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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.

4 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.”

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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!

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