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.


  1. I won’t try to reason with our friend Treuwa, whose racism and apparent allergy to logic are frankly shocking, and almost comical if s/he didn’t appear serious. I will merely add that the WCO indeed has presented works of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges with Rachel Barton Pine, if I’m not mistaken, and that Steve is entirely on the mark about rental costs.

    I think one reason the MSO can find money for Higdon, Adams, Glass, Harbison, Corigliano, et al but not for Still is because the former composers lie in a sweet spot for programming not shared by Still: they are still alive, making their inclusion “justifiable” as an educational mission to introduce audiences to the work of living composers, and they are popular, meaning they will still sell tickets despite sounding “modern” (absolutely tautological, in that if we programmed Still he’d be popular in no time flat, but unavoidable to mention).

    Notice also that the MSO usually does short works by these composers, or works with a special tie-in (On the Transmigration of Souls – one of the least interesting pieces I have ever heard, I think – fits this latter category, while Higdon’s “blue cathedral” or Kernis’ “Too Hot Toccata” are in the former). Harbison is local, and DeMain has worked closely with Adams in the past, including an important premiere (same with Glass, Tippett, and Bernstein). Corigliano does film – the Red Violin – which gives him a programming edge.

    Yes, we absolutely need to hear works by more obscure composers, including black ones. No, I don’t think their exclusion is intentionally racist – the fault of an institution whose tradition is overwhelmingly white, and that clashed with jazz with a degree of discomfort despite absorbing many of its innovations, rather than of individuals within it. And no, I don’t think it will be the province of large institutions to bring about this shift: the MSO (or any other major orchestra) probably cannot afford to put Still’s “Afro-American Symphony” on the second half of a program where it deserves to go because audience members will leave at intermission (as they always do), and the warhorse that typically occupies that spot is needed to sell tickets. Maybe an all-star pianist (of which the MSO already brings in far too many, in my opinion, but they sell tickets) with a really massively popular piece (Tchaik 1, Brahms 2, Grieg, Beethoven Emperor, etc), plus maybe a really well-known Haydn symphony (which absolutely do not belong on the first half of a program, I’d argue, but end up there anyway) or a Strauss tone poem… It could be done, but it would be a large gamble, and in today’s times most orchestras cannot afford even a whiff of uncertainty.

    I don’t think, as Michael suggested, that black classical musicians are deeply masochistic – I don’t see how classical music “stomped on black people as [they] were gasping for life,” though that charge can certainly be leveled against other institutions more successfully. I think rather that this institution we have cultivated is so thoroughly backward-oriented that it has trouble with nearly all new ideas, especially since the 70s or so, and that it appears to outsiders to be elitist and unapproachable. This is one of the chief benefits of school music education, in my view: that it brings people inside the institution at a young age so that they grow up understanding it rather than being put off by the steep threshold of entry that understanding music seems to be so often.

    That got longer than I intended.


    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — September 12, 2013 @ 12:24 am

    • Classical music did not have to stomp directly on black people, the customers in the seats, and possibly the musicians in the “band” did it quite nicely and effectively on their behalf, in their economic and private lives. White privilege has its privileges.


      Comment by Michael BB — September 12, 2013 @ 10:58 am

  2. Treuwa has such a complete point of view, where to begin…
    Let’s begin with the culture. Do you not think it curious that black Americans embraced the religion, culture, and music of their captors. And, yet we think that Patty Hearst was a psycho for espousing the SLA’s point of view once she had been “absorbed.”
    I think it is amazing that ANY black person would want to compose music in ANY European or American style, since the culture that gave rise to this style enslaved them.
    If Mortimer Adler did not believe that any great books had been written by black people, he was looking at things form his usual historical perspective. There has, even now, yet to be enough time for a book written by a black person to have enough time to have stood the test of it to make such a millenium-length list!
    Same for music. Mendelssohn, Bernstein, and Berg, three Jews, if I am not mistaken. What’s up with that…
    You must excuse us politically correct types if we smell a huge whiff of white supremacist odor in your writings.
    Now, all issues of quality aside, THAT attitude will not fly here in the Modern World, which , as you so rightly point out, is a minority Caucasian place.
    The writings of Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, and W.E.B. DuBois, not to mention MLK, are too recent to be judged as Great Books with capital letters. But they are on the road to being so judged, in time. The music of black composers needs the same kind of chance that every new music composer needs, which is to be HEARD. Of course, much new music will not stand the test of time. Much old music did not, either, and yet, classical radio stations keep playing the same old Vivaldi concertos and do not often play James P. Johnson’s Yamekraw, or Joplin rags, a high point in American Music, in my opinion as a player and composer in the same style.
    So, this is the first time I have seen the kind of old-fashioned, white-guy Euro-centric, attitude on a classical music blog. Hey, I like to keep my genres clear. I do not care for music that uses five elements from three different places, and then tries to make it sound abstract and folk-like at the same time. Yet, for every black person trying to do classical music, like Leon Bates, Andre Watts, and Awadagian Pratt, there are lotsa white guys and gals trying to play hand drums in the Ghanian style, or salsa music or reggae, Enough for now,


    Comment by Michael BB — September 7, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

    • Hi MBB,
      Well reasoned and well stated.
      What else can I say?
      I think arguing with him is like trying to argue with anti-evolutionists.
      They change points and move on and have a wrong answer for everything.
      But thank you for trying.
      I an others with an open mind will find what you say convincing.
      But I doubt he will.
      Stil, one can hope.


      Comment by welltemperedear — September 7, 2013 @ 8:26 pm

    • It seems you’ve put forth a variety of incompletely presented theories that sum to a few anti-White and multicultural tautologies. But, what in your presumption that e.g. Frederick Douglass hasn’t had time to be properly adjudicated (a fallacy, by the way, as shown by e.g. the inclusion of Leo Tostoy’s War and Peace) contradicts my basic claim that we don’t need to reform a meritocratic view of classical music to favor affirmative action?

      *If* Scott Joplin is as much a genius as the Red Priest then a culture attuned to quality will likely appreciate him appropriately (something tells me Herr Liszt would not consider him a master). Of course, I can’t help but note that today’s most popular music has a disproportionate (relative to US demographics) number of non-White “musicians” so there doesn’t seem to be any lack of appreciation for music that our ancestors would be appalled at. Yet, you would direct your energies to “correcting” the regard for folks like Wagner among classical enthusiasts rather than lamenting the tin ear of fully multicultured auto-tune fans?

      You can call me whatever you’d like for I am just another soul on the other side of the Internet. But, I ask of you both as well as everyone to think for yourself and not simply follow a PC logic of multiculturalism=good or DWEM=bad. Think harder.


      Comment by Treuwa — September 7, 2013 @ 11:31 pm

      • I did think for myself, and I shared those thoughts. I like Wagner, I like Stevie Wonder, I like Ravel, I like Miles Davis. I have had these tastes for years.
        My point is that a meritocracy is fine when the playing field has been level for a few centuries. As of now, black people in America have yet to get level. In pop music they have a solid footing, because it takes financial resources to get into and finish conservatory training for classical music.
        Besides, there are not very many white kids that want to be composers and opera singers, much less very many black kids.
        I am done with this one, greetings to music fans of any and all persuasions of the other side of the Internet.
        p.s. I did try and limit my sociological jargon, that is an approach you might try, Treuwa, as it makes your case sound more human and less Zarathustrian…


        Comment by Michael BB — September 8, 2013 @ 12:11 am

      • Well, thank you for the conversation. This, too, will be my last comment on the matter.

        It is always interesting to me that complete Black self-responsibility seems to be forever in the future. If I was black, I’d find it very patronizing that folks believe that while the Chinese, Irish, Polish, Jews, Italians, etc have come to America initially as second-class citizens, they have all raised their position far higher than African Americans. In my opinion, the one thing that has been the largest obstacle to Black independence and ultimate dignity has been the “help” of Communists like MLK and DuBois, as well as the fronts SPLC, ACLU, and NAACP.

        Bill Cosby had it right. Blacks should be afraid of shaming their mothers. Read Thomas Sowell for more clues about the disservice corrective reform does for Blacks.

        (Because I’d imagine you’re thinking about the inevitability of “slave guilt” causing the problem, might I point out that White slavery has been very common throughout all of history. From dhimmitude in Spain to the Roman Servi Publici slavery has been the lot at times of most every ethnic group.)

        Just like the truth about Communist infiltration during the HUAC era, as opposed to the Leftist lies about “McCarthyism”, I hope since you are thinking for yourself you’ll at least be open to the idea that notions of radical egalitarianism, multiculturalism, and progressive reform are logically and morally founded on little more than their own truisms. Thank you.


        Comment by Treuwa — September 8, 2013 @ 2:38 am

  3. Like so many anti-White liberals, you fail to honestly consider the simple question of merit. The completely disproven egalitarian notion that all individuals, cultures, and races are completely equal gives rise to the lie that any unequal outcome must be from other than individual, cultural, or racial ability, i.e. socio-economic/industry (Marxism), repression of hedonism (Freudian theory), or racial prejudice (Jewish and Black American socialism).

    I have listened to all of the Black (or half-Black) composers you listed in your article and not one of them even approached the quality of any well-known German baroque, classical, or romantic composer. While this is most definitely a subjective opinion, I’d challenge any reader to listen to Jeffrey Mumford, William Grant Still, or Chevalier de Saint-George and honestly claim that their repetitive and unsophisticated compositions merit placement alongside Mozart, Bach, or Beethoven.

    Does recognition that, like most 20th century composers under the influence of degenerate anti-White cultural reformation, these composers are far from brilliant or unique make you a racist or simply honest? Your article rests on a fallacy.


    Comment by Treuwa — September 7, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

    • Hi Treuwa,
      I think you misread and misinterpret what I said.
      I didn’t say the minority composers I named were as good as the ones you mention but simply that we do not even get a chance to hear them and judge for ourselves.
      And we do indeed hear many second-rate white composers.
      I asked a question, remember?
      I am not anti-White, as you say in way that reminds one of the white supremacist fallacy and prejudice. But I have heard a lot of second-rate and third-rate music by whites played live on recordings
      I am simply asking why we don’t hear more music from minority composers. Many of them are worth at least a listen or two, if not a top place in the repertoire.
      And programming more minority music might help to attract more minority audiences.
      And yes, I would indeed like to make classical music more culturally inclusive.
      Still, thank you for reading and replying at length.
      I would like to see what other readers who are more knowledgeable than I have to say about this.
      The Ear


      Comment by welltemperedear — September 7, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

      • Thank you for considered reply. However, isn’t your goal of making classical music “more culturally inclusive”, whether to “attract more minority audiences” (which implies [politically correct] racism among those audiences) or to satisfy “culturally tolerant and ethnically diverse” left-wing obligations, one by which you imply we ought to include “minority” (though Whites are only around 12% of the world population) composers as if to satisfy some sort of quota similarly to affirmative action?

        I don’t argue with you that many undeserving White composers are played with undue frequency, though some of the ones that come to my mind such as Stravinsky, Mendelssohn, Berg, and Bernstein I realize many people would argue are brilliant. And, the process of normalization by which certain standards or masters become standards and masters is worth considering critically, if only to expand awareness of greatness beyond the canon. But, a presumption that multiculturalism improves the quality of such a canon is illogical in so much as quality is defined by merit rather than anti-White cultural reform.

        It all reminds me of Mortimer Alder who, when asked why he didn’t include any Black authors in his Great Books of the Western World collection replied, “They didn’t write any great books.”

        If that implies “supremacy” then that is a product of analysis rather than the cause of the état de choses.


        Comment by Treuwa — September 7, 2013 @ 2:36 pm

  4. Scott Walker remembers creating jobs as assemblyman in Wisconsin . It was easy with ALEC. 32000 UNION public sector jobs. It is not as easy this time with out using your tax dollars. Scott Walker has created ALL Wisconsin`s budget problems working for ALEC. In 1997 Walker and Prosser as state assemblymen championed for ALEC with truth in sentencing telling the legislatures it would not cost a dime it was to give judges not parole boards the control over sentencing. Then Walker filibustered to stop sentencing changes after the fact misleading ALL the legislatures. With out the sentencing changes Wisconsin`s prisons quadrupled over night. Most people sentenced to 2 years now had to serve as much as 6o years. As the Wisconsin Budget watch Blog shows . Stopping just a percentage of these long sentences Wisconsin would save 707 million per year. Wisconsin could have free tuition colleges. It shows Wisconsin has wasted 35 billion if you add the numbers to the state budget since 1997. Not including the building new or remodeling of 71 courthouses & 71 county jails & 273 police stations and dozens of prisons 28 billion plus interest. The total is over 70 BILLION plus the 100 Billion spent by social services to support prisoners families because the bread winner was a political prisoner as US Att gen Eric Holder explained. Then farming out prisoners in several states until the courts realized it was not allowed in the Wisconsin constitution. Wisconsin then hired 32000 union public sector workers to fill the jobs housing the prisners from deputies , judges, district attorneys all owe Walker for creating there jobs. 32000 UNION PUBLIC SECTOR JOBS. This cost taxpayers over a half million per day to house these EXTRA prisoners per day in Milwaukee county alone. This your reason for budget problems in Wisconsin. Big spender big government Scott Walker. Why does he not work for the people he is taking his check from the people ?


    Comment by JERRY PERSON — August 25, 2013 @ 11:35 am

    • thanks for that deeply musical and sociologically relevant comment, Jerry Person.
      (Insert return to non-ironic tone here…)
      Whilst there are many readers of the WTE that might agree with your statements, they DO belong elsewhere, don’t you think? There is a site called that might suit you well for directly political writings. I have posted there many times in the past, on just these issues. It is local WI and is even hosted by the same server.
      Try it, you’ll like it. I did. Make a musical or social statement that relates to the topic at hand here, and you’ll be welcome in Ear-Land as well.


      Comment by Michael BB — August 25, 2013 @ 11:51 am

  5. Of COURSE there is racism here in classical music in Madison! What aspect of American culture is whiter? What aspect of American culture relies on the money generated by the white privilege enjoyed by so many wealthy Americans?
    Racism is not about who is inferior or superior, or who is being played or not, or who has more or less talent or exposure.
    It is a nation-wide institutional bias against anything that Black Americans make, do, say, or want from the economic and cultural powers-that-be.
    Why do you think so many white Americans absolutely HATE, and I do mean hate, Rap music and hip-hop culture? It is because it is so Successful, and has so much influence on young people.
    Classical music is subsidized practically everywhere it is found, and has so little general cultural relevance as to be readily ignored for months on end by most media outlets. Sad, perhaps but true…
    Rap music, and hip-hop culture, however, are omni-present and unavoidable.
    We are now seeing the first signs that hip-hop ‘is here to stay”, just like they said about rock and roll, (the previous generations’ black music that was co-opted by white business interests,) in the form of some college courses on the subject.
    Black classical musicians are like gay Christians. Why would you want to embrace the culture and philosophy of the people who kept you down and stomped on you while you were gasping for Life.
    Answer: You had no other choice, it was a force so powerful that you had to delve into it for its own sake, regardless of the negative associations.
    Jazz is America’s Classical music, and it was invented by Black people. Yet, it is still, and probably always will be, on the cultural margins, only for elites and devotees. Kind of like classical music, only in reverse.


    Comment by Michael BB — August 18, 2013 @ 10:32 pm

  6. […] Classical music: Are individuals and groups that perform classical music in the U.S., Wisconsin and … ( […]


    Pingback by Black Classical Part Five | New Music Buff — August 18, 2013 @ 9:23 pm

  7. I’d like to believe it’s more a case of

    – parochialism (“selfish pettiness or narrowness as of interests, opinions, or views”),

    rather than outright

    – racism (“the belief that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”)

    We hear plenty of music all the time by many Anglo-European composers, past and present, that is, in my opinion, qualitatively and aesthetically less compelling, interesting, enjoyable or worthy of attention than much of the work of many African-American composers like Walker and Still.


    Comment by Marius — August 18, 2013 @ 10:20 am

  8. My high school orchestra (and several others in the area) has performed the William Grant Still Danzas de Panama and it is on our docket for this fall again. Also common is music by Saint-Georges.

    Still’s violin sonatas are often played by UW-Madison undergrads.

    The Middleton Community Orchestra will be performing the Danzon No.2 by Arturo Marquez on our final concert of the season. Here is a video of Dudamel and company with that exciting work: )

    But I can tell you the biggest reason why you do not see as much of those works on concerts as you might like: rental costs. Since very few of those pieces are in public domain, most of it is rental music and that costs money. For example, I would love to program a string work by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and African-Americon composer who just passed away in 2004. But even finding where to get the parts has been tough, and it will cost too much for a high school program to afford.

    I am not sure how to change that system because it is entirely rooted in economics, but if that repertoire were readily available and reasonably priced, more ensembles would perform it.

    Steve Kurr


    Comment by Steve Kurr — August 18, 2013 @ 8:33 am

    • Hi Steve,
      Thank you so much on several counts.
      You response is indeed eye-opening.
      I am glad to hear that so many student and amateur groups, if not professional ones, are indeed regularly performing and programming music by minority composers, especially African American ones.
      I applaud all of them, including yours — the Middleton Community Orchestra — and wish that I and the public heard much more about such efforts.
      That said, I wonder: Does the problem with score rentals allow us to escape the charge of racism in classical music programming and performance.
      I fear not.
      After all, many professional groups — the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra come immediately to mind — seem more than willing to pay rental fees to perform works by other modern or contemporary composers, including John Adams and Steve Reich as well as Christopher Rouse, John Corigliano, Libby Larson, Joan Tower and Jennifer Higdon.
      I would be interested in knowing if you think that white composers somehow fare better and are more popular in the rental competition than minority composers; and if so, why.
      Thanks again and keep up the great work and fine music-making.


      Comment by welltemperedear — August 18, 2013 @ 11:06 am

  9. While the Pentissimo Woodwind Quintet is not widely known in Madison, we have performed several wonderful William Grant Still pieces, as well as works by Valerie Coleman and Jeff Scott of the Imani Winds, an utterly amazing ensemble that has performed here in Madison in recent years.

    Pentissimo has performed at Oakwood and Capitol Lakes twice yearly each for the past decade.


    Comment by Rozan — August 18, 2013 @ 12:35 am

    • Thank you for reading and replying.
      And congratulations to you for performing such works. You seem to be a notable exception to the racist rule.
      Unfortunately, I too did not know about your ensemble or attend any of your concerts.
      But your performances of works by African American composers is praise-worthy and unusual.
      But sure to leave a comment with any upcoming concerts and programs that might interest other readers.
      I would love top help spread the word.
      Best wishes to you,


      Comment by welltemperedear — August 18, 2013 @ 6:14 am

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