I have listened to Western classical music as far as I can remember. My mother loves to recount the story of how I always fell asleep to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” when I was a baby. I have played guitar for 16 years and cello for 9, performing in orchestras and taking theory classes. Hell, I’m even a music minor at Duke. Yet, why am I so hesitant to express my unwavering appreciation for the genre? Is it the antiquated and “stuffy” connotations? Or is there something deeper still that leaves me doubtful?
Look at a list of the most well-known classical music composers. Other than the fact that you probably only know a half dozen or so, what do you notice? First, they’re dead. Second, they’re white. Finally, they’re men. Almost the entire canon of pieces performed by symphony orchestras and opera houses was written by male-identifying people from Europe and America.
Of course, the issue of underrepresented minority groups is not only applicable to classical music, as one need only look at pictures of White House interns or your high school English class’s syllabus to see deeply-rooted inequities in representation. But I find classical music’s inequities particularly jarring.
It is hard to write a symphony in the style of 18th-century Europeans. Doing so requires years of harmonic training, theory instruction and instrumental and compositional practice. Access to this training and instruction has, of course, been severely limited throughout the last several centuries in Europe. When Fanny Mendelssohn, the older of the canonized and famous 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn, demonstrated that she was a child prodigy and had perfect pitch, she was not encouraged to publicly compose. She secretly composed smaller pieces, some of which were published by Felix after her death, but it was not until the late 20th century that most of her 467 compositions were revealed. Yet, I did not learn about her music until taking a course with one of the leading experts in Felix (and therefore Fanny) Mendelssohn’s work last fall.
The Mendelssohns were also a rich family of German bankers. They had the resources to educate their children in western classical music. Access to music education continues to stratify and promote the classist tendencies of what music is performed. In a 2017 study by the Education Committee of the States, it was found that 4th graders who qualify for free and reduced lunch are "significantly less likely than their wealthier peers" to play an instrument outside of school. In my own upbringing, I saw the funding for our music classes decrease.
Clearly, there is a lot wrong with Western classical music. The figures it represents are almost always European or American men of means. While it is difficult to retroactively apply conventional standards to historical figures, when diving into who some of those composers were, it is difficult to justify some of their actions. Wagner, of course, is the prime example of a problematic figure, with his anti-semitic and dangerously nationalistic writings. Today, access is predominantly limited to wealthier people, which correlates with the deep racial inequities across the U.S. and beyond. Yet, I do not think Western classical music is “bad” or “reprehensible.” Not at its core.
For me, music has always been an escape. An escape from stress, from mumble rap, you name it. At Duke, I played in the symphony orchestra before the pandemic moved it to a virtual space. In an orchestral setting, there are opportunities for personal expression, teamwork, education and genuine fun. I enjoy nailing a difficult passage in a Brahms symphony, but I miss playing music with my friends. There is an immediacy to the way that musicians can communicate that I have never experienced outside of rehearsals or jam sessions.
As I have become more aware of the systemic inequities woven in the fabric that is Western classical music, I have struggled to reconcile my own enjoyment and positive experiences from the larger issues at play. I certainly do not have a solution for establishing female, LGBTQ+ and BIPOC composers into the “canon.” I do not know how best to expand the benefits of music education, including Western classical and jazz, to more people. What I do know, however, is that I miss playing music for people. I miss live concerts, the ridiculous tuxedos — all of it. Western classical music has ingrained issues, and all we musicians can do is work to promote and advocate for reparations and improvements. I hope more people have the opportunity to fall in love with this art form that has given me so much. All I can do is hope.
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