Their Turn Has Been Long Enough. It’s Time to Share

When my children were young, like most (all?) children, there were times they would start fighting over toys. The usual disagreement involved an accusation that one was hogging a toy and not letting the other play with it. When I got involved as the arbitrator, I would consider the situation. Sometimes, the child playing with the toy had not been playing very long or was in the middle of a scenario or project, and I would tell the other child to be patient for a little while longer. Other times, however, I would tell the child playing with the toy, “Your turn has been long enough. Now it’s time to share.”

I believe in sharing.

So, the other day when I read this article about professors at the University of Oxford reducing the number of white, male, classical composers students will study to make room for lesser-known composers of different races, genders, and cultures, I was very pleased. They are committing to sharing the musical space. I was not, however, pleased with the inflammatory tone of the author, Manual Brug. (I suggest reading Mr. Brug’s post before continuing this one.)

Let me take on Mr. Brug’s post one point at a time.

First, no one is canceling Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, or any other white-male-composer. Reducing the number of white-male composers studied to make room for under-recognized composers of the past who were skilled in their own right or non-western music that is valid in it’s own right does not “cancel” the more well-known composers. All those guys have had their turn. It’s time to share the spotlight.

Second, adding to is not cutting. If I add more side dishes to my Thanksgiving menu, there will be more to eat. Each diner may only get a taste of each dish, but often that is enough to get a sense of the flavor. Then each person can go back for seconds from the dishes they like best. If music schools make room in their programs for non-western music and non-white, non-male composers, that is more. More music, more composers, more variety, more experiences, more diversity.

Mr. Brug claims that “Western classical music is one of the few art forms that spread across the world without any link to oppression or slavery” yet provides no documentation! My daughter is, right now, working on a paper about how western classical music was used in colonial Latin America and how the indigenous people “revolted” by incorporating their own traditional melodies and rhythms, creating unique hybrids. (This paper provides some insight.) Saying that local composers “embraced the Baroque style” is Mr. Brug’s spin.

In fact, we cannot separate Western classical music from slavery because it is the black slaves in America who were exposed to western music and hybridized it with their African musical traditions to create spirituals which subsequently gave birth to blues, ragtime, jazz, and beyond. Without the tie to slavery, we wouldn’t have this uniquely American music. The wonderful music that came out of such oppression is a silver lining, but we must understand that it was born in pain and suffering. We need to honor that, and the musicians who made this music.

Just because countries like China, Japan, and Korea appreciate western classical music does not mean there is no tie to oppression. I find it amusing that Mr. Brug claims that Japan has had a “long” devotion to western classical music for over one hundred years. One hundred years is not a long time; World War I ended just over one hundred years ago. J.S. Bach died almost three hundred years ago. Let’s put this “long” devotion into perspective.

Mr. Brug also sarcastically addresses the topic of music notation, despite the fact that the professors at the University of Oxford already said that they are not ditching sheet music. The fact is that notation is always changing, much like spelling and grammar (perhaps you have heard the debate about the Oxford comma.) There are difficulties with musical notation, which I plan to discuss in another post, and new ways of notating are always being explored. Yes, we do have a standardized system in the West, but that system has already required updating and new approaches in order to accommodate late-twentieth and twenty-first century music, even that written by white males. Calling music notation racist is silly, but so is the idea that we must hold to the Western standardized system only, without exploring other systems of notation. Limiting music students to a single tradition of music notation could seriously impair creativity and future musical developments.

It is not “ridiculous” to include composers such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Tan Dun, and others mentioned in Mr. Brug’s article in a music curriculum, all of whom have contributed significantly to the development of Western classical music! It seems that Mr. Brug is not familiar enough with contemporary western classical music to recognize this fact. Contemporary composers are simply seeking out the works of these non-white composers on their own, rather than having the opportunity to study them with the approval of a common music school curriculum.

Mr. Brug asks, “Where are all of the composers of color, or female composers, to replace these old, white men?” Many are easy to find on IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project.) Interestingly, several music publishers found them worthy. Why don’t the music schools? Mr. Brug asks, “Which prodigies will be rescued from the dusty archives, simply because they fulfill today’s politically correct criteria?” Any that we can find. If they wrote something of quality and they are not white and male, they count. They may be a token model, but even one is better than none. (Interestingly, there are so many Latin American composers I was able to take two semesters on The History of Latin American music when I returned to school in my late thirties, and many of the composers were not white or male.) I know that studying the work of female composers would have benefited me when I was young. Unfortunately, they were only mentioned in passing, without looking at their music as a model, if they were mentioned at all. This only communicated that their work was “lesser than” and not up to par with the work of the males.

This, of course, is not true. In recent years, I have played several pieces by female composers of the Romantic Period that were of comparative quality to the traditional repertoire I’ve played. Perhaps these under-recognized composers wrote fewer pieces, or focused on smaller-scale works. It is important to ask, “Why?” Women, for example, were traditionally expected to keep the home and care for the children. Music was “just” a hobby. How many non-white composers were composing outside of working other jobs because they didn’t have the privilege to devote their entire day to music? In light of various constraints and obstacles, isn’t it even more remarkable that their work exists at all?

Mr. Brug says, “You could hold seminars about how for centuries female and non-European composers were ignored and had little chance of breaking into the classical canon. But it isn’t always possible to correct the mistakes of the past in this way, and searching for lost scores from unrecognized geniuses with the right skin color won’t bring them out of the woodwork.” He also says, “In America, institutions are desperate to give grants and commissions to women and people of color, but that doesn’t automatically improve the quality of results.” Correcting mistakes completely is impossible. This is about making room so that more diverse voices can be heard. Searching for lost scores does, in fact, bring unrecognized composers out of the woodwork; it just requires time and effort. Those who care will do it. And no one is trying to improve the “quality of results.” Rather, they are giving a turn to those who have been patiently waiting. Besides, what do the results matter, and who judges? By talking about “improving results”, is Mr. Brug setting up the work of white males as the appropriate standard?

One thing I can agree with Mr. Brug about is that students must learn the basics before they push the boundaries. And, in this, I feel that most college music students are entering college woefully ignorant. They need to be well-versed in their own culture’s musical heritage so that when they get to college they are ready to explore the larger world. A college music program should not be where students are learning their major scales and four-part chorale-style harmony. It should not be where Western students are studying Beethoven symphonies for the first time. We don’t put up with this in other fields of study. Imagine if a student entered college as an English major without ever studying the work of William Shakespeare! Music students entering college should be as ready for a rigorous music program as engineering students are ready for theirs. I understand that is a tall order since so many public schools are not equipped to provide that knowledge. But non-white, non-male composers should not be left out of the curriculum because students come in ill-prepared. That is too high a price to pay.

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

Do you have an idea for a topic for me to cover in my blog? Contact me and make a suggestion!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.