The Symphonic Juncture

A [Symphonist]: "The one who is not afraid to raise the primal force."

- Boris Asafiev (1917)

Response: "Master Pieces," Alex Ross (The New Yorker)

This is a response to Alex Ross's article entitled, "Master Pieces," featured in the September 21st Issue of The New Yorker. The link is here for online reading.

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“If I were a racist, I would insist that children learn western music notation,is a sentiment shared by many of the Democratic proclivity who have deemed Western music culture and its theoretical language as inherently flawed and an unfortunate product of centuries of prejudicial treatment towards those judged inferior by the superior party of their respective, extinct epoch. Books, articles, blog-posts, poems, and videos all point to the supposed racist underpinnings of classical music, using figures such as Beethoven, Wagner, Bach, and Handel as case examples as to why exactly Western music should be scrapped and purged of all its odious contents and contributors. However, while disgraceful characteristics are indeed attributable to many, if not all, of the classical great’s of the 17th to 19th century, what I find erroneous is the assumption that their entire public image must be subsequently reviled and devalued, and those in favor of such individuals seen as promoting systems of ‘oppression’ solely based on their love for a composer’s music, regardless of who the listener may be or what they believe. Views such as, “With Beethoven’s nine symphonies at the core of the orchestral repertoire, what about a bold commissioning project,” and, “Beethoven’s [5th] symphony is predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism” only legitimize revisionist, Futurist notions that even now, in 2020, classical music is profiting off racism and the only rational way forward is to simply emancipate the entire genre from its past, thereby allowing modern day composers to flourish. This suggests that, by extension, concert halls, musicians, opera houses, and patrons who perform, put on, or attend performances of ‘bourgeois’ composers are outright advancing, embracing, and approving of both canon and already well-known composer’s ostensible musical eliteness, and in the process depreciating modern-day Beethoven's and Mozart's right to the same musical space/concert hall. One does not suggest the other, as one can find Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony a symbol of man’s final moment of light before the final dawn and simultaneously love Florence Price’s Symphony No.1. The growing necessity to rationalize one’s adoration for certain composers lest be deemed societally heretical, admit ‘sin’ for not loving or recognizing other lesser-known composers for fear of professionally persecution, and public admittance of fictitious, implicit biases based on natural skin-colour to avoid being labelled ‘racist’ is not only stifling, but it leaves little room for authentic interest in historically ignored composers to blossom.


As a classical music listener, I feel less inclined to turn on the music of George Bridgetower, Florence Price, and Joseph Bologne if I am being browbeaten by others on why listening to Handel, Bach, or Beethoven is somehow furthering a conspiratorial agenda to keep Mozart’s minority-equivalent in the shadow’s of their European counterpart. Alternatives to classical music’s standard compositional canon can be situated abreast to established names, and one does not need to sacrifice Beethoven for Chevalier de Meude-Monpas, rather one would be wise to enrich themselves to the breadth of talent in epoch’s seemingly already understood. Unfortunately, radicals within every tier of societal life are being given platforms on which to spout their ‘I am more unprejudicial than you’ blather and ergo, the rise of opinion pieces like ‘Master Pieces’ by Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, since 1996 mind you, are being generated which revise history just enough as to make generalizations palatable, while bolstering their bias statements with quotations from activist scholars and making questionable historical readings along the way. Twitchy Team got it quite right when they quoted an ABC News headline as a satirical example of classical music gatekeeping, “The outdoors is [are] systemically racist: ABC News reports national parks ‘face existential crisis over race,’ are stubbornly white.”


This article, in full seriousness, equates park attendance with racism stating, “77% of national park visitors are white” and apparently this is a sign of racism, that too many non-white people are not attending parks and recreational environments as opposed to their white counterparts. One Twitter uses got it quite right, When someone's basic complaint is "Everything here is Racist” what they really observe is "Everything feels WHITE." There is a strong case to be made that this is what is currently ensuing on the year of the 250th Anniversary of Beethoven’s legacy, the attempted purge of white figures, both in music and in society, in history and in contemporary culture, in Academia and in social circles. To be white in America is to be born of the wrong skin colour and to be white is to be racist, even if you haven’t done anything. You are responsible for all historical faults of both your ancestors and non-ancestors, and you must admit to a fault you have not actually committed. But white no longer just means white, and Alex Ross points to ‘scholarship’ done by Nell Irvin Painter that highlights “the expansion of the category of “whiteness” to encompass new groups,” thus affectively labeling wealthy, non-whites ‘white.’ First it was the affluent 19th century immigrated Germans and now anyone with money and influence are currently susceptible to the label of ‘white,’ which is synonymous with ‘bourgeois,’ and thus means bad. Sound familiar? It should, Stalin made the same argument in the 1940s, Lenin before him, and Trotsky before him. To be white is to be a symbol of an outdated societal infrastructure which has unconsciously smiled upon you with favor, even though many composers like Malcolm Arnold and Erich Korngold, white AND men, have been seemingly ignored despite having ostensibly societally favored physical features. The “gratuitously excessive celebration” of Beethoven’s 250th is a poignant sign that you may slander Beethoven all you want, but it still doesn’t make you cool or more accepted in circles you wish to enter.


But what is in “Master Pieces” that’s so revisionary? I’m glad you asked. For starters, he apparently has a personal vendetta against Heinrich Schenker, notable music theorist and creator of the methodology of Schenkerian analysis. He states that Schenker was a Hitler supporter and concurrently provides a quote without any actual set-up to the quoted text. This quote, in its entirety, is based around music’s relationship with the masses and its inability to be adequately grasped by the people. The section quoted by Ross is preceded by, “Hitler’s historical service, of having got rid of Marxism, is something that posterity will celebrate with no less gratitude than the great deeds of the greatest Germans!” He is not praising Hitler’s killing of Jews, he is praising Hitler for the way he managed to take power back from the people and bestow it to an elite section, an odd and just as damning opinion on the part of Schenker. But the point is that it in no way means he 'supported' Hitler in the conventional sense. John Halle, a current Music Theory Professor at Bard College Conservatory, completely refutes quite opinionated Phillip Ewell’s assertion that Schenker is music theories Beethoven, “This, I should say, has not been my experience of nearly thirty years teaching undergraduate music theory where Schenker has assumed little to no role…” Alex Ross then goes on to summarize the main attributes of Ewell’s blog post about the apparent average nature of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. What is humorous to me is that he states that even Debussy and Ned Rorem found faults with the symphony, as these two composer’s and their opinions at all matter. I say this after listening to Rorem’s Symphony No. 3 which, according to Boris Asafiev’s principle of symphonism, is neither ‘a continuous violation of balance’ or music which, ‘is not afraid to raise the primal force..” or even has the “necessity to continuously move forward.”


Symphonism, although esoterically defined in Elina Viljanen’s lengthy book “The Problem of the Modern and the Tradition,” can be described as the sonic manifestations of the tumultuous state of life’s constant development, “...a capturing of life in its flux.” It is important to note as well a quote by Asafiev which holds a great deal of significance, “...not all symphonies are symphonic, and not all the symphonic forms include symphonism,” because this statement alone makes Rorem’s opinion on one of the most important symphonies of the classical genre absolutely inconsequential. Impressionism was also defined by Asafiev in similarly critical terms, “Impression was a response to the academicism and to the Wagner[ian] forms of emotion.” He goes on further to define the style as a, “stagnated way of contemplation of the world,” and it is musically audible that Impressionism does not generate any evolutionary momentum. Rather, it saturates itself with itself, swimming around in its own phenomenality, neither attempting to harness the power of the past, nor involve itself in the generation of momentum for the continuation of the musical field. Thus, Debussy’s opinion that Beethoven’s Ninth symphony is badly written for the piano is funny considering Debussy’s only opera, Pelléas and Mélisande, is rarely performed, completely harmonically stagnate, and doesn’t contain any notable melodies or music of any kind. Ross then goes on to describe pop music as being born from black-face, W.E.B. Du Bois as a German Nazi sympathizer, Handel a slave apologist, and the selection of minority composers currently played as, “largely within the boundaries of the Western European tradition.”


He goes so far as to say that the reason for low black attendance at classical music concerts can be derived due to the fault of white elitism, except that the last time I checked, black people are still people and have the ability to attend whatever they want on their own volition. Many urban classical concerts and programs are now free or low-cost, and many respective venues strive to be integrated into their surrounding communities as much as possible, case in point Detroit Opera House and their diverse, educational programs. It’s not that black people are being barred from attending concerts of various natures, it is that black culture has not had classical music built into the societal fabric as integrally as other demographical variations. Therefore, a disparity does currently exist, but initiatives are being run to help and make classical music as accessible as possible for all demographics of people. Going on, in true activist fashion, he chides Western music education for its ‘Schenkerian assumption’ that Western tonality is the true beginning of music literacy. What I would love critics of Western tonality to tell me is how a beginner music student is supposed to learn music without Western music notation and a clear understanding of the basic, major-minor tonal system? I have yet to read or become knowledgeable in any solid methodology that could reasonably replace Western music theory, OH WAIT it doesn’t exist in any ubiquitous format. Alex Ross finishes his article with the assertion that, “there is no need to reach a final verdict,” but any clear minded individual would tell that he clearly has one, uncompromising position on Beethoven and his white ‘comrades,’ again going so far as to say, “The ultimate mistake is to look to music...as a zone of moral improvement…” What is not specified is if sacred music is conglomerated into the folds of this faulty belief, that music has no potential for the betterment of man’s moralistic state of being, that in fact music is simply sound that we treasure to varying degree’s.


Quoting Asafiev again, “Requiem of Mozart, Missa Solemnis of Beethove and cantatas of Bach are not understood because of their general expressiveness, but because they are works of strong individual that are subordinated to everyone whose soul is attuned to the appeals of their religious thought and perhaps just their impact of talent regardless of religion.” Asafiev understood Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart’s defining feature to be the universality of their musical voice and their ability to teach the soul how to escape the bond of its corporal existence and enter into the dynamic beyond which requires no identifying features or mortal identification. If you have disagreed with everything previously stated, then fine, let that be as it is. But what I hope you leave with is the understanding that music doesn’t belong to a skin colour, race, denomination, or one physical body or group of bodies. It is simply a choice arrangement of sounds, frequencies, notes, and rests which have been merged together and subsequently performed, either in a group or another different organizational model for an audience of some kind. Classical music is not ‘white music,’ jazz is not ‘black music,’ and if this dichotomy doesn’t adjourn, then the future of classical music will continue to be plagued with these petty, often online, arguments of ‘he’s racist,’ ‘no, she's racist,’ and so on ad infinitum.


Amy Beach chose to stay home and raise her children, Robert and Clara Schumann were proven to be anti-Semitic, Charles Ives was supposedly homophobic, and I still love Wagner. That won’t change and neither should your choices of who you love to listen to just because someone says you need to conform to a certain ideology. Screw the mob, do your own thing!

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