The Well-Tempered Ear

Is a lot of ‘woke’ music inferior to the music it replaces?

January 21, 2023
12 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Is a widespread attempt to explore historically ignored music and overlooked, marginalized composers interfering with the public hearing greater, more important and more beautiful music?

It is a problematic but timely question or issue, especially during an era of political correctness and in our current culture wars.

To be sure, you can hear some memorable music that has unjustifiably been excluded from the so-called canon. The discovery of Florence Price (below) is a prime example. The same can be said for Clara Schumann.

It does seem that a lot of the newly rediscovered pieces and composers — Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, Asian, women, LGBT — deserve an initial hearing, if only out of curiosity and to correct the historical record.

But after being heard for the first time, many of them seem second- or third-rate. They deserve to be shelved for another few decades in favor of restoring greater music and greater composers to the active performing repertory. 

To The Ear, for example, the symphonies by Michael Haydn always sound inferior to those of his famous older brother Joseph. And it doesn’t matter what critics and audiences of the day said, history its often — if not always — the better judge. The symphonies and violin concertos of the impressive and influential Joseph de Boulogne (Chevalier de Saint-Georges, below) are simply not as artistically interesting or engaging as those by his contemporary Mozart.

Anyway, whatever you think, The Ear came across an essay on the internet by George Leef that was published in The National Review — the iconic conservative political magazine founded by William Buckley. It contains background about current nationwide programming guidelines and organizations that you might not know. 

It is an interesting point of view. It often goes over the top and  clearly overstates the case against “woke” repertory by accusing those who support it of being “enemies of classical music” rather than sincere and well-intentioned progressive advocates of artistic justice.

But it deserves a serious reading and a serious answer to the provocative question of balancing the great and the less great. Here is a link:

https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nationalreview.com%2Fcorner%2Fthe-enemies-of-classical-music-open-a-new-front%2F&data=05%7C01%7C%7Cdc78db9851e24c937f3208dafa28c130%7C84df9e7fe9f640afb435aaaaaaaaaaaa%7C1%7C0%7C638097350187750246%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C3000%7C%7C%7C&sdata=SmHoEA2rkQ53xI6RZvi8o65zJ99IcjYFqXrbJq3DV18%3D&reserved=0

Read it for yourself and make up your own mind.

Then please tell The Ear and other readers what you think in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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.


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