Speaking about race in classical music is no exception. There’s a unique, strange kind of slipperiness attached to the subject in this art form.
As a starting point, let’s use a standard definition. Classical music is a Western musical tradition that uses a sophisticated and relatively standardized notation method, with rich examples and techniques for organizing and developing musical ideas.
Even if we try to escape from the weight of close associations to create a more dynamic identity by calling what we do “art music”, let’s be honest: we can’t escape the historical paper trail.
“White” is a term that might sound fluid and unsubtle, but I think most people would agree that it’s hard to ignore the historical evidence that it has substance. The fact of the matter is that white is a reality today, and it’s a term that has useful application. When racial diversity is mentioned in the classical music world, we all know that white is the status quo.
One might argue that the concept of race is a symptom of ignorance rather than the truth, that humans are so genetically similar that skin color is trivial; therefore, race shouldn’t be applied to art, which reflects even more incredible realities. Race doesn’t matter in art. Neither does it matter in life. We’re all human and bleed red.
It sounds superficially friendly, but saying “race doesn’t matter” is problematic. First, many people believe that race matters, which has very real and terrible effects on many other people. Second, there are significant and beautiful ways in which different races and cultures approach life, which should be celebrated. Third, saying race doesn’t matter doesn’t actively advance the cause of making the idea of race obsolete. Fourth, racial diversity can be an indicator of how well an art form addresses common human experience.
We musicians reinforce each other’s belief that we’re engaged in a purely artistic pursuit. Our idealism is necessary to properly serve the great treasure of music that humanity is entitled to and which we are fortunate to play. The music itself powerfully embodies so much of the human condition. Then there’s the beauty of the interpretive art, which goes from one extreme to another. On the one hand, it presupposes that we each have unique souls from all others, made from mysterious and elemental material, which we constantly try to reveal from beneath all the human dross. On the other hand, there is an entire range of human experience to explore, with all its flaws and virtues, from the most terrible to the most glorious. In either case, there is very little room for expressing much beyond our inner worlds. And can we claim authenticity for anything more than our interpretation?
We need to be high-minded about our art, but we can’t hold it apart from the world. Classical music isn’t a universal language. Different cultures and different times have their own musical languages. There’s a difference in the scales and modes used, the harmonies, rhythms, ornaments, aesthetic values, the sonic idioms that become commonplace and recognizable, the cultural touchstones. It’s difficult for some people to understand a particular language if they don’t grow up listening to it. They may even find that the language doesn’t truly capture the distinct juiciness of their emotions and thoughts. These aren’t new ideas, yet the myth of universality is persistent. I think it’s quite naive and may be dangerous.
Do we as a community sometimes behave like anyone who doesn’t “get” classical music is lame or would understand it if only they were educated or improved in some way? The music might express the mystery of existence or some immortal truth if you know the language, not despite that vital aspect. It’s just one musical way to approach an ultimate revelation or state of consciousness. To say otherwise would be like saying only one religion is the right one.
We also risk false inclusiveness and glossing over biases to operate from a position of immunity. Why has classical music been divorced from general societal conversations about recognizing and overcoming problems concerning gender and race?
Debussy was entranced with Javanese gamelan music, and Ravel had an affection for jazz. I’m aware that many people since then have consciously and unconsciously allowed the music of other races and cultures to influence their compositions. I’m not attempting to take away from their accomplishments or the beauty of their creations. I revel in them. But we should acknowledge that in the context of classical music, these people are usually white. While some may know other musical languages and their native ones, others treat aspects of those languages as exotic elements rather than with a more matter of fact familiarity. Some might point out the success of one or another non-white composer, but the dearth makes them outliers and exotic.