Confronting Racism and Sexism

Beethoven Was an Above Average Composer—Let’s Leave It at That

“Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a masterwork, born of the genius of a titanic composer.” We in classical music, and especially in music theory, have become so inured to descriptions like these that we no longer question what’s really being said. But behind such language lie two aspects of Beethoven that remain underexplored: race and gender. Not so much Beethoven’s race and gender, but the race of music theory’s white racial frame, which works in concert with patriarchal structures to advantage whiteness and maleness while disadvantaging POC and nonmales. In “How the Myth of the Artistic Genius Excuses the Abuse of Women,” Amanda Hess discusses the harm done in excusing the misconduct of artistic “geniuses,” who are usually men harming women. She argues forcefully for not separating the art from the artist, and urges the examination of how someone’s abuse of power outside of their creative output can affect that creative output. The racist misconduct of these geniuses is also generally excused, under the same notion that geniuses deserve some kind of dispensation for their conduct because of their genius. And with remarkable consistency, these geniuses have been white males in American society. This harm was on vivid display in the “Levinite” defense of James Levine after allegations of years of his misconduct came to light in 2017. In “When #TimesUp for Musical Gods: The James Levine Scandal,” Linda Shaver-Gleason debunks the myth of genius with respect to Levine and reminds us of the general dangers of “genius.”

“Master,” and its derivatives (masterwork, masterpiece, masterful), carries both racist (master/slave) and sexist (master/mistress) connotations. In music theory “masterwork” is generally applied to compositions by white males. But Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is no more a masterwork than Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells. To state that Beethoven was any more than, say, above average as a composer is to state that you know all music written on planet earth 200 years ago when Beethoven was active as a composer, which no one does. Beethoven occupies the place he does because he has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for two hundred years, and we have been told by whiteness and maleness that his greatness has nothing to do with whiteness and maleness, in race-neutral and gender-neutral fashion. Thus music theory’s white-male frame obfuscates race and gender, one of its main goals.

The white racial frame has created many euphemisms for “white” and “whiteness.” This tracks the general avoidance of racial terminology that race scholars often cite. In addition to “master” and its derivatives, here are some other common euphemisms for white and whiteness in music theory’s white racial frame: 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. Even terms such as “the long nineteenth century” and “fin de siècle” can be considered euphemisms for whiteness and white framing for their close associations with dates and events (and languages) significant to Europe and Europeanism. Such euphemisms are intended to sublimate whiteness into less objectionable forms, thus mitigating the effect of whiteness on music theory and hiding its existence. In fact, the mapping of time itself is white racially framed in the Gregorian calendar, civil calendar to the world. Since they could observe, humans have mapped the linear and cyclic nature of time, in the stars, sun, moon, waters, and migrations of animals and insects. Steph Yin explains this mapping in “What Lunar New Year Reveals about the World’s Calendars.” The fact that the world has settled on the Gregorian, after Pope Gregory XIII, represents white racial framing writ large. Sure, it’s useful to have everyone on the same calendar, but no one can deny the racial element behind how the world now understands the linear and cyclic nature of time.

More than any other country the U.S. is responsible for the emergence of music theory as a field separate from its close relative, historical musicology (more common, in most of Europe for instance, music analysis and theory is a subset of musicology). Part of this separation was due to differences between historical and analytical perspectives, while another part was due to funding that was available to scientific explorations in the U.S. at the time. Still another part of the drive to scientificize music analysis in the U.S. in the twentieth century represents an effort to shore up whiteness in music theory’s white frame since this scientifization insulates whiteness from potential criticism. Music theory highlights the “transcendent immutability” of its theories. If these theories are timeless, otherworldly, it is easier to suggest that they have nothing to do with race and gender. Thus in the mid-twentieth century musicologists who were interested in analysis in the U.S. began to attach the word “theory” to their discipline: American music theory was born.

Sara Ahmed, in Living a Feminist Life, questions the use of the word “theory” generally, citing her own beginning as a grad student in “critical theory.” She rightly notes how, in calling something a theory that can reasonably be argued is not, authors wish to insulate themselves from potential criticism and narrow the understanding of a subject to the dictates of a select few. In music theory’s case, and in many others in the U.S., this select few has consisted only of white males. Ahmed says:

Some work becomes theory because it refers to other work that is known as theory. A citational chain is created around theory: you become a theorist by citing other theorists that cite other theorists. Some of this work did interest me; but I kept finding that I wanted to challenge the selection of materials as well as how they were read. (8)

This “citational chain,” theorists citing other theorists, is essential to white-male-framed music theoretical research. Breaking this chain—moving beyond the barriers of what our white-male frame has defined to be music theory—is difficult, and generally discouraged. My engagement with race and feminist scholarship is a perfect example of breaking the citational chain of music theory. I apply the work of race and feminist scholars in order to better understand race and gender in music theory. Many senior scholars in music theory have been skeptical of my work and, in certain cases, even hostile, calling it a “manifesto.” This hostility is rooted in the white-male frame’s persistent belief in race and gender neutrality; once such neutrality is proven to be fallacious the white-male frame will lose power and prestige, which it wants to hold onto.

Like Ahmed, I wish to “challenge the selection of materials” in music theory’s white-male frame—I will offer some alternatives in “New Music Theory,” my next blog post. I also wish to break the citational chain in which whiteness begets whiteness and maleness begets maleness. And with respect to Beethoven, the problem is not with him or his Ninth Symphony. As a cellist I quite enjoy playing his music: symphonies, sonatas, quartets, trios. That will never change. What is problematic is what has happened with Beethoven and his music since his death in 1827. He (along with countless other white males) has been propped up by the white-male frame, both consciously and subconsciously, with descriptors such as genius, master, and masterwork. And, like Ahmed says, there is a citational chain in so citing this “master” that we end up where we are, such that there are those who would actually take issue with me saying the Ninth Symphony is no more a masterwork that Spalding’s 12 Little Spells simply because we are told by whiteness and maleness that this couldn’t be the case. Beethoven was undoubtedly an above-average composer and he deserves our attention. But to say he was anything more is to dismiss 99.9% of the world’s music written 200+ years ago, which would be unscholarly, and academically irresponsible.

By Philip Ewell

Hello. My name in Phil Ewell and this is my blog. I am an activist for racial, gender, and social justice in the field of music theory. Everyone in my field knows that it is unremittingly white and male, but once I began to understand how whiteness and maleness work in tandem to suppress nonwhiteness and nonmaleness, I began to do the academic work in order to expose this unjust side of music theory so that we might deconstruct our white-male structures. Thus I now consider myself an activist in the field, one who advocates for change by exposing how whiteness and maleness suppress marginalized voices, and by pressing for the necessary changes so that all voices can be heard in music theory.

46 replies on “Beethoven Was an Above Average Composer—Let’s Leave It at That”

Thanks for sharing, Professor Ewell! I’ve noticed many scholars even refer to Beethoven as “the master.” Your blog makes me wonder why nobody questions this, and why we tend to be against any kind of change, or “breaking the mold.”


When I was a lowly grad student taking a Romantic survey course, I opined on an exam that, speaking as an ethnomusicologist, Beethoven was the least important person in the whole issue of whether his music was any good or not. The professor’s response was “And who are you?” But he didn’t downgrade me or anything–he was sympathetic with my position, just thought I needed some evidence. Now I reach my own version of the Romantic survey, and believe me, although of course we cover Beethoven, we have a lot of discussion on canon formation and notions of historical inevitability…. Thanks so much for this post. Very important to keep hammering on these things!


I really enjoyed reading this post (and your other ones)! You brought up so many important points that absolutely need to be talked about. I was especially struck by your point about euphemisms for white and whiteness–I had never thought about all those words from that perspective, but it makes so much sense!!! Some other words that I realized are probably euphemisms like this are words like “form” or “coherent or “comprehensible.”


I have to admit that I’m only an amateur musician; my graduate training is in philosophy and mathematics. With that said, I’m curious how the term ‘genius’ is used and understood within the arts, or more specifically within music. Again, only an amateur, but if someone asked me to give some examples of 20th century musical genius I might list Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, not because their work accords to some theoretical standard (I’m ignorant of what any such standard would be, but I don’t doubt that I’ve internalized one regardless) but rather because of the change that followed their work within the genres of music they performed. I wonder if this is because most “geniuses” in mathematics (also overwhelmingly white and male) are considered such largely because the work they published established new trends and fields of inquiry? Then again, it may be the case that these trends only appeared because they were propped up as “geniuses” to begin with. Regardless, your work demonstrated here has left me with a lot to think about, and a hunger for more information. Thank you.


What’s really under attack in this article isn’t whiteness. It’s the idea of exceptionalism itself. I find it telling that as skeptical as the author is about Beethoven’s greatness, he doesn’t point to any neglected composers from the same time period. If there are composers who were marginalized due to race and sex, let’s by all means discover them.

This article really just seems a rant against a composer because of his race and sex. How does merely inverting the hierarchy indicate progress?

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One of the things that led me to do a PhD on music and gender back in the early 90s was the undergraduate experience of reading books about Beethoven that spoke of the ‘virility’ of the music. I couldn’t understand quite what the authors were getting at: from the context it was clearly something in the music that as ilsteners we were all supposed to feel validated by, but I couldn’t grasp what. When I eventually gave up and checked the dictionary definition of virility (doh! ‘manliness’) it was the first time that I realised that I was not the imagined reader of these books, nor, to their writers, the imagined analyst of this music. I had hitherto entirely believed the narrative of ‘absolute music’ and ‘music means nothing but itself’, and indeed had cherished that as asserting that my chosen field could not be sexist in content, even though so many of its participants could be.

Anyhow, personal anecdotes aside, I find your analysis of the mechanisms of canon-formation really useful. Thank you.

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“Beethoven occupies the place he does because he has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for two hundred years.” Why weren’t all of the other white male composers of the time not similarly “propped up”? Pure chance?

Only the unreasoning poison of critical theory and its critical race theory variant could result in such an absurd statement. If you want to talk about a string of

When you realize there is absolutely no basis to see every facet of . . . well . . . everything through the lens of white power structures, the whole house of cards crumbles. This whole enterprise is one embarrassing game of confirmation bias + Kafka traps more reminiscent of religion than science.

Here’s the formula: find “evidence” confirmed by circular reasoning that your theory is true and accuse those who disagree of only further confirming your theory (that’s the Kafka trap part). In looking for “evidence” anything that can even remotely be associated with Western culture works because a largely white population makes it easy to claim these facts are examples of white power structure by association. For instance, words such as “seminal” “towering” “fundamental” . . . you thought those were just words? How naive. The sky is really the limit here go wild . . . this theory is completely unfalsifiable and circular so we can pretty much fit anything in.

Remember, if anyone disagrees tell them they are only reinforcing the point via their white fragility (that’s the Kafka trap part) . . . if they don’t happen to be white, then tell them they have internalized the culture that oppresses them. It’s a pretty foolproof religion.

Don’t worry, Beethoven was still a genius, as were so many other white and black musicians. Someday we will look back on this time period and wonder how we went so mad.

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Dr. Ewell , I have to said that as americans you need to learn a lot about European Culture, especially since the USA was out of that culture for manu centuries.
Just an example, How could you argue that Master is related with slaves?? Master in arts becomes from the latin word “Magister” ( teacher or authority in a subject) we South American and European scholars, we who need to to study Latin understand this inmediately. Magister/Maestro has the same latin meaning, but you americans not, why do you ignore that? Because you are thinking only in english language. When english language is the less sophisticated language, and also because none relevant culture event happened in english culture until XX century. You need to review your background. An error like that is at the undergraduate/ hugh school level.

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For what it’s worth, one of my own working hypotheses is that we know who Beethoven was mostly just because he went deaf. Going deaf forced Beethoven to shift from piano performance to composition. We know plenty about at least some performers from Beethoven’s time, but, since there are no recordings, non-musicians have little reason to care who they were or what they did. Going deaf also forced Beethoven to use written communication more than other composers, so there is a lot more for earnest historians and sensationalist Hollywood screenwriters, alike, to exploit in milking the Beethoven story for vicarious narcissistic pathos. Don’t get me wrong; I like Beethoven’s music. I even appreciate his audacity in terms of diverging from obvious formal decisions and his apparent nominal shift of focus from “thematic” to “motivic”, if we can call it that. But if he hadn’t existed, and if someone else white, male, and deaf had been there instead, some other collection of compositional habits might just as well today be touted as some kind of inevitable next logical step in the relentlessly forward-focused progress of global musical development. The two most compelling reasons to study both Beethoven and Beethovenmania are: 1) that Beethoven and Beethovenmania are what actually happened and 2) that what actually happened somehow actually matters. But that should be enough. We shouldn’t be academically compelled to participate in idolozing the historical figures whose lives and works we study. – Joshua Clement Broyles


Some of the comments in response to this article make it even clearer to me that this is a problem that needs addressing. Thanks so much for your valuable work.

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Jacob Griffiths, I see you make a sideways jab at myself and others who left critical comments on this post. Would you be interested in responding to the thrust of our arguments? Or is the process of logical discourse also considered to be a sign of oppressive, white maleness?


Joshua Clement Broyles,

Your comment lacks historical perspective and basic common sense. If being white, male, and deaf is such a formula for success, why are there so few composers who meet this criteria, much less anything approaching Beethoven’s level of fame? Beethoven doesn’t owe his fame to Hollywood or “earnest historians”; he had huge influence on other significant contemporary composers (Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms, among others) that secured his place of influence long before Hollywood existed. Honestly Joshua, how can you write stuff like this with a straight face?

The real “academic compelling” that’s going on consists of people like you and Philip trying to view all of music history through the lenses of sex and race. It’s desperately ideological and sadly predictable.

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[…] More conversation is taking place around the problems with racism in what has been accepted academic thought.  The Conversation further explores the race problem in music education, and the reasons why the accepted approach to music education needs to be reexamined and undergo changes moving forward.  The article points our the work of music theorist Philip Ewell in questioning the elevation of the canon of a restricted number of great composers and their masterpieces.  Note, for instance, Ewell’s article Beethoven was an Above-Average Composer — Let’s Leave it at That […]


I absolutely agree with this. What Master-Slave constellation?! I, for example, have never seen any human being with black skin (personally, face to face). What has this do with fact that Verdi’s operas are outstanding and without a doubt far above 12Little Spells? In great compositions we hear not only the composer’s personality but the epoch, the tradition of the genre, the psychological regularities? What has it to do with Your (Philip Ewell’s `frame`? Absolutely nothing.


I could never had known Beethoven was deaf. And it would make no impact on his music in my perception. More – on the society who he represented. (Sorry, my English is weak; i’m better at Beethoven’s German… – is it again something from this empty `frame`?


I have a 1993 doctorate in music theory and this was a hot topic back then — so kind of surprised we haven’t made much change it appears (I’m not in the field anymore so maybe it has). For me, the interesting part of analyzing Beethoven’s music as a “music theorist” is seeing how the themes and motives are tied together over large-scale works. My dissertation is on Debussy’s large-scale techniques, and to be honest I’m primarily a rock/fusion guitarist. Do you have other posts you can point me to where you are discussing your views on what you believe needs to change (if anything) in terms of harmony/voice-leading analysis for music based on major/minor/modes etc. Thanks


It is time you grew up and stopped looking at music through the prison of race. Beethoven was great because what he produced was great. In a few years Esperanza Spaulding will be confined to history and forgotten.

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Sorry to sink your association chain regarding “master”. The original terms were coined in German . They are Meister and therefore Meisterwerk. The tern Meister stems from the system of guilds which only permitted Meister to train apprentices. As still today in Germany these Meister have to provide a specimen of their craft (Meisterstück) and pass an extensive knowledge test. Until the early 20th century art and artisanship were closely related to craftsmanship.

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A know-nothing pretentious nitwit trying so terribly hard to be relevant and failing miserably. Simply hilarious. Thanks for the laugh, much needed these days.

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Ok. So this is where we are,… Going after Beethoven. Very nice. But why stop yourself short. I agree with you Beethoven is a nobody in the fight for Woke-ness. Honestly, the biggest tool used in History to further White Supremacy is basically the English Language. Invented by White People, both in written and spoken format, to exclusively further their domination on the surrounding world. So if you are truly fair in your Fight, and not a Hypocrite, you should stop speaking and write English by using this Tool for Supremacy Immediately. And actually you should do your research and find out which cars were built and invented by White people. I am pretty sure BMW, Bentley and Mercedes were invented and built by White people. So you should stop driving those immediately. Also you can research the house you live in,…if it was built by White people, you should just Get Out in protest. If you have an air conditioning unit, please turn it off. Also please stop wearing Pants please. Pretty sure I am, that those they were invented by White people.You probably can get away with wearing a dress and sandals. Also you cannot listen anymore to music with violins, pianos, guitars and most instruments other than drums. Please do Not watch movies or take any pictures. Also, pretty sure I am, that even the Internet would be Off limits for you if Your Protest would be Validated in an Honest manner. Maybe then you can somehow explain and Argument and your Theory better that way. If you keep using the same tools that the White Man used to establish his White Supremacy, you are nothing but a Hypocrite and a Liar. Because you cannot say to yourself in good conscience: “I am use the tools A, B and C used by White Supremacists but I am not going to use tools D, F and G because I do not like them.” See, I tried to sympathize with Halle Berry when she cried at the Oscars (White Supremacy prize invented by white people to be awarded to other White people to further their Supremacy.) and she said: ” There are just not enough screenplays for Black Women in Hollywood.” but she had me lost at the three P.s,…. a Pen and a Piece of Paper. That’s all it takes to write a screenplay. So she probably wanted White people to write a screen play for her about How does it Feel to be a Black Woman?! Otherwise they were racist?! Hmmm,…? See, in Life, you cannot have anal and oral sex and still pretend in good faith to be a virgin. You can certainly do it, as you do it in this article, but it is laughable.Nothing but a Cheap Comedy. I would suggest not using any of White People’s stuff anymore. Screw them all together. As soon as you find out it had anything to do with White People, please stay away and Run like hell!! Then I will begin to believe that you are a Honest Human being with a Valid Point of View. You cannot pick and choose what you want to take from the whites and still have a valid argument. Until then,… I will leave you with this. My kids are 7 and 5. They never came from the park and said: “I played with a black girl or a brown boy.”, because kids Do Not See Skin Color. Seeing skin color needs be taught, same as Racism needs to be taught. And basically Racism is nothing other than Differentiating Human Beings based on their skin color. Whoever sees skin color is 100% a Racist On Either Side. And World Culture is like a River that Flows in One Direction. Everybody borrows from the other, as well as from the World Collection, and then they try to improve what they can, and they throw their cup of tea together with the rest to flow down the stream. There is no such thing as Cultural Appropriation,… Only a River of Knowledge that just flows for the Benefit of Humanity as Whole and for all people to learn, enjoy and progress. Everybody is entitled to Everybody Else’s stuff. Nobody ever invented anything without help from their predecessors. Please compare Tap Dancing with Ancient Irish Folk Dances and you will find out they are very similar. You should not say:” I will use your stuff, but you cannot use my stuff.” because nothing belongs to you. it belongs to Humanity. I am sorry that Cardi B is not Beethoven and I know that upsets you, but all it takes to be Beethoven is just a Pen and a Piece of Paper. Never mind the fact that you already have a head start , since he was deaf. Do not try to bring down the greats because you cannot jump high. It is not their fault how high You jump.

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Exactly, when these pretentious nitwits start protesting Shakespeare festivals and demand museums remove the paintings of Rembrandt and Monet, then I’ll take them a bit more seriously.


[Your comment lacks historical perspective and basic common sense. ]

My historical perspective is that if I die like Beethoven died, people in my family won’t call me a success. What you seem to regard as success is being a broadly celebrated composer after one’s death in a culture where print has become cultural king. So, yes, one possible formula for “success”, anticipating that trend, would be to write down almost every conversation and cultivate a written biography that people who don’t really understand music can latch onto in order to imagine that, by understanding your interesting biography, they somehow also really understand your music.
As for common sense, that’s what tells people like you, absent anyone to contradict them, that the Earth is flat.

[If being white, male, and deaf is such a formula for success, why are there so few composers who meet this criteria, much less anything approaching Beethoven’s level of fame?]

There would be necessarily few such composers because of the number of such composers the cultural market for them can sustain at any one time. If Beethoven hadn’t been born,
someone else would have filled the void. If none of the composers you’re thinking about had been born, someone else (somone obscure today) would have filled the void, and you would, instead, see their famous works as an expression of their remarkable genius, rather than seeing the same or similar works as evidence of their supposed inferiority. But women in Beethoven’s society who lined up tp fill the void were sent to the back of the line. We can argue about whether or not they must have had comparable potential, but there is no reason to think that they could not have. The fact that at least a few women were able to compose and publish anything at all in such cultural climate should probably just make us wonder what more they could have done without one hand tied behind them because of gender.

[Beethoven doesn’t owe his fame to Hollywood or “earnest historians”;]

He owes that portion which cannot be explained by the quality of his work. In capitalist society (I’m a nominal capitalist), we should understand that the quality of his work must not really be all that special, since he never got rich while he was alive. His death, though, allows his work to be co-marketed with his biogrpahy. Once in public domain, these things became robust objects of perpetual exploitation. Not all cynics are deconstructivists, and I confess to being both things. But it’s not cynicsm to point out that the amount of profit that Beethoven generates for people really is the core index of why he is considered to be a great success. That index, though, is inconsistent with Beethoven’s own experience. Occam’s Razor: Beethoven’s brilliant product isn’t music, but music AND an interesting biography. I don’t blame Beethoven for this, though. And I can agree at least that he should have been better compensated.

[he had huge influence on other significant contemporary composers (Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms, among others)]

Brahms? Contemporary? Brahms was born when Beethoven had been dead for about 8 years.

[Honestly Joshua, how can you write stuff like this with a straight face?]

I bet you can write yours with a straight face. The best clowns don’t even know that they’re clowns.


“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.”

Was Shakespeare an “above average” writer? I wouldn’t disparage Mickey Spillane as merely above average. Me, I am an above average writer. By comparison, Shakespeare was a god.
You may be sick of hearing about Beethoven’s genius, but you keep hearing it because people keep saying it because people keep listening and they keep being blown away. And it is for that reason and that reason only that his genius is non-falsifiable. To all but dullards and ideologues, his genius is so great as to be self-evident, objective. What is non-falsifiable (what cannot be budged by truth, fact, or logic) is “political correctness.”

I don’t need “experts” to tell me, for example, that the 17 minutes of the first movement of the Eroica is a miracle of musical brilliance, invention, sustain, cohesiveness and architecture, I simply hear it with my own ears. While Tchaikovsky (a musical genius) would musically dogpaddled from one 3-minute set piece to the next, Beethoven could generate such a torrent of brilliant themes and variations as to render those 17 minutes continually scintillating from start to finish. Tchaikovsky himself was profoundly envious of Mozart’s greater genius and he found Beethoven terrifying. But you know better, right?
Bottom line – this wokeness of yours is motivated by one consideration: we mustn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. You are dedicated to telling the mediocrities of this world, “Don’t fret it; Mr. PhD here assures you that there’s no such thing as genius. Any nonsense your mediocre talent can manage is just as good as the products of the greatest minds in history.”

Political correctness is strong on love, but weak on truth.


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