Is music theory really #SoWhite?

And if it is, does it mean that Beethoven was merely "above average"?

One dustup over antiracism these days has been inspired by an Austrian music theorist who died 86 years ago.

Heinrich Schenker’s music theory is still widely taught today. He was a genius – and also an open racist who wrote extensively of his sentiments thereabout in uncompromising language.

Musicologists have commonly noted that his music theory has nothing to do with his repulsive ideologies on race and moved on. One of them has been Timothy Jackson, who has edited a journal devoted to Schenker’s ideas. The journal has been printed in such small batches that passengers filling one bus would have to share a whole print run in groups of three or four.

Philip Ewell is a music theory professor at Hunter College, and feels that it is irresponsible and yes, racist, to separate Schenker’s racism from his music theory. He argued this in a resonant article widely read among music specialists and beyond starting last summer. Jackson disagreed with the premise, and devoted an issue of his journal to articles addressing the Ewell one. Some of the articles praised Ewell; most did not.

Many will be able to guess immediately what has happened since. 900 teachers and students of musicology have signed a letter accusing Jackson of “replicat[ing] a culture of whiteness;” graduate students at the University of North Texas, where Jackson works, have urged that the journal be dissolved and that Jackson’s firing should at least be on the table; Jackson has been barred from the journal and shunned by faculty colleagues. He is also suing the university for denying him free speech.

My aim here is not simply to call attention to the case of Professor Jackson. For one, the New York Times has already done so, and I should say, given my comments about certain things happening at the Times lately, that their article on this by Michael Powell is exquisitely fair.

Here I have a different purpose. The nature of our intellectual culture at this moment is such that there will be a tendency for enlightened folk to avoid asking real questions of Prof. Ewell’s thesis. This will especially be the case after various professors did so in the incendiary issue of the Schenker journal and the issue has now been roundly roasted as a pamphlet of white supremacy.

However, Prof. Ewell’s positions require, if we are to have anything resembling an honest culture of inquiry, some questions – and not just in the pages of a journal read by a handful of scholars. My goal here is not to paint Ewell as a crackpot; I intend no attack and am essentially underqualified to even level one. I simply want to pose some questions, in an easily accessible place, that I highly suspect a great many observers of all colors have about his ideas, but may understandably hold back on posing.

A key point of Ewell’s is that far from bein unconnected to his racial views, Schenker’s music theory schemas were direct outgrowths of his racism – i.e. that his science of music was, itself, racist.

This is a highly counterintuitive notion regardless of whether it can be defended. As such, any genuine address of Ewell’s thesis requires a direct and conclusive address of this particular point. Scholars abroad, for example, have tended to be baffled by the idea that Schenker’s racism invalidates his music theory. For example, Curtis Institute professor Eric Wen, born and raised in Hong Kong, has said that “He was no angel and so what? His ideology is problematic but his insights are massive.”

And generally, we all of us understand that imperfect people can do great things that deserve our reverence regardless. A random example: for all of his pioneering brilliance in forging the modern black identity, W.E.B. DuBois would not pass our tests today on classism and what sociologists call “agency” – he readily decreed a segment of black Philadelphians “lazy” – and it bears mentioning how unpleasantly it would ring to many today to hear a black leader speaking of nurturing a “talented tenth,” implying that the vast majority of others are less, or un-, talented. His very sense of where black America needed to go was seasoned partly by ideas we now see as outmoded (he would today also run aground upon Me, Too), and yet we justly celebrate his work, as well as his self, today.

So – if Schenker’s music theory “is racist,” we need to have this explained. And Ewell’s article does include a section addressing this keystone point. However, that section is almost surprisingly brief. From what I can tell from Ewell’s article, fertile and elegantly written though it is overall, the idea that Schenkerian theory is, itself, racist comes down to two things.

Namely, the theory requires that some tones are more important, central, driving in force, than other tones, and also that certain elements that are considered to form what is called the background of music are to be fashioned as making their force felt in what is called the foreground. In other words, Schenker thought whites were above other races, especially blacks, and should dominate them. Ewell thinks that European music theory is therefore racist in applying similar notions of dominance to notes and other components of music.

I may be missing something, but I don’t follow the reasoning here. Is there any kind of music where some elements are not foregrounded while others are backgrounded, or even where elements structurally in the background do not ultimately color the music to such a degree that they come off as what the music “is really about” overall, like a dish that wouldn’t be itself without the marjoram almost to the point that you almost just want to eat marjoram alone with a spoon?

I’m not thinking only of “white” music. I think of the balafon, a xylophone-like instrument played by the Sambla people in Burkina Faso. In playing the balafon, there is a dominating “pure” tone behind which there is a backgrounded – although vital – “buzz” created by how holes are cut in the gourds that comprise the instrument, that listeners could not imagine the music without. There is also a flatted note in the scale, an odd-man-out one that sounds kind of like what in jazz is called a “blue” note, that is used more for decoration than for “straight” statement but is, ultimately, a major essence of the music.

If Ewell’s claim is that music is racist when involving hierarchical relationships between elements, then we must ask where that puts a great deal of music created by non-white people. Perhaps more important, the question is: just what do these hierarchical relationships in music structure have to do with human suffering?

Elsewhere, Ewell has questioned the requirement that music theorists master European languages such as German in preparation for research on original sources that are often written in those languages (Ancient Greek is another one). Ewell considers this “obviously racist” in implying that white people are better.

I am assuming that Ewell is not espousing that people should be granted degrees in music theory only able to engage key sources in translation. This is unpleasantly reminiscent of the debate in the 1990s over whether the Ancient Greeks “stole” their intellectual ideas from “black” Egyptians, where those arguing this point most vociferously were usually doing so without actually knowing Greek (or Latin or Coptic). Scholars commanding those languages knew the relevant literature better, but when pushing back against the “Black Athena” claims, were typically dismissed as racists. It wasn’t pretty.

Or – is it that at least in music theory, enough of the relevant sources exist in solid translation that it isn’t really necessary to learn foreign languages? If so, I beg pardon.

But Ewell seems to be implying that people ought have the choice of studying other languages as requirements for the degree. We assume that he means languages in which music theory is written. Surely the idea is that music theory students liberated by antiracist effort will now be the equal of other (white?) ones in their language chops, just not limited to commanding old white languages. I’m aware that some may see it as antiracist to create a cadre of music theory students of color who simply only know their native language, out of a sense that the very requirement that students master another language is an inappropriate imposition for various reasons. I am also aware, however, that just as many people would see this as a racist position, in creating a cadre of scholars able to access less scholarly material than others.

So, my question is: which other languages shall music theory training encourage students to master? Which are the languages that will allow these students to access work on music theory hitherto undersung, so to speak, in academia? I am guessing that Chinese would be one? What else? To require German is racist? Well, okay … but what languages instead? And – this is hard, but I have to – is there a music theory literature written in Wolof, Twi, Hausa, Yoruba or Swahili? I dearly hope so, assuming that these languages would qualify as especially non-“racist” in this context.

To refrain from asking these kinds of questions, clearly and directly, about positions such as Prof. Ewell’s leaves an implication – both for the claimants and us onlookers -- that the positions in question are unquestioned wisdom. The result is a body of intelligent people falling under the impression that their perspectives seasoned by Critical Race Theory are truth, resisted only by the morally challenged. We prevent them, as well as ourselves, from seeing that their ideas are proposals, subject to the same contestation as the rest of ours, and likely no more or less impregnable intellectually or ethically.

On that note (ha ha), I feel moved to question one more of Prof. Ewell’s proposals – that Beethoven was merely an “above-average” composer unjustly lionized by a white supremacist establishment.

Reputations can certainly be inflated indefensibly and we must always question and justify our estimation of the Big Names. I, for one, have never quite understood the reputation of Bing Crosby, do not especially like most of the grand old MGM musical films, and think people go overboard somewhat about – (I hunker internally at the pots and rotten fruit that will be thrown at me for this) – John Ford.

But Beethoven as just “above average”? Above average, for his era, was someone like Carl Stamitz – a typical piece was his Orchestral Quartet in C major. It’s pretty like a tulip, and exemplifies a word often used for his work, “appealing.” Above average – but there’s a reason you’ve never heard of him unless you’re a music specialist.

We have to compare something like one of Beethoven’s late string quartets – I’ll go for  the Opus 131 in C# minor. Schubert’s assessment of this one was “After this, what is left for us to write?” and wanted it played by his deathbed. Robert Schumann placed it “on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination.” Yes, those two were limited by what they knew and heard as white guys – but I suspect their assessment stands the test of time for all humans today inclined to listen in to the piece.

It can be hard to step outside of oneself, but I feel relatively confident that my awe of this piece is not an artifact of my occupying a white supremacist society – this quartet is truly awesome work on countless levels, head and shoulders above the Stamitz in craft, complexity and art. Moreover, I just cannot wrap my head around hearing it as “white supremacist” because it centers on certain notes and intervals over others and operates on the basis of things foregrounded and backgrounded.

I reiterate that I am not trying for a takedown. It’s just that these questions must be asked, and cannot be dismissed as the mere cavils of white supremacists. We must all live in this world together, where we seek to know one another’s minds. Of course, some feel that pretty much most of what is in some people’s minds is white supremacy – but that’s just some who that feel that way. I want to open it up for the rest of us.