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?
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.