to include Black musicians if we are still operating within a curriculum/methodology that is built to support white musicians first.
OK fine, Schenker was racist, but his theories definitely have nothing to do with that, so we’re good to go here
Barry Wiener: “While for Schenker, theory and musicology are tightly connected, there is no obvious connection between his politics and his musical ideas, other than the idea that some composers apply the laws of art in more creative ways than others.”
Steven Slottow: “Schenker may have believed at some points in the evolution of his thought that his various political and racial beliefs were indistinguishable from his music theory and analytical methodology, but his successors haven’t agreed, finding something very valuable in the latter but not in the former.”
Boyd Pomeroy: “The facts are not seriously in question: Schenker was a deeply flawed and conflicted character whose virulently nationalist and racist views are unpalatable by any standards. … But what of Ewell’s evidence for his claim of racism’s foundational role in the theory itself? It is, to put it mildly, flimsy.”
Rich Pellegrin: “Hierarchy is natural, often a matter of life and death, and is in and all around us—from the fractal, branching structures of our circulatory and nervous systems to those of rivers and snowflakes; from networks of paths and roadways to electrical, plumbing, and delivery systems; and from rhythm and meter in tonal music to harmony and voice leading. It is only in social and political systems that hierarchy becomes oppressive, due to the human capacity for abuse of power.”
Timothy Jackson: “Ewell argues, probably correctly, that Schenker would have objected [to moving his racist views to appendices rather than including them in the main text of Free Composition]. However, it is indeed possible—even desirable—to separate the technical musical-analytical aspects of Schenker’s theory from most of his philosophical, political, and aesthetic claims…”
Allan Cadwallader: “My point is that Schenker was a practical theorist who drew upon practical musical ideas from the past. To espouse their principles, and the repertoire from which they are drawn, is at worst exclusionary, not racist. I believe that John Rothgeb was correct in asserting that Schenker’s musical thought is ‘not at all dependent on any of his extra-musical speculations,’ despite what Schenker himself might have believed.”
Charles Burkhardt: “[Ewell] is quite right to deplore Schenker’s racism, but goes way over the top when he equates Schenker’s ideas on the inequality of the races with his statement on the inequality of the tones of the scale, and, likewise, equates white control over blacks with the Urlinie’s control of the subsequent structural levels. This is to confuse apples with oranges to an extreme degree. If Schenker actually believed such nonsense, he was simply wrong (and not for the first time).”
David Beach: “[Ewell] states that Schenker’s anti-black racism informed his theory. This is simply not correct. Schenker developed his ideas about musical structure by studying the music of the great masters (indeed a group of white guys!), and one of the bases of his criticism of music he considered inferior was that they lack what he had observed in the ‘masterworks.’ .So, his views on black music did not inform his theory; rather it was his theory that led him to view the music of other cultures as lacking.”
I feel that Ewell’s entire talk/essay is about the inseparability of racism from music theory, so allow me to quote several passages.
Colorblind racism is the most significant form of racism in music theory’s white racial frame and has been used for decades to dismiss those who wish to cite our racialized structures and ideologies. “What do music and music theory have to do with race?” is a common colorblind refrain, which accomplishes two goals: it allows for music theory’s white-framed theorist to appear to be on the right side of racism, while allowing the very same racialized structures, put in place to benefit white persons, to remain foundational in the field without appearing racist.Ewell 2020, par. 2.3
One of music theory’s greatest feats is its ability to sever its own past from the present. If some historical aspect of a theory is unseemly or unsavory, we typically bury it, and move on. What, after all, do political, social, and cultural attitudes have to do with the content of someone’s underlying theoretical thought? … To put this another way, to consider these theories ahistorically is to surgically remove all traces of racism, insofar as racist strains do nothing to advance the theories in question, all of which allows the white racial frame music theorist to reside in a music-theoretical Witness Protection Program, never to be held accountable with respect to the difficult questions concerning race and whiteness.Ewell 2020, par. 4.1.3
[Nicholas] Cook, in a parenthetical comment, makes it clear that he believes linking Schenker’s racism to his musical theories is unhelpful … What Cook means to say here is that it is unhelpful insofar as it calls attention to race—that is, unhelpful to music theory’s white racial frame. I, however, happen to think it is extremely helpful, in terms of understanding how we deal with race in music theory, to draw this ‘obvious parallel.’ Finally, I point out that Cook’s comment corresponds directly to white-frame belief that it would be inappropriate to critically examine race in music theory.”Ewell 2020, 4.3.4
The respondents claiming that we can easily detach racism from theory seem to be willfully deluding themselves and ignoring what Ewell said in the first place.
These responses are written by people with phds and long careers in the humanities, yet they have allowed themselves to remain blind to some of the most obvious problems with their claim. I am disappointed with several of these scholars for refusing to apply the critical thinking and nuance they use every day in their teaching and research to something as important as these issues are. In 2020, they should do better. I’m infuriated (but not really surprised) that our current climate of hyperawareness toward race in academia and in broader US society seems not to have prompted these scholars to reflect on their own participation in the white racial framing of our field.
If any of these scholars happen to read this blog post someday: please, reread Ewell’s article, and find your own arguments rebutted in it. You need to engage with those rebuttals in order to have responsibly held up your side of the bargain in this “scholarly exchange” (such as it is). Read some critical race theory. If you believe in anti-racism in other aspects of life, such as policing, housing, etc., try applying that to music theory too. Reflect on how Schenker’s own framing and our acceptance of it might lead to this issue and the entire journal’s editorial board being entirely white men plus one white woman (as far as I can tell; I could be mistaken); to Schenkerian conference programs and bibliographies being dominated by white men; to the music we spend time with and care about the most to be dominated by white men. Consider that maybe your defensive reaction comes more from personal pride and discomfort, rather than something more objective. Our growth as a field depends on our ability to critically self-reflect.