Facing the Classical Music Vienna Philharmonic performing the re-opening concert in Musikverein Wien on June 5th, 2020 with Daniel Barenboim conducting from the piano.

Facing the Classical Music

August 20, 202010–15 minutes read

Written by:

Andrei Rusu

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This past June, a few concert halls around the world restarted their performances after being shut down for several months. The Vienna Philharmonic had its performances stopped for a whole three-months, a situation without precedent in its history–it was founded in 1842. Unprecedented are also the current times, and public health regulations demanded that the concert hall is nearly empty. Still, the June 5th reopening concert in Vienna went on with a physically distanced audience and with the orchestra performing two essential classics—Beethoven’s 5th symphony and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27— and with superstar conductor Daniel Barenboim at the helm. In Amsterdam, the Concertgebouw Hall also re-opened its doors in July to a reduced audience, but with a more unusual, if not unique, programme. Conductor Karina Canellakis led the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in an American-themed performance which included pieces by two black American composers–William Grant Still and George Walker.

Meanwhile the US is facing the biggest social unrest since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, on top of the covid19 pandemic. The Black Lives Matter movement has already been going on for some time and in fact on June 6th it may have been the largest movement in US history. When it comes to race and equality issues, restarting classical music performances may have happened at the right time. In the newly reopened concert halls with physically distanced audiences, and against the backdrop of the BLM movement taking place globally, the uncomfortable question of ‘where are the black musicians in classical music’ inevitably presents itself.

The question remains: is it enough to have classical music by non-white composers? If we simply make room in the canon for black composers like William Dawson, Florence Price, William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and others, if we commission a few new pieces from non-white/non-male/non-Western composers, while trying to be as intersectional as possible, then can we consider the matter solved?

A Distinguished Visitor

Simply pointing out that a select few individuals are attending a concert performance in Vienna or in Amsterdam while the US is facing widespread social unrest on top of a global pandemic, is not likely to accomplish much. It will not even be a drop in the bucket of indifference and contempt which the Western world has had for some time for the historical struggle of people of colour. Indeed, we have to go on a field trip to a tiny village in the Swiss Alps.

It was in the summer of 1951 when this village received a distinguished visitor, and as far as its residents were concerned, an uncommon one as well. He was the American writer James Baldwin and in 1953 he published an essay called Stranger in the Village which begins with: “From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came.”1 Leukerbad, the village in question, is at a very high altitude, quite isolated from the rest of the world, and at that time with no movie house, no bank, no library, no theatre, as Baldwin reports. Detached from any kind of cultural world and with only one hot spring water as its only real attraction. In Leukerbad, Baldwin spent an initial fortnight at his partner’s family chalet, and then returned for two subsequent winters. Beside the essay, he also finished writing his first novel there, Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Before even considering a possible answer to the question of ‘where are the black musicians in classical music’, along with maybe the bigger question of ‘where is the music written by black composers’, we need to carefully inspect James Baldwin’s essay. At some point in, there’s a striking passage where, referring to the inhabitants of the village, he writes:

“These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory—but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.”2

This very essay also determined Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole–and “custodian of a black body”– to visit the same village, while he was on an extended stay in Switzerland a few year ago. Cole wrote his own essay in Leukerbad, after retracing Baldwin’s steps. In his view, the thick mountain air gave Baldwin a clear view about white supremacy, especially after meeting an undisguised form of racism in the village. By now, of course, Teju Cole wasn’t the only black man there anymore–he published the essay in 2014. The village has seen people of colour, thanks to the flourishing tourism industry. The thermal baths of the village have been successfully commodified and as a result the village has seen substantial economic growth and development, with hotels and restaurants at every street corner, thus becoming one of the most popular thermal resorts in the Alps. Racism and white supremacy had to be reduced to a minimum for the economic progress to happen unhindered.
James Baldwin at Hyde Park, London in 1969; photo: Allan Warren (Wikimedia Commons)
James Baldwin at Hyde Park, London in 1969; photo: Allan Warren (Wikimedia Commons)
When confronted with Baldwin’s “self-abnegation” of not sharing the history of Beethoven’s string quartets with the villagers, Teju Cole is somewhat suspicious and wonders: “Does it truly bother Baldwin that the people of Leukerbad are related, through some faint familiarity, to Chartres? That some distant genetic thread links them to the Beethoven string quartets?”3

He goes on to list a number of high-profile black musicians, artists, and writers to show that art created by people who happen to be black is just as sophisticated as art created by people who happen to be white, or other skin colour for that matter. But he quickly admits that such a list is quite tedious to make and its only purpose is to combat Eurocentrism.

I read that passage in James Baldwin’s essay in a slightly different tone. His issue does not seem to me whether he can feel the connection with Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, whether Bach’s music belongs to him or not. He is sorrowful and disgusted by the thought of his ancestors being denied the opportunity to even have a semblance of a life, even before considering to listen to Bach’s music and embrace its presumed universality.

It is a matter of historical record that while the Western world was producing composers like Beethoven and Bach, playwrights like Shakespeare, and artists like Rembrandt, Africans were being conquered, colonised and enslaved, by the Western world itself. On top of that, much of the plunder and devastation of colonialism has been carefully airbrushed from history and replaced with the story of development, according to which the Western world has been developing the rest of the world. The common narrative accepted thus far is that the astonishing cultural and artistic accomplishments of the Western world are the sole results of its exceptionalism and the rest need only to catch up.

This evidently enrages James Baldwin, and he’s the custodian of a rage and disgust which the Swiss villagers have for all accounts and purposes managed to escape, even if they are not conscious of this, only by having the colour of their skin white.

The Canon

There’s a lot of talk these days on whether classical music can survive the coronavirus pandemic—that classical music industry is facing an existential threat and its future is deeply uncertain. Whether or not it will survive the crisis, the fact is that for a long time classical music has been predominantly white, and the BLM movement has only brought this into the focus again. In the US, NPR has already published an article last year asking “why is American classical music so white”, while BBC Radio 3 has recently discussed race and equality in British classical music in a recent Music Matters programme.

The question remains: is it enough to have classical music by non-white composers? If we simply make room in the canon for black composers like William Dawson, Florence Price, William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and others, if we commission a few new pieces from non-white/non-male/non-Western composers, while trying to be as intersectional as possible, then can we consider the matter solved? Considering that there’s barely any space in the canon for white women composers like Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Amy Beach, Louise Farrenc, it seems the possibility that Florence Price will be included anytime soon seems rather dim.

Florence Beatrice Price (1887–1953)
American composer Florence Price (1887–1953)

An Ecological Perspective

The prestigious BBC Proms festival didn’t happen this year, but last year it was in full swing. And ahead of last year’s Proms edition, The Guardian asked the question of what is classical music for, and in a particularly unflattering tone. Their view was that, on one hand, classical music may serve as background music for the mindfulness industry, being associated nowadays with its ‘calming’ effect, or it may serve as a social standing validator. Both of these claims can be very easily confronted, but doing so would be quite a tedious enterprise. At this time–at the height of the covid19 pandemic– both the mindfulness and the live event industries are facing an existential threat, so it might be worthwhile to consider what music actually is and what its actual role is in the world.

We’re often used to consider music as some alternate magical realm where one can escape into, when one feels the need to do so. As the idea goes, we can briefly abandon this world’s tribulations in order to escape into the vast world of music where serenity and peace awaits. But how valid this concept really is–the idea of escapism? Are we even convinced that we escaped anywhere or did we have just a profound sentimental experience? Iris Murdoch offered a different interpretation. In her essay, The Sovereignty of Good, she explains that we use our imagination not in order to escape the world, but to join it4.

Music cannot be reduced to the sentimental effect that it has on the human psyche, nor to the relationship between those who play it and those who happen to listen to it. Music is not an alternate realm separate from actual life, it is life itself. What we need is an ecological perspective, where music exists as part of the wider world, as do we. “We are what we seem to be, transient mortal creatures subject to necessity and chance”5, Murdoch further writes.

In an essay which has recently received some renewed attention from contemporary philosophers, entitled The Dehumanization of Art, Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gasset claimed that starting with Claude Debussy, Western classical music had been “relieved of private sentiments and purified in an exemplary objectification”6. The dissonant chords of the violent dialogue between the wind and the sea in the last movement of Debussy’s La Mer–Dialogue du vent et de la mer– had particularly succeeded in minimising the presence of human subjectivity. Classical music is part of the collective consciousness, the outer world, and its purpose is not to satisfy the sentimental needs of the human intellect. Music often does stir human emotions and I am not suggesting that we shouldn't seek to have those emotions. What I am suggesting is that classical music cannot and should not be reduced to fulfilling the sentimental needs of individuals who happen to be members of an audience and it needs to engage with the collective needs, sentimental or otherwise, of the society.
A prisoner orchestra at Stalag VIII-A in Goerlitz (Germany), with Ferdinand Carrion conducting
A prisoner orchestra at Stalag VIII-A in Goerlitz (Germany), with Ferdinand Carrion conducting

The End of Times

On January 15th, 1941, at the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp, in Görlitz, Germany, it took place the first performance of a new work which by now is very well-known and for all accounts and purposes part of the classical music canon—Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Times. Commonly classified as a chamber piece, the instrumentation is rather uncommon though, having been determined by the exceptional circumstances in which it was written and performed. Messiaen picked the instruments and performers at hand and scored it for piano, clarinet, violin, and cello. There are eight movements in which the composer avoided all Western musical tendencies of uniformity and repetition, incorporating instead bird song, rhythmic patterns in classical Indian music, and also the score is inspired by the biblical text of the Book of Revelation.

There’s been analysis after analysis of this work, for instance pianist Steven Osborn writing that the piece “seems to touch the far edges of human experience”, but the reason why Messiaen wrote it is not often investigated. It seems also strange to use the term ‘premiere’ when referring to the first performance, which was given by Messiaen on the piano, Henri Akoka on clarinet, Jean le Boulaire on violin, and Étienne Pasquier on cello, in freezing conditions and on decrepit instruments. For a particular performance to be called a premiere, it requires that at least there’s the possibility of subsequent performances. But not only the horrendous conditions of being held captive in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp make the certainty of a future dim, the entire work confronts the commonly held idea of time itself. Messiaen violently throws away the accepted notions of time and space. “My music depends on uneven beats, as in nature. In nature rippling water is uneven, waving tree branches are uneven, the movement of clouds is uneven”, declares Messiaen in an interview from 1988.

Steven Osborn concludes his analysis by suggesting that Messiaen has sought “an escape into his artistic and religious worlds”7, from the brutality of his situation. Crises can be seen as portals through time, from one world to the next, as writer Arundhati Roy suggested when writing about our on-going covid19 crisis. Messiaen even passed an actual escape plan when presented to him by Henri Akoka–the clarinetist from the performance. My view is that Messiaen wrote and performed his quartet precisely as a vehicle for him and his fellow prisoners to transition from the unspeakable conditions in which they were in. It wasn’t a matter of finding refuge in his art, it was a necessity.

Both Messiaen and Debussy have shown in their works that music is the expression of nature and time acting upon the human intellect, while at the same time being a vehicle for individuals to connect to the wider world. When William Dawson created his Negro Folk Symphony–an outstanding orchestral work, written in 3 movements–he didn’t attempt to imitate Beethoven or Brahms, Franck or Ravel, but rather be himself – “a Negro” (the term used in referring to African Americans in the 1930s). His symphony was premiered in 1934 by the Philadelphia Orchestra with Leopold Stokowski conducting but it was forgotten soon after. Two year before, Dawson reportedly said in an interview:

“To me, the finest compliment that could be paid to my symphony when it has its premiere is that it unmistakably is not the work of a white man. I want the audience to say: ‘Only a Negro could have written that.’”8

There may be renewed efforts to record and perform works by black composers, as an attempt to include more of them into the canon–such as Dawson’s symphony, which has been in fact released on a new recording recently by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arthur Fagen. These days, it wouldn’t be uncommon for BBC Radio 3 to be playing on the same day music by Florence Price in the morning, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in the afternoon, and William Grant Still in the evening. But to what extent such initiatives will prove to have a lasting impact? We are in the midst of a long overdue revival of classical music by black and other non-white composers, but will this music become part of the canon or will it simply be gone and buried by next year’s Proms–if there will be one? Times are a-changin’, it’s no longer the 1930s, and the current difficulties faced by the classical music industry present a fresh opportunity to reconsider its underlying structures. It’s high time to face the (classical) music.

1. James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Penguin Classics, 2017), p. 163
2. James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Penguin Classics, 2017), p. 169
3. Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things (Penguin Random House, 2016), p. 9
4. Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge, 2001), p. 88
5. Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (Routledge, 2001), p. 77
6. José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture, and Literature (Princeton University Press, 2019), p. 27
7. Steven Osborn, Olivier Messiaen: beyond time and space, The Guardian (2014)
8. Joseph Horowitz, New World Prophecy, The American Scholar (Autumn 2019 edition)
About the Author

Andrei Rusu

Co-founder of The Attic, Andrei is mostly overseeing technical operations of the platform, and occasionally acting as Senior Editor.

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