Thursday, 2 September 2021

The white suprematism of classical music

 The discussion in the USA about racism has spoiled into the world of classical music as well, with accusations of racism being deeply embedded in its repertoire and in its academic surrounding structures, where a ‘canon’ of superiority is upheld, excluding works by non-white composers. In short: classical music is a symbol of ‘white suprematism’.

It goes without saying that it is a good idea to look for underestimated or ignored music – underestimated or ignored unfairly for whatever reasons - to bring variety and novelty to programming. But the reason that there is no single non-white pre-20C composer of the level of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler etc. is not because non-white composers were suppressed, or were ‘genetically’ less gifted, but because the mentioned composers who hold a central place in the repertoire were one-off geniusses in a period and area where white people were in an overwhelming majority. Statistically it is for that reason entirely natural that these composers were white, and this aspect has nothing to do with racism.

If there has been a non-white composer of genius level whose works have been suppressed, it is the task of musicology to do historical research, but the chances that such a composer will be found are minimal, because non-white composers were in an absolute minority – and probably for unfair reasons. This does not mean that the handful of composing geniusses whose works survived the times, were the product of racist privilege, their ‘whiteness’ simply represented social conditions which were not of their making.


A short word about ‘the canon’ – which is the term for the centrality of a number of works which have stood the test of time and are generally considered superb, setting standards of excellence, and always good for drawing audiences. But there is no need for having a ‘canon’ at all, because the term implies something fixed, no longer accessible for critique, it is presented as an orthodoxy protecting a fixed number of master works; hence the popularity of the concept in academia where fixed values form a stable and reliable basis for the curricula. And that is something entirely against the nature of the works themselves – they don’t need a ‘canonical structure’ around them, they don't need 'protection' by an orthodoxy, and their value should always be open to examination and critique. If they are strong enough in an artistic sense, the outcome will always be that they rightly form the heart of the classical repertoire. So, best is to do away entirely with the term and concept of ‘canon’ and to let the works be themselves: always new, always fresh, and endurable manifestations of the best of the human spirit.


(From: 'Postcorona Music; Classical Music after the Pandemic')



  1. If this is an excerpt from a forthcoming book when will it get published? I might often have very different opinions and convictions than you about music and other things but if you've got another book coming out I'm interested. Better lively and potentially productive disagreement than no discussion at all where classical music goes, I say.

    1. The new book will be published somewhere next year. More information will follow on the website in due course.

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