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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper

RRM – RACISM IN ROMANTIC MUSIC (Part 1 of 4)

Updated: Jun 29, 2023



Dear Constant Reader, I’ve been absent from this blog for a while, partly because I needed to recharge, partly because I’m currently writing a book-length biography of the extraordinary Margaret Bonds, partly because I’ve been working on some new editions. Mostly, though, my absence resulted from the proofs for the second edition of my Historical Dictionary of Romantic Music, which is currently slated to appear with Rowman & Littlefield this fall. That book’s title is abbreviated “HDRM” – and I am happy to report that it will be the first book-length survey of Romantic music (dictionary-format or no) to include entries on topics that were ubiquitous, central, or even essential to “Romantic music,”[1] but that receive only passing treatment or none at all in dictionaries and surveys of Romantic music.


RACISM is one of those topics (I call this post “RRM” because the book is HDRM). It is a long-ish entry (though still not long enough), so I’m breaking it here into four installments. The first consists of an introduction and an explanation of what I call the first “linchpin” of RRM, which concerns the ideological influence of racism on the cultures of music during the long nineteenth century – i.e., the fact that the historians, performers, and theorists who populated those musical worlds were overwhelmingly racist, and that because of music’s function as an expression of intellectual culture their racist worldviews inevitably influenced the music they made, the ideas they cultivated, the ideas their students learned and then taught to their own students.


Not everyone will agree with what I say here, and indeed, how could I possibly get it all right, having been taught my entire life to think long and hard about everything but racism in music, to try to understand everything but that? But I write these words based on a half-century of observation, research, and practice, and I speak here with conviction as a person of good will. I can tolerate the idea that what’s in this entry might (if anybody reads it!) spur further, and better, conversation. But while I would not be the first to ignore the foundational role of racism in Romantic music (RRM!), I am determined not to be the next – that I could not tolerate. So I hope you’ll read these words thoughtfully, and with a forgiving eye.


Enough of all that. Here’s the first portion of the RRM entry:


RACISM. Most generally, “the belief that humans may be divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called ‘races’; that there is a causal link between inherited physical traits and traits of personality, intellect, morality, and other cultural and behavioral features; and that some races are innately superior to others” (Britannica Online, s.v. “Racism”). Because it is impossible to support racist ideologies and practices without supporting racism and racists, racism must be understood not only as prejudice of the sort just described, but as any action or characteristic of social systems that has the effect of supporting race privilege. This system of race privilege is a central, pervasive, and defining feature of music and musical life of the long 19th century. It is foundational to the aesthetics, music theory, historiography, canon formation, printing and publishing, and sociology of Romantic music as well as to the historical determinations as to which authors, composers, and works would be archivally preserved and which lost or otherwise silenced. It is a topic typically excluded from dictionaries such as this one, but its centrality and pervasiveness to Romantic music make that omission unconscionable: racism is at least as much a defining feature of Romantic music as form and harmony are, and its influence is exponentially greater than that even of canonically accepted composers such as Beethoven or canonical concepts such as nationalism and exoticism. To omit it here would be a greater wrong than to omit these commonplace entries and, worse, to perpetuate its influence by denying that influence.


Like anti-Semitism and sexism and misogyny, racism may be broadly understood as a conflict between ingroups and outgroups, specifically one in which the dominant (in-group) race works to retain its place atop the racial hierarchy through the subjugation of out-groups; in this sense racism has much in common with nationalism’s affirmation of the perceived self and exoticism’s reduction of perceived others to stereotypes and caricatures. Racism inevitably assumes many forms and constantly evolves because race is a social construct rather than a biological attribute. In connection with the music and musical life of the long 19th century, the dominant group generally comprises White Europeans and North Americans, while the out-groups are usually Black and Brown communities of musicians who participated in and contributed vitally to the world of Romantic music, but whom Whites in myriad ways construe as subordinate Others in order to justify and preserve White race privilege.


Four linchpins have historically secured the role of racism in Classical music. The first is the fact that the music-theoretical and music-historical premises entailed in the formal education of Classical musicians are based on aesthetic premises, hierarchical values, and notions of historical change that were developed by late-Enlightenment thinkers who held that peoples of color were inferior to, and therefore justifiably subjugated by, White ones. Subscribing to views of music as a sonorous analog of the hierarchies of the same “natural order” that had created an orderly universe and a social order in which racial hierarchies had existed for centuries, these historians and theorists created structures of ideas that privileged White Euro-American music and ideas while ignoring, dismissing, or disparaging other musics and ideas. In music theory, these hierarchies play out partly in the prioritizing of pitch, tonal structure, and large forms, and long-range tonal planning that became increasingly important to White musical thought over the course of the long 19th century, as well as in the concomitant dismissal or disparagement of practices that concentrate on elements other than pitch (such as rhythm or timbre, or text and social function). They are also manifest in the correlative predisposition to (mis)construe the music and musical lives of non-White folk as concentrating on parameters other than pitch while ignoring or dismissing the pitch-related element of those musics as “primitive,” “simple,” or “inferior” (an inference that derived from theorists’ a priori opinion that the peoples represented by these musics were primitive, simple, or inferior): racist theory perpetuated racist society and vice versa. The music theorist whose ideas were most influential in the formation and propagation of what Philip Ewell has termed “the White racial frame” of Western music theory,[2] Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), as well as later theorists including Adolf Bernhard Marx, Jérôme-Joseph de Momigny, Antoine Reicha, Heinrich Schenker, and numerous others who viewed the world of music through this racist lens developed elaborate structures of ideas that were taught, studied, and further passed on by countless other musicians. Sometimes these racist stances were disseminated in erudite published treatises and articles that demonstrated no awareness of the existence of composers of color or their music. Sometimes they were imparted through formal teaching buttressed by the institutional authority imparted to professors of music theory. Sometimes they were explained in articles in popular musical journals such as the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung and Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. And sometimes they spread through less formal, private instruction or other means. Always they either erased or explicitly dismissed as inferior the musics and musical cultures of non-White folk.


A similar situation held true in specialized scholarly articles on music history and general histories of music. Three examples of this pattern may be cited: (1) most White music historians ignored James M. Trotter’s Music and Some Highly Musical People and found Antonín Dvořák’s declaration that “the future music of [the U.S.] must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies” either naïve or preposterous ; (2) as of the second decade of the 21st century most music-history articles, books, or texts still do little more (and often less) than tokenize composers of color and their music; and (3) the first edition of this Dictionary, despite its inclusion of many women musicians and composers of color from Latin America usually omitted from music lexica, unwittingly followed racist precedent by including far too few Black musicians and works. These are but three examples out of many that illustrate how music historians, music critics, and music historiography go hand in hand with the music-theoretical enactments and perpetuations of the White racial frame in classical music. Whether they were surveying the history of Western music (e.g., A.W. Ambros, Franz Brendel, A.F.J. Thibaut), contributing to the historicist movement and its branches (e.g., J. N. Forkel or Giuseppe Baini [(1775–1844]), or critically engaging with contemporary music and musicians (e.g., Castil Blase, Hans von Bülow, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner), the predominantly White authors who introduced general audiences and practicing musicians alike to Romantic music portrayed that world as exclusively White or very nearly so (in the latter instance characterizing non-White music and musicians as “simple” or “primitive”). Although the second half of the 20th century witnessed the creation of important journals such as Black Music Research Journal and The Black Perspective in Music and important scholarly volumes – most notably Samuel Floyd’s The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), Eileen Southern’s The Music of Black Americans (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971; 3rd ed., 1997) and Helen Walker-Hill’s From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music (Greenwood, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), the bulk of music historiography continues to prioritize Black vernacular music over Black concert music. Consequently, music historiography often fails to challenge racist depictions of Black folk as having contributed little to the worlds of Romantic music, subordinates the contributions of Classical musicians such as Harry T. Burleigh, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, R. Nathaniel Dett, Roland Hayes, and Florence B. Price to those of artists in Black vernacular musics, and downplays the significance of Black civic and cultural institutions and organizations (most notably the National Association of Negro Musicians, which was founded in 1919 in part to provide national support and recognition of Black musicians whom the White-dominated Classical world ignored or dismissed).


Here's a link to the second linchpin – the role of music publishers in marginalizing and silencing non-White voices.


[1] “Romantic music” is a huge topic. For purposes of this particular book, I define “Romantic music” as “music of the ‘long nineteenth century,’ from the outbreak of the French Revolution to the outbreak of World War I." Biographical entries in the book are limited to musicians and music-related individuals born who were professionally active during that period, born between 1770 and 1890.” [2]Philip Ewell, “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame” Music Theory Online: A Journal of the Society for Music Theory 26, no. 2 (September, 2020) https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.20.26.2/mto.20.26.2.ewell.html.

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