Racism and Antiracism in Music Theory and Higher Education: Professor Philip Ewell Speaks Out

Professor Philip Ewell (GC/Hunter, Music)

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

A speech by Professor Philip Ewell (GC/Hunter, Music) about racism in music theory has sparked a controversy so fractious that it’s generated media coverage ranging from Fox News and the Dallas Observer to Inside Higher EdNPR and the National Review

The controversy is rooted in the legacy of Heinrich Schenker, whose techniques for analyzing classical music are widely taught. But Schenker, who died in Vienna in 1935, was also an outspoken white supremacist and German nationalist. Ewell says Schenker’s views on music cannot be separated from his views on race, and that the study of Schenkerian theory has helped “legitimize harmful stereotypes about Blacks and other people of color.”

At the same time, Ewell, who is African American, is calling on his field to dismantle its “white racial frame.” Of the Society for Music Theory’s 1,173 members, just 1% are Black. “Is this our #MusicTheorySoWhite moment?” Ewell asked in an article in the society’s peer-reviewed journal. “I certainly hope so.” 

Ewell first raised his concerns about Schenker and racism last fall in a presentation at the Society for Music Theory. His speech was met with a standing ovation, but a University of North Texas journal devoted to Schenkerian theory published critiques of the talk that included personal attacks on Ewell, an anonymous essay, and an inflammatory essay by journal co-editor Timothy Jackson, a UNT professor. Ewell says the journal did not invite him to respond to the critiques. UNT is now investigating the journal’s “conception and production.” Others have expressed support for Ewell, including music theorists at Yale, his alma mater.

But Ewell’s original call to action in his field is much bigger than the journal controversy. He’d like to change how music theory is taught (among other things, stop requiring German, expand the canon to include women and nonwhite composers, and “approach music theory from a global perspective”). He also has ideas for how his field and higher ed in general can move toward “antiracism,” to borrow a term from one of Ewell’s favorite authors, Ibram Kendi. We offer highlights from our interview with Ewell below; readers interested in more can access an edited transcript of the interview here

On Schenker’s racist views: 

“When Schenker wrote about music, he also wrote things about culture and politics. That’s where you find all his horrifically racist and sexist writing. Schenker was very clear that these two things should be taken together in a unified world view. He was essentially saying, ‘Please don’t separate my musical ideas from my ideas about people and race and gender etc.’ But in order to promote his ideas in the U.S., that is exactly what white people did. They swept all of the bad stuff under the carpet.”

Three reasons why the controversy over Schenker, who died in 1935, is bubbling up now: 

  1. I was probably the first person in this talk last fall to connect some dots about how we think of race in our field of music theory in the United States and suggest that one of the reasons why the field remains very, very white in terms of the people who have power at the top is because of this legacy.”
  2. “We’re living through this moment in the United States of racial reckoning to a large extent. I’m speaking of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, etc.” 
  3. “Whiteness gets very incensed when it’s challenged directly as such, as whiteness, especially by Blackness. That is part of this picture. It’s very strange that this journal was responding to a 20-minute talk rather than a published article, and to do so and not invite me to be part of the process is very strange. … Inadvertently to be sure, The Journal of Schenkerian Studies did more to damage Heinrich Schenker and Schenkerian theory than I ever have or ever intended.” 

How to preserve what’s good in the life work of individuals with despicable views: 

Don't whitewash the horribleness. Face it head-on.” 

On dismantling “white frames” in higher ed and creating pathways for African Americans:

Look at the past, understand it, take ownership of it, and acknowledge it and offer some reconciliation. For positive action in The Graduate Center or elsewhere, that could include commissions to look at the past, to maybe potentially put out statements that are very well thought-out and, and also looking at what other places are doing that have had more success. … If you do that, people will say, ‘Wow, this is a field that is taking antiracist work seriously. That means that they might very well be welcoming to people of color or other marginalized groups.’” 

Ideas for changing how music theory is taught: 

  1. So we often are forced to learn German in order to do music theory. That's nonsense. You don't need to know German to do music theory.” 
  2. “Approach music from a world perspective, like pitch and rhythm and meter and scale, and offer such concepts from India and China and the Middle East and Africa.”
  3. “When you finally get to discuss what has sometimes been called Western music theory, which, of course, is the European Bach and Beethoven music theory that we started our conversation with … do so from the viewpoint of composers who did not necessarily identify as both white and male.” Such as: Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a Black 18th century composer whose work is compared to Mozart’s; Robert Schumann’s wife Clara Schumann; Felix Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny Mendelssohn; and African American composers Harry Laurence Freeman, William Grant Still, and Florence Price. 
Read a short summary of Professor Ewell's published research on Schenker on CUNY's SUM website

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Submitted on: AUG 17, 2020

Category: Diversity | Faculty Activities | GCstories | General GC News | Music Ph.D. - D.M.A