'Woke': American slang for being aware of social injustice, a perfectly legitimate need, always present in any society. But where morally-driven action flips into the clinical insane, it turns into the opposite of its original intentions.
Over the last years the musical world has been confronted by pressures from society to be involved in its reforms, instead of ‘keeping windows and doors shut to the reality outside’. These pressures are mainly directed towards the symphony orchestras, because of their prominent visibility and expensive upkeep, and their seeming role of being a ‘cultural identity tool’ of the well-to-do bourgeoisie, the social class which is supposed to happily escape the setbacks that groups lower on the economic ladder have to suffer. Somehow this is seen as ‘unfair’ and ‘elitist’, and the orchestra is suspected of having to thank its ‘privilege’ over the backs of the downtrodden, and offering nothing more than decadent chique entertainment for the powers that rule. In short: a useless luxury which is immoral in difficult times while so many people have so many serious problems to worry about. This is the fallacy of zero-sum thinking, ‘your happiness has only been possible because of my misery’.
The tendency of many orchestras in the Western world to try to make themselves ‘useful’ to society, by way of atonement, to become instruments of social change, is one of the results from the decreasing status of classical music as a whole, and especially of the expensive medium that the symphony orchestra is. Justification of the costs has now to be found in some form of utility that lies outside music because music as such becomes ‘much too difficult’ to see as something socially relevant. In a time when the notion of culture, and of psychological and spiritual themes, is eroding, only the material and the financial aspects of life appear to be visible, and especially social injustices because they are understandable by most people on the most basic level.
So, in an attempt to survive in an environment that seems to increasingly become hostile, where classical music is seen by large groups as 'white suprematist', 'elitist', 'inaccessible', 'outdated', 'irrelevant to the modern world', a number of people at symphony orchestras think it necessary to turn away from the idea that classical music is something worthwhile in itself and accessible to anyone. Unfortunately, subjecting the art form to strategies that look like social engineering, fails to produce the wished results and merely adds to the feeling that this medium is hopelessly disconnected from the world ‘as it really is’. Why is the orchestra so powerless to effectively intervene in society’s ills? Because the symphony orchestra simply is not the right instrument to produce social change in a direct way.
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.
More serious, because of being even more nonsensical, is the tendency to ‘decolonize classical music’, i.e. to look at the repertoire, its concert practice, and its educational structures in academia as representing the art form as a product of a colonizing society and therefore tinted by association, and its status as a whole being based upon grave injustice elsewhere – the fallacy of zero-sum thinking again. The ‘argument’ mostly goes as follows: ‘19th-century musical works are the products of an imperial, colonizing society; therefore, the existing repertoire with its canon has to be decolonized’. With ‘decolonizing’ is meant: replace existing repertoire by music by unfairly suppressed composers belonging to an ethnic minority or who were women, and making sure that orchestras, opera houses, and any musical institution including conservatories and music faculties at universities contain a quotum of ‘minority people’, preferably of black ethnicity. It goes without saying that discrimination of any kind is something to be fought against in the whole of society, but that has nothing to do with classical music as such, so the idea that classical music is representing an immoral view of society is insane. And as for the repertoire: that the composers of the existing repertoire had not the slightest responsibility for the society they were born into, or for its national policies, is a simple fact that is happily overlooked. And the only composer who had strong political views: Richard Wagner, saw his political ideas entirely ignored by his patron King Ludwig and by Chanceler Bismarck, both of whom he tried in vain to interest in his ideas on nationhood and the ‘danger of Jewry’.
It is regrettable, to put it politely, that the focus of social resentment and revenge is so often directed towards the medium which is seen as representing classical music as a symbol of society: the symphony orchestra. The idea that an orchestra is not, or less, relevant to society if it is not directly connected to the needs of social change, is entirely wrong. Classical music is not an utility instrument, it is an art form which has no other ‘use‘ than being itself, and as such it is very usefull and effective to enhance the listeners‘ inner life. In a world where so much is measured for its utility, it is the arts who offer an island where the value of a psychological and spiritual experience can be found in itself, as itself, and not in relation to some ulterior motive.
However, the influence of classical music on the development of the inner life does have effects ‘in real life’ but indirectly, because of contributing to people’s development as a personality. When there is more awareness of what happens in the interior realm, people may come to think differently, to evaluate differently, to act differently, and to react differently to stimuli coming from the outside world; the influence of classical music is psychological and will only have an effect on the interior life over a certain stretch of time, through regular exposure and accumulating experience. This means that symphony orchestras should simply stop engaging in social justice community projects which aim at fighting social ills, and replace them by educational projects about classical music itself, if possible in the context of local education on every level, accompanied with information and explications which point towards the nature of interiority of the music and the nature of the human psyche which needs this cultivation of interior experience.
(From: 'Saving the Muse; regaining the relevance of classical music in a troubled world' - JB); to be published later in the year or in 2023)