No More Mozart? Classical Music V. Cancel Culture

The University of Oxford is planning to change its curriculum to focus on fewer white composers and more non-European music. But does it really make sense to bury Beethoven and Brahms?

Mozart statue in Salzburg, Austria
Mozart statue in Salzburg, Austria
Manuel Brug

Fine, we'll admit it: Mozart was a pig!

It's a fact, for example, that Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart (1756-1791), better known as Wolfgang Amadeus, enjoyed scatological humor, which came through especially strongly in the 10 surviving letters to his cousin Maria Anna Thekla Mozart, known as Bäsle, meaning "little cousin."

Some see his turns of phrase are examples of an uninhibited, creative use of the German language. But for others, they are signs of a pressure-cooker childhood and intense narcissism, or even coprographia, a kind of written expression of Tourette's syndrome.

Mozart, who was born in Salzburg and died, at just 35, in Vienna, was physically unattractive, short, blunt, silly. He cheated on his "dear wife" Constanze (as she likely did on him), had a penchant for gambling and drinking, was always in debt and yet still lived extravagantly, sponging off his relatives.

It's also the case that in his opera Abduction from the Seraglio, he tapped into the zeitgeist for insulting the Turks (who had laid siege to Vienna 99 years before). Even worse, in The Magic Flute, still the most popular opera in Germany, he created a malicious "Moor" serving the evil Queen of the Night who sings, "And I must shun love because a black man is ugly."

In new, politically correct productions, even in Salzburg, the line is changed to "because a servant is ugly," although Monostatos, as a person of color, is clearly expressing anger at a prevailing opinion at the time, which holds sway even in a fairy tale world. Is it possible that the creatives of 1791 were actually more enlightened than today's Twitter warriors?


"Black notes on white paper? Should we change it to white notes on black paper?" — Photo:​ Marius Masalar

Cancel culture is spreading across academia like a wildfire, being touted as a way of protecting supposedly disadvantaged groups. And now, Mozart and Haydn, perhaps even the whole western canon of classical music, are set to be banned as well, relegated to the scrap heap.

Okay, so maybe it's not quite as bad as that. But as the Sunday Telegraph reports, even professors at the renowned University of Oxford are reducing the number of classical composers that students will study, to make space for other forms of music, especially non-western and non-white composers. That means: Duke Ellington instead of Mozart, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor instead of Brahms, Tan Dun instead of Beethoven, and Unsuk Chin instead of Ethel Smith.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Western classical music is one of the few art forms that spread across the world without any link to oppression or slavery. It has been embraced by many cultures that have completely different musical notation systems and understandings of harmony.

Western classical music is one of the few art forms that spread across the world without any link to oppression or slavery.

That means something: For us overprivileged Europeans, Arab, African and Asian music (with the exception of the globally consumed K-Pop) is difficult to listen to. Korea is perhaps the country in the world where western classical music is most popular, where young people flock to concerts, pianists are treated like popstars and even old white men like Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner are held up as heroes.

Japan also has a long tradition of devotion to western music, going back over 100 years. It is the country with the highest fees and ticket prices in the world for concerts by orchestras from Berlin and Vienna. There are also hundreds of Japanese symphony orchestras, instrumentalists, singers and opera houses, with repertoires that all focus almost exclusively on western classical music.

In China, hundreds of millions of ambitious parents send their children to piano lessons because of the instrument's social prestige. They dream of a career like that of Lang Lang — despite Mao's cultural revolution. And in Latin America and South America, where Spanish and Portuguese monks forced people to convert to Christianity, local composers emerged who embraced the Baroque style.

Now the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for cuts to the syllabus in the name of diversity have reached university music departments. The utterly absurd justification is that western musical notation is: a colonial system of representation.

What? How? Black notes on white paper? Should we change it to white notes on black paper, so it seems more balanced? And is it discriminatory that a whole note has a white note head, whereas quarter notes have black note heads, so four "black notes' make up one "white note"? Shame on the creator of musical notation, the medieval Catholic monk Guido of Arezzo.

In the name of equality and justice, should we reintroduce early modern notation systems from China, Japan and India, countries that have long since adopted the western system? Perhaps France should also stop using roman numerals to differentiate its kings and replace them with Arabic numbers.

You could offer a foolish counterargument to these convoluted accusations of "white supremacy" that have worked their way into the music syllabus, even at that foundation level, by citing the idiotic theory that Ludwig van Beethoven was possibly black, given his Dutch heritage, with ancestors lost somewhere in the colonial past. But a more rational response would be: What should be on the new curriculum, which supposedly had too many works by white European composers from the era of slavery? Should the well-traveled, learned Mozart be blamed for the era in which he lived? As a Freemason, he also belonged to a mistrusted minority.

Should the well-traveled, learned Mozart be blamed for the era in which he lived?

Of course they can teach more than hip hop and jazz, but are academics really planning to replace Verdi with Snoop Dogg and Tchaikovsky with Miles Davis? Surely the basics must first be established before students can push the boundaries. Where are all of the composers of color, or female composers, to replace these old, white men? Which prodigies will be rescued from the dusty archives, simply because they fulfill today's politically correct criteria?

You could hold seminars about how for centuries female and non-European composers were ignored and had little chance of breaking into the classical canon. But it isn't always possible to correct the mistakes of the past in this way, and searching for lost scores from unrecognized geniuses with the right skin color won't bring them out of the woodwork.

In America, institutions are desperate to give grants and commissions to women and people of color, but that doesn't automatically improve the quality of results. And the Metropolitan Opera, which has been closed for more than a year and urgently needs to sell tickets, may well find limited success in opening its season this autumn with Terence Blanchard's Fire Shut Up In My Bones, the first time in its 136-year history that it has put on an opera by a largely unknown black composer.

So is music that "hasn't shaken off its links with the colonial past" really a "slap in the face" for some students who feel confronted by the white hegemony, as the Sunday Telegraph claims?

A university spokesperson speaking on Classic FM seemed to play this down, saying professors will "still teach critical analysis and the history of western classical music, and have no plans to reduce the curriculum." At the same time, the University of Oxford is making an effort to "allow students to study a wider range of non-western cultures and popular music than before." So perhaps a little harmony.

For a little clarity, it's worth listening to what one of Britain's youngest classical musicians, the black cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, has to say on the subject. Keep in mind that Kanneh-Mason's whole family is dedicated to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and that he was chosen to play in front of two billion TV viewers at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

"Classical music is not racist," he said.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!