The Well-Tempered Ear

Will using first names with Beethoven and Mozart help fight racism and sexism in the concert hall?

October 28, 2020
5 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Why do concert programs read simply Beethoven for Beethoven (below top), but Florence Price for Florence Price (below bottom)?

According to a recent controversial essay by Chris White (below), a professor of music theory at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, it reflects and reinforces sexism and racism.

White is calling for universal “fullnaming” to put women composers and composers of color on an equal footing with the traditional canon of dead white male composers. All people may be equal, but all composers and their music are not.

You can certainly make a case for his interesting argument against using “mononyns,” as he calls them. But it still seems less than convincing to many, including The Ear. It many ways it seems downright silly and arbitrary. Isn’t it obvious that not all composers are equal in quality of their work?

It is the latest dustup in the classical music world, coming right on the heels of, and logically linked to, the idea that Beethoven is responsible for sexism and racism in the concert hall and the so-called “cancel culture” that is allied with the social and political protest movements of the past year, including Black Lives Matter.

That was treated here in a previous post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/09/19/did-beethoven-and-his-music-especially-the-iconic-fifth-symphony-foster-racism-exclusion-and-elitism-in-the-concert-hall-the-ear-thinks-that-is-pc-nonsense-what-do-you-think/

Here is a link to the complete article by White about the inclusion and absence of first names as it appeared on Slate: https://slate.com/culture/2020/10/fullname-famous-composers-racism-sexism.html

Funny, The Ear thinks of using only last names as little more than a function of: quality, importance and time; of fame and familiarity; and sometimes of promoting clarity and preventing confusion — not of race or gender.

It is why we say Bach (below) when we mean Johann Sebastian, and why we say Wilhelm Friedemann or Carl Philipp Emmanuel or Johann Christian when we mean one of his sons.

It is why we say Richard Strauss to distinguish him from Johann Strauss.

But it also why Haydn means Franz Joseph (below), not his less important brother Michael Haydn.

And why the American composer Henry Cowell is listed with his full name and not just Cowell.

Perhaps one day – if we hear enough of the music by the recently rediscovered Black female composer Florence Price often enough and like it enough – she will be known simply as Price. After all, the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu is not usually listed as simply Takemitsu. 

Actually, the Ear prefers using full names for all composers — famous or not, male or female, white or black — especially when it is for the general public. But it seems more a matter of politeness, respect and education than of sociopolitical change and social justice.

That is not to say that those of us in classical music don’t see a need to correct the racism and sexism of the past, to foster diversity and inclusiveness. White has a point. Still, the whole idea of using both names in all cases seems more than a bit naïve, superficial and simplistic as a solution to racism and sexism.

It sounds a lot like the kind of theoretical speculation and contrarian thinking you might expect from an assistant professor trying to get noticed and make his mark on big contemporary issues so that he can get tenure and become an associate professor. A high public profile certainly helps that.

But whatever you think of White’s motives or purpose, his essay is causing a “meltdown” on Twitter: https://mybroadband.co.za/forum/threads/‘fullnaming’-mozart-and-beethoven-to-fight-sexism-and-racism-twitter-squabbles-over-slate-article.1108776/

Should you want to know more about Professor White or to leave a message of either support or disagreement, here is a link to his home website: http://www.chriswmwhite.com

What do you think about the idea of using first names for all composers as a way to combat racism and sexism in classical music?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: Joel Thompson’s “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” is an eloquent and timely testament to Black victims of racism. It deserves to be performed in Madison and elsewhere

July 6, 2020
2 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

A reader recently wrote in and suggested that fellow blog fans should listen to “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” by the Atlanta-based American composer Joel Thompson (below).

So The Ear did just that.

He was both impressed and moved by the prescient piece of choral and orchestral music. It proved both powerful and beautiful.

The title alludes to the Bible’s depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but also to the musical setting of it that was composed by Franz Joseph Hadyn in the 18th century. But it stands on its own as a much needed and very accomplished updating, especially with the “last word” or phrase “I can’t breathe.”

It is hard to believe the work was written five years ago, and not last week or last month. But it couldn’t be more relevant to today.

It shows how deeply artists have been engaging with the social and political issues of the day, particularly the role of personal and structural racism in national life, and the plight of young Black men and women who face discrimination, brutality and even death at the hands of the police and a bigoted public.

The work was premiered by the Men’s Glee Club at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 2015. This performance comes from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

The SSO and featured guest University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Men’s Glee Club, led by conductor Eugene Rogers  (below) – who directs choral music and teaches conducting at the UM — premiered a 2017 commissioned fully orchestrated version of “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.” You can hear it in the YouTube video below.

It is an eminently listenable and accessible, multi-movement work honoring the lives, deaths and personal experiences of seven Black men.

The seven last words used in the work’s text are: “Why do you have your guns out?” – Kenneth Chamberlain, 66; “What are you following me for?” – Trayvon Martin, 16; “Mom, I’m going to college.” – Amadou Diallo, 23; “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” – Michael Brown, 18; “You shot me! You shot me!” – Oscar Grant, 22; “It’s not real.” – John Crawford, 22; “I can’t breathe.” – Eric Garner, 43.

The Ear thinks that once live concerts begin again after the coronavirus pandemic is contained, it should be programmed locally. It could and should be done by, among others, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choir; or the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra and Choral Union; or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra with the Festival Choir of Madison; or the Wisconsin Chamber Choir.

They have all posted messages about standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the protesters against racism. But will words lead to commitment and action?

It will be interesting to see who responds first. In addition to being timely, such a performance certainly seems like a good way to draw in young people and to attract Black listeners and other minorities to classical music.

Here is a link if you also want to check out the almost 200 very pertinent comments about the work, the performance, the performers and of course the social and political circumstances that gave rise to the work — and continue to do so with the local, regional, national and international mass protests and demonstrations.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdNXoqNuLRQ&app=desktop

And here is the performance itself:

What do you think of the work?

How did you react to it?

Would you like to see and hear it performed live where you are?

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music
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