Composer's Racist Views Spark Debate in Music Theory Community

A heated debate has erupted over the legacy of famed music theorist Heinrich Schenker.EXPAND
A heated debate has erupted over the legacy of famed music theorist Heinrich Schenker.
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Since this summer's resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests began, calls for racial justice have reached far and wide. Now, the music theory community is reckoning with its own white supremacy issues following a controversy stemming from the University of North Texas.

Up for debate is the legacy of late 19th- and early 20th-century Austrian composer and music theorist Heinrich Schenker. In a speech to the Society for Music Theory last year, Black music theorist Philip Ewell posited that Schenker’s racist views were inextricably tied to his thoughts on music theory.

Not so, said UNT music theory professor Timothy Jackson, who wrote a fiery critique of Ewell’s address in last month's publication of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies.

“The controversy … is widely misunderstood as a debate over ‘racism,’” Jackson said in an emailed statement. “This controversy is actually about whether or not the Twitter mob may silence open discourse and scholarly debate at the University of North Texas.”

Now, calls for accountability and the dissolution of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies are mounting. Some, however, believe that the debate over Schenker’s past is another example of “cancel culture” going too far. 

During his address, Ewell stated that Schenker was to music theory as Beethoven was to composition: invaluable. But Schenker was also a “virulent racist” who believed that people of color made up an “inferior race,” Ewell said.

Ewell said that Schenker believed that Black people were incapable of self-governance. He also was said to have derided their contributions to music, particularly Black spirituals, and condemned biracial marriages.

In addition, Ewell suggested that music theory instructors should provide their students with the proper context about Schenker’s problematic past.

“Ultimately, our white racial frame's removal and denial of race in the study of Schenker and his musical theories is a textbook example of colorblind racism,” Ewell said during his lecture.

“Like philosophy’s anti-Semitism, the study of Schenker and his music theories has helped to legitimize harmful stereotypes about Blacks and other people of color,” he continued.

Ewell did not respond to requests for comment.

In the latest Journal of Schenkerian Studies, Jackson joined around a dozen others in either supporting or challenging Ewell’s address. In his own essay, he accused Ewell of using Schenker as a scapegoat for the “paucity of African Americans in the field of music theory.”

Jackson also charged Ewell, as well as Black people generally, with fostering anti-Semitic sentiments. Schenker was Jewish, and Jackson also wrote that his own grandparents were Jewish emigrants.

“Ewell's denunciation of Schenker and Schenkerians may be seen as part and parcel of the much broader current of Black anti-Semitism,” Jackson wrote. “They currently manifest themselves in myriad ways, including the pattern of violence against Jews, the obnoxious lyrics of some hip hop [sic] songs, etc."

Jackson said that his journal invited Ewell to respond. Ewell, however, tweeted that no one from the publication had asked him to participate.

In addition, a group of graduate students within UNT’s music, history, theory and ethnomusicology division has issued a statement condemning the journal, which they claim was not peer-reviewed. The publication also included an anonymous contribution, a move that’s unheard of in scholarly journals.

The students are calling for an end to the journal and for it to issue a public apology. They’re also demanding that Jackson be held accountable for his part in the publication's production. It’s unclear whether either will occur.

Mark Spicer is a professor at the Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where Ewell also teaches. He studied Schenkerian theory throughout his time at UNT, where he obtained both his bachelor's and master's, and later during his doctoral studies at Yale. He said he's known Ewell for around 25 years.

Spicer said that although Schenker's racist past was not widely studied in previous years, Ewell's scholarship has helped bring it to the fore.

“Schenker was very much of the idea that there was a supreme music, and this is the tonal masterworks of the Austro-German tradition, of these white male composers,” Spicer said.

In his statement, however, Jackson said that Schenker was "spat on" as a “sow Jew” while he was alive, which in turn denied him claims to both whiteness and maleness. Indeed, Schenker’s wife died in a concentration camp in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, according to Musicologica Austriaca – Journal for Austrian Music Studies.

But Spicer said that Schenker’s prime predated the rise of the Nazis.

“Schenker was very much caught up in the height of the idea of German white supremacy,” he said. “I mean, this is before the Nazi Party started to turn on Jews, so we’re talking about in the 1920s and things like this.”

By not confronting Schenker’s racist views, Ewell said that music theorists could inadvertently continue to whitewash them. It was white thinkers like Schenker who helped perpetuate and concretize such harmful stereotypes, he said.

Music theory has been “couched in its own kind of white supremacy” for many decades, Spicer said. Ewell's work is helping to shine a spotlight on that, he added.

"This is perhaps the most important and controversial issue to emerge within the discipline, in my memory," Spicer said. 

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