The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Are individuals and groups that perform classical music in the U.S., Wisconsin and Madison racist? If not, why don’t we hear more music from African-American, Hispanic and Asian composers?

August 18, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Is classical music in Madison — and in Wisconsin and the U.S. — racist?

Most of the classical musicians I know, and most of the performing and visual artists for that matter, take pride in being politically progressive and liberal in their political leanings and social sympathies.

Wisconsin Capitol

And yet.

And yet, I have to ask the difficult question: If that is true, why are we not hearing more music from “minority” composers who are African American, Hispanic and Latino, American Indian and Asian — but especially African American composers since the other kinds of music they have written, from spirituals and blues to jazz, seem to have inspired so much mainstream classical music, both American and European.

Could it be — at least when it comes to classical music — that this famously liberal city is not really as progressive as we hope or claim, that we are not as culturally tolerant and ethnically diverse as we think we are? Is that why I can’t recall a single live performance of a long or short work by William Grant Still (below)?

William Grant Still

Curiously, it was a famous and popular Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak (below), who is recognized for acknowledging black and American Indian music in his Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.”


It is a difficult and embarrassing question to ask and issue to bring up. And I include myself, since my own collection of classical CDs, as I recently discovered, contains almost no music by African Americans.

In “Artists in Exile,” the extremely insightful cultural historian Joseph Horowitz (below) has written about and documented the bias and shows how the American classical music scene has always been Eurocentric and biased toward the Germanic school – Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms for a start.

joseph horowitz

I would add that American musicians also seem biased toward Anglo-American composers. Even Italian composers are generally mainstream repertoire except when it comes to some baroque music and especially to opera, but not much else. And Spanish music seems to come into favor only whenever there is an outstanding Spanish performers – as happened with Isaac Albeniz and Enrique Granados in the hands of the late pianist Alicia de Larrocha.

Anyway, the issue of classical music and racism came to mind recently when I read a wonderful post on NPR’s outstanding blog “Deceptive Cadence.” Jeffrey Mumford (below), an African American composer, spoke about the situation in an NPR interview. He rightly questioned why more Americans don’t know and hear works, especially symphonies, by African American and black composers performed.

Jeffrey Mumford

Mumford specifically cited works by George Walker (below top), who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 and whose early “Lyric Suite” for string orchestra can be heard at the bottom in a YouTube video; and the “The Black Mozart,” Joseph Boulogne, also known as the Chevalier De Saint-Georges (below bottom), whose violin virtuosity and compositions were admired by Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven:


Joseph de Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint Georges

So I find myself asking: Does that same criticism apply to liberal Madison and its performing arts scene?

After all, I have a hard time recalling when groups that I love and attend frequently -– such as the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, various UW-Madison groups, large and small, and other ensembles — have indeed performed African American musicians and put them before the general public with a high profile. 

Could that be why more African Americans don’t subscribe to or attend their concerts?

Here is a link to the thought-provoking essay from the NPR blog, which also has terrific sound snippets:

Maybe I am mistaken in my musings and in my embarrassment at Madison sharing a form of artistic racism.

I look forward to reading the reactions, opinions and facts that I hope to get from other readers.

The Ear wants to hear.

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