Open Letter

on Schenker’s Racism and its Reception in the United States

To add comments, fill in the frame « Votre commentaire » at the bottom of this page.

The undersigned, European (and non-European) music theorists, music analysts and music historians, have been made aware of the dispute between Prof. Philip Ewell 1 and members of the American Society for Music Theory (SMT) 2 on the one hand, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies (JSS3 and Prof. Timothy Jackson on the other hand. We understand Prof. Ewell’s concern with the lack of diversity of membership in the SMT and with the organization of the curriculum of music theory studies in universities in the United States. Such problems cannot be discussed in the same terms in Europe, in view of the varied situations in the different European countries, concerning both our societies for theory and/or analysis of music and the organization of studies in our Universities/Conservatoires/Hochschulen, etc.

We were at first surprised that Prof. Ewell chose to illustrate his legitimate concern with the situation of the SMT and of American universities mainly by an attack against Schenker, who died almost a century ago. Prof. Ewell wrote on one of his blog pages that “American music theory is based on the racist idea that whites are superior to POC, a sentiment stated explicitly by significant music theorists like François-Joseph Fétis and Heinrich Schenker in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” There is no question that Schenker and Fétis stated this sentiment a century or two ago, but we fail to understand how and why modern American music theory could and should still be based on such old-fashioned ideas. Prof. Ewell writes that “at a minimum, we must present Schenker’s work to our students in full view of his racist beliefs, and let our students decide what to do with that information” (MTO 26.2, § 4.6.1). He may fail to realize, however, that Schenker’s nationalism and possible racism have been discussed many times in the last forty years. 4

Prof. Ewell may believe that Schenkerian theorists remain stuck, in their approach to their favorite teacher, to that which William Rothstein 35 years ago humorously described as “an exclusive and dogmatically minded cult, speaking an impenetrable jargon, whose members proselytize ceaselessly while constantly bickering among themselves over the proper tending of the sacred flame.” 5 But the Journal of Schenkerian Studies answered from another point of view, more critical, more historically contextualized, as developed by the second  generation of American Schenkerians, to which the authors of the JSS belong. This all could have led to an interesting and much needed debate, as it certainly is time for the American music theory to turn the page of Schenkerian hagiography. The situation was all the more promising that at least two authors published in the Schenker symposium of the JSS thanked Prof. Ewell for his comments on drafts of their paper. 6

However, the American response to this state of affairs was astonishing, at least as viewed from abroad. Despite the overtly and willingly polemic stance of Prof. Ewell’s keynote address, calling for debate, no scholarly discussion about the crux of the affair – Schenker’s racism and American music theory’s whiteness – appears to have followed, as if everybody in the United States had been somehow astounded. The debate was replaced by censorship. The response by the executive board of the SMT “condemns the anti-Black statements and personal ad hominem attacks on Philip Ewell perpetuated in several essays included in the Symposium on Philip Ewell’s 2019 SMT Plenary Paper published by the Journal of Schenkerian Studies”. But we were unable to identify any anti-Black statement (unless in quotations from Schenker’s own texts), nor any attack against Philip Ewell the man (which is the meaning of ad hominem) in this JSS volume – comments against Prof. Ewell’s statements, on the other hand, normally pertain to scholarly debate. The “Open Letter on Antiracist Actions Within SMT” calls for “a censure of the advisory board of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies” and asks “revocation of membership and honors” – which merely is censorship. Several of us wrote to the UNT authorities, expressing our concern with this situation, without answer up to now.

We do believe that Prof. Ewell raised important questions, not only about whiteness in American music theory, which remains beyond our competence, but also about how Schenker should be understood today and how his theories (and the further developments thereof) should be taught in music theory classes. We very much regret that his keynote address and the JSS symposium that followed did not spur to the general debate for which we believe the time has come. We urge the SMT and the UNT to reconsider the matter and to open a much necessary worldwide debate, to which we are eager to participate.


Nicolas MEEÙS, Prof. Emer., Sorbonne University, IReMus, Paris, France; President, Belgian Society for Music Analysis, Brussels, Belgium
Nidaa ABOU MRAD, Prof., Dean of the Faculty of Music and Musicology, Antonine University, Beirut, Lebanon
Konstantinos ALEVISOS, PhD, Researcher, PRISM-CNRS.AMU, France; Athens, Greece
Eytan AGMON, Prof., Dept. of Music, Bar-Ilan University, Israel
Fabian BALTHAZART, Prof., Mons Royal Conservatory, Mons, Belgium
Jean-Michel BARDEZ, Prof., Conservatoires, Paris, France
Ildikó BARTHA, PhD, Prof., Zoltán Kodály Secondary Music School, Debrecen, Hungary
Jean-Pierre BARTOLI, Prof., Sorbonne University, IReMus, Paris, France
Georges BERIACHVILI, PhD, Pianist, Paris, France
Edmond BUHARAJA, Prof., Tirana University of Arts, Faculty of Music, Department of Musicology, Tirana, Albania
Anne-Emmanuelle CEULEMANS, Prof., Catholic University of Louvain (UCL); Royal Institute of Music and Paedagogy (IMEP), Louvain-la-Neuve and Namur, Belgium
Laurent CUGNY, Prof., Sorbonne University, IReMus, Paris, France
Marie DELCAMBRE-MONPOËL, Lille, France
Georgie DUROSOIR, Prof. Emer., Sorbonne University, Paris, France
Stéphan ETCHARRY, Prof, University Reims Champagne-Ardenne, Reims, France
Martin EYBL, Prof., University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna, Austria
Joel GALAND, Prof., Florida International University, USA
Jean-Eudes GIROT, Prof., Université Polytechnique des Hauts de France, Valenciennes, France
Cenk GÜRAY, Prof., Chair of the Department of Music Theory, Ankara State Conservatory, Ankara, Turkey
Mart HUMAL, Prof., Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, Tallin, Estonia
Mihu ILIESCU, PhD, University Pantheon-Sorbonne; Creteil, France
János KÉRY, DLA, Prof., Franz Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest, Hungary
Anna KIJANOWSKA, Prof., University of Silesia, Katowice, Poland
Sanja KIŠ ŽUVELA, Zagreb, Croatia
Sławomira KOMINEK, Prof. Emer., Institute of Musicology, University of Warsaw; Polish Society for Music Analysis, Warsaw, Poland
Kerri KOTTA, Prof., Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, Tallin, Estonia
Sébastien LAMBERT, Nice, France
Thérèse MALENGREAU, Pianist, Prof., Higher Royal Institute of Art and Archaeology, Brussels, Belgium
Josep MARGARIT DALMAU, Prof., Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain
Arnould MASSART, Prof., Brussels Royal Conservatory, Brussels, Belgium
Marie-Noëlle MASSON, Prof., Rennes 2 University, Rennes, France
Veijo MURTOMÄKI, Prof. Emer., University of the Arts, Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, Finland
Patrice NICOLAS, Prof., Music Department, Moncton University, Canada
Margus PÄRTLAS, Vice Rector for Academic Affairs and Research, Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, Tallin, Estonia
Bertrand POROT, Prof. Emer., Université de Reims, CERHIC, Reims, France
Pedro PURROY CHICOT, Prof., Conservatorio Superior de Música de Aragón, Zaragoza, Spain
Dmitry RACHMANOV, Prof., California State University, Northridge, USA
Jean-Marie RENS, Prof., Liège Royal Conservatory, Liège, Belgium
Guilherme SAUERBRONN DE BARROS, Prof., Music Department, Santa Catarina State University, Florianópolis, Brasil
Hugues SERESS, PEA Culture Musicale, Pôle Alienor, Poitiers, France
Margaux SLADDEN, Prof., Brussels Royal Conservatory, Brussels, Belgium
Naphtali WAGNER, Prof. Emer., The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Department of Musicology, Jerusalem, Israel
Michael Alexander WILLENS, Director, Kölner Akademie, Cologne, Germany
Mehmet YÜKSEL, Prof., Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey
Menachem ZUR, Prof. Emer., Jerusalem Academy for Music & Dance, Israel

Additional signatures are welcome: heinrich.schenker [at]


1 Prof. Ewell’s statements referred to here are the following:
– His keynote address at a 2019 meeting of SMT,;
– His MTO paper,, published after his keynote address, but apparently written before;
– Several posts on his blog,

2 This mainly concerns three texts following the symposium published in the JSS:
– A statement by post-graduate students of the University of North Texas (UNT):;
– An open letter signed by more than 900 SMT members:;
– A response by the SMT Executive Board to the symposium in the JSS:
These were followed by various publications on Internet, which will not be listed here.

3 The texts in the Symposium published by the JSS are available here, including that by Prof. Timothy Jackson:

4 In Europe, where the modern interest for Schenkerian theory developed later than in the United States, nationalist and racist ideas always have been discussed as important aspects of his way of thinking. One of the first European books dealing with Schenkerian theory, Célestin Deliège’s Fondements de la musique tonale, Paris, Lattès, 1984 (²Delatour-France, 2020), devoted its pp. 47-49 to the “ethical objection” against Schenker’s theory. Hellmut Federhofer, one of the most ardent advocates of Schenker in Europe, discussed Schenker’s Politik, among which his racism, in a long section of Chapter V, Schenkers Weltanschauung, of his Heinrich Schenker. Nach Tagebüchern und Briefen in der Oswald Jonas Memorial Collection, Hildesheim, Olms, 1985, pp. 324-330. In his short book Heinrich Schenker. Une introduction, Liège, Mardaga, 1993, Nicolas Meeùs commented both on the probably excessive devotion of Schenker’s disciples to their master and their silencing his politic and social ideas (p. 10), and on his nationalist excesses in the Erläuterungsausgabe of Beethoven’s op. 101 (pp. 16-17). Martin Eybl devotes a full book to the question: Ideologie und Methode Zum ideengeschichtlichen Kontext von Schenkers Musiktheorie, Tutzing, Hans Schneider, 1995.
Prof. Ewell, in his MTO paper (not in his oral presentation, apparently) also mentions discussions of Schenker’s nationalism in William Rothstein, “The Americanization of Heinrich Schenker”, In Theory Only 9/1 (1986), pp. 5-17; Carl Schachter, “Elephants, Crocodiles, and Beethoven: Schenker’s Politics and the Pedagogy of Schenkerian Analysis”, Theory and Practice 26 (2001), pp. 1-20; William Drabkin, “Heinrich Schenker”, The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, Th. Christensen ed., Cambridge University Press 2002, pp. 812-43; Suzannah Clark, “The Politics of the Urlinie in Schenker’s ‘Der Tonwille’ and ‘Der freie Satz’”, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 132/1 (2007), pp. 141-64, and Nicholas Cook, The Schenker Project: Culture, Race, and Music Theory in Fin-de-siècle Vienna, Oxford University Press, 2007. There are others still.

5 “The Americanization of Heinrich Schenker”, quoted here from its republication in Schenker Studies, H. Siegel ed., Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 195. This text originated as a paper presented to the Schenker Symposium at Mannes College in New York in 1985.

6 See Journal of Schenkerian Studies 12 (2019), pp. 129 (Richard Beaudoin) and 183 (Christopher Segall).


Votre commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:


Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Google

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Google. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s