Scholar Philip Ewell aims to bring light to "the dark room" of classical music

Philip Ewell confronts racism in classical music.Courtesy of the artist

January 20, 2021

"Classical music has a problem with race," Philip Ewell says.

The New York City associate music professor said as much in a speech to the Society for Music Theory in 2019. His presentation urged a critical examination of what he called a "white racial frame" that is structural and institutionalized in music theory. His speech caused an uproar over his contention that influential music theorist Heinrich Schenker's white-supremacist views affected the way music theory is taught in the United States.

But it also opened discussion on the connection between race and music theory, especially among younger academics. This positive energy has allowed Ewell to speak more widely on the topic, including a virtual guest lecture Friday that's presented by the University of Minnesota.

Ewell paints a vivid picture of how classical music looks through a racial lens using the "dark room" analogy from Paul Hoffman's novel The Viennese: Splendor, Twilight and Exile.

"When you go into a Viennese apartment, there are two rooms," Ewell explained in a recent interview. "The first room is just what you think it would be. It's the dinner party room. There's the upright piano against the wall; it's where you ring in the new year; you have a beautiful dining room table — that's where you have your nice stereo and turntable; that's where you have fun.

"But every Viennese apartment has a back room, an antechamber, a dark room. That's where the secrets lie. That's the candlelit room, where there's a little writing desk in the corner and you open the drawers and you find letters of horrors, hate and anger."

As Ewell suggests, this is the room no one wants to enter or talk about, but that's where the answers are. It's painful to read about the history of suppression, anger, hate, white supremacy and patriarchy, especially if it is your own, but it is something that we must do, he says.

For example, Richard Wagner outlined his hatred for fellow composers Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, who were Jewish, in his anti-Semitic — and also anonymously written — essay Das Judenthum in der Musik, Ewell points out.

"Wagner was not alone," Ewell said. "Fredrick Chopin, Franz Liszt, Igor Stravinsky, Anton Weber, Richard Strauss, Mily Balakirev and Peter Tchaikovsky. Guess what? They hated Jews, as well, and probably didn't have love in their hearts for black people from Africa."

A well-meaning classical music programmer might say, as Ewell puts it, "Let's be inclusive. Great — play a piece by Scott Joplin." The same goes for playing works by female composers such as Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann. But that's not enough, he says, because it doesn't change a system or a history that still favors Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn.

"There is something about classical music, which is, of course, deeply, deeply embedded in white supremacy and patriarchy," said Ewell, who teaches at Hunter College of the City University of New York. "It is supposedly high musical art coming from Europe. It played in very nicely to the narratives and mythologies that form the United States of America."

The traditional history of U.S. classical music shows the superiority of white and cisgender men, he says.

"We need to acknowledge that music of the white Western canon is not superior or inferior to any other music, to any other genre, to any other people in the world," he said. "We must acknowledge that just like with all races of peoples in the world, that we are all equal in all our apparent differences and beautiful idiosyncrasies, that all of the musics of the world are equals in all of their apparent differences and idiosyncrasies."

Some Black composers and performers, and others of color, have been erased, which Ewell calls "colorasure." (Kate Manne uses "herasure" to describe women who have been similarly erased.) He shared examples:

• The New York Philharmonic has had only three black musicians in its 178 years: horn player Jerome Ashby and violinist Sanford Ellen in the 1970s and '80s, and current clarinetist Anthony McGill.

• The Metropolitan Opera, which was founded in 1883, has never staged an opera by an African American composer.

The white framework of U.S. classical music history implies that there weren't any African American operas for the Met to perform. But that's not true.

John Thomas Douglass, who was born in 1847 and whose mother was a slave, wrote a three-act opera, Virginia's Ball, in 1868. It was premiered in New York City at the Stuyvesant Institute and is probably the first opera by an African American. Harry Lawrence Freeman wrote 23 operas in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and Scott Joplin even wrote one, Treemonisha, in 1911 (although it wasn't given a complete performance until 1972).

Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up in My Bones will be the first opera by an African American composer to be performed at the Met when it's staged in the fall, 138 years after the company was founded.

Ewell hesitated when asked to suggest classical recordings for listeners who want to venture beyond systemic classical barriers, because, he says, that doesn't solve the problem. But he does recommend Maria Corley's album Soulscapes, which features solo piano works composed by women of color, including Florence Price, Valerie Capers and Undine Smith Moore, who wrote her own music theory textbook, featuring music by Black composers, in 1969.

Event details

What: Philip Ewell: "How We Got Here, Where to Now?" — a presentation by the University of Minnesota on race and classical music.
When: 4 p.m. Jan. 22.
Where: Online
Cost: Free and open to the public, but you must register.
More info

Resources

Philip Ewell (offical site)