Open Letter

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

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This letter should have been dated from the start. It was first published on September 28, 2020.

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.

Signatures

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
Anna Maria BARBARA, PhD student, Sorbonne University; Prof., Conservatoire Gabriel Fauré, Paris
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
Rob HASKINS, Prof., University of New Hampshire, USA
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
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
Kenneth LAMPL, Prof., ANU School of Music, The Australian National University
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] free.fr.

Notes

1 Prof. Ewell’s statements referred to here are the following:
– His keynote address at a 2019 meeting of SMT, https://vimeo.com/372726003;
– His MTO paper, https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.20.26.2/mto.20.26.2.ewell.html, published after his keynote address, but apparently written before;
– Several posts on his blog, https://musictheoryswhiteracialframe.wordpress.com/.

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):
https://drive.google.com/file/d/1PekRT8tr5RXWRTW6Bqdaq57svqBRRcQK/view;
– An open letter signed by more than 900 SMT members. The link to this letter has been modified: the new link is https://docs.google.com/document/d/1pne06DbjDt-ume06JMtc5fljpbLDkMZgw3mRFOrRepE/edit.
– A response by the SMT Executive Board to the symposium in the JSS:
https://societymusictheory.org/announcement/executive-board-response-journal-schenkerian-studies-vol-12-2020-07.
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: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1dTOWwlIsuiwsgAa4f1N99AlvG3-ngnmG/view.

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).

 

7 réponses à “Open Letter

  1. Scott Fruehwald

    Hi,

    I thought you might be interested in an article in the Ewell controversy I just posted on SSRN at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3816979.

    Abstract

    Professor Philip Ewell shocked the music theory world at the Society for Music Theory conference in 2019 when he charged that American music theory was systematically racist. In particular, he used long-deceased German theorist, Henrich Schenker, « as an exemplar of that flawed world, a ‘virulent racist’ who wrote of ‘primitive’ and ‘inferior’ races — views, he argued, that suffused his theories of music. » Furthermore, he accused « generations of Schenker scholars of trying to ‘whitewash’ the theorist in an act of ‘colorblind racism.' »

    In this paper, I will examine whether Ewell’s arguments are consistent with science, in particular, cognitive psychology. Based on this examination, I conclude that Ewell’s theories are inconsistent with well-established concepts of human behavior and how the mind works, as well as how humans perceive and process music. Part II of this paper will present Ewell’s arguments about Schenker and music theory. Part III will show that Ewell’s “white racial framework,” a type of social constructionist argument, is faulty because the human brain does not operate in a manner that is consistent with social constructionism. Rather, the foundation of human thinking is rooted in biology. Part IV will debunk Ewell’s argument about the myth of neutrality by showing that music is to a significant extent universal. Part V will deal with other problems in Ewell’s arguments, particularly his treatment of people of color and whites as a monoliths and his superficial analysis of statistics due to his correlation/causation fallacy and his lack of context for his analysis. Part VI will critique Ewell’s argument that Schenker’s theory is racist because he was personally racist. First, it will attack the false analogy between personal racism and hierarchy in music. Equally importantly, it will demonstrate that Schenker’s theories reflect how the human mind perceives and processes music. This paper will end by discussing the dangers of using faulty theories (theory-induced blindness).

    Best,

    Scott Fruehwald

    P.S. The article shows how Schenker’s approach reflects how the mind processes music.

  2. Sarah Hagan

    Jackson’s comments about Black anti-semitism and Black exposure to classical music at home was extremely anti-Black, ad hominem, and poorly researched. He cited a Wikipedia article to contextualize Ewell’s possible anti-semitic frame. If you cannot find the denigrating and far reaching race based assumptions made in Jackson’s article then maybe you are clueless.

    • Nicolas Meeùs

      Sarah, let me explain why I see neither any anti-Black statement nor any ad hominem attack in Jackson’s paper. The matter is important. We must be extremely cautious about the words we use and avoid unduly mixings.
      An anti-Black statement would blame a Black person for being Black, in the same way that anti-Semitism would blame a Jew for being Jew. To blame a Black person for being anti-Semitic may be justified or not, but it does not blame her or him for being Black.
      An ad hominem attack similarly blames a person for what she or he is, not for what they said – which is an « ad verba » attack.
      To disagree with Philip Ewell cannot be a « remarkable statement of antiblackness », as Ewell himself wrote about my Open Letter in one of his tweets (https://twitter.com/philewell/status/1349065256971218946) – if I disagree with him, it certainly is not because he is Black, but because of his statements concerning present-day Schenkerism.

      But I keep thinking that the whole affair must be further discussed. Thank you for bringing an opportunity to do so, and I’ll gladly welcome further comments that you may have.

      • Joshua Clement Broyles

        The paragraph beginning with « Ewell’s scapegoating of Schenker, Schenkerians, and Schenkerian analysis » appears to serve no purpose other than to make the case that Ewell is disqualified from criticizing Schenker simply because Ewell is black and Schenker is Jewish; as if readers should accept that no black person can ever criticize any Jewish person without it being antisemitism, and only antisemitism. Seriously, just read it again. What other point could it possibly be intended to make? Isn’t that a racist, anti-black argument?

  3. Joshua Clement Broyles

    [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.]
    Why cannot the same be said of Europe? How many black music theory professors are there in Europe?

    [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.]
    Perhaps his point was not Schenker’s racism, itself, but efforts to understate Schenker’s racism. If there is nothing to hide, then why try to hide it?

    [but we fail to understand how and why modern American music theory could and should still be based on such old-fashioned ideas.]
    Why and whether are two different questions. Regardless of the why, the answer to whether is: yes.

    [He may fail to realize, however, that Schenker’s nationalism and possible racism have been discussed many times in the last forty years.]
    When it was discussed in my Schenker class in Canada, it was discussed only to dismiss it as a misunderstanding; my Schenker professor has repeated elsewhere that Schenker’s racist statements were « visceral reaction(s) » which « went against his personal beliefs ». This was my first overt experience of a Schenkerian seeming to either communicate with a deceased person, or to read that deceased person’s mind. It certainly was not the last.

    [“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.”]
    What thing can you point to which would compellingly indicate that Schenkerism is not as described here?

    [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.]
    Have you checked the JSS author list for non-Americans? I think « Anonymous » might be Belgian for some reason.

    [This all could have led to an interesting and much needed debate,]
    North American Schenkerism does not allow for debate. Skeptics are gaslighted and blacklisted.

    [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.]
    Two would seem to be the minimum number of such papers that can be counted in English plural for token purposes. Jackson admits in this video that a majority of solicited responses actually favored Ewell’s position. Please see 01:06:30

    [as if everybody in the United States had been somehow astounded.]
    When Americans don’t debate, it’s probably not because they’re astounded. That’s not really how they think.

    [The debate was replaced by censorship.]
    Nothing was censored. A set of procedures was solicited, and only provided in some part. This is how disputes are normally handled in functional societies; someone usually asks for more than they expect to get, and they usually get less.

    [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]
    Maybe you missed the part where Jackson essentially said that he couldn’t be a racist because black people hate Jews. If that was not directed to Ewell, then to whom was it directed?

    [which merely is censorship.]
    It’s not censorship if there is some other legitimate excuse to do it. Being falsely accused of racism wouldn’t be license to editorial misconduct.

    [Several of us wrote to the UNT authorities, expressing our concern with this situation, without answer up to now.
    Maybe your response was sent to Hucbald by mistake.
    https://fr.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nicolas_Mee%C3%B9s_(musicologue)&action=history

    [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.]
    I don’t really blame you for trying to position yourself to take over the JSS and move it to Europe. But there’s no reason why I should just let that happen. ….

    [I have been informed that Philip Ewell, on Twitter (which I don’t read), declared on 12 January 2021 that the above is « a remarkable statement of antiblackness ». I am afraid that my knowledge of American English leaves me unable to find any antiblack statement in the above, but I am grateful that, at least, he read the letter (or did he?).]
    Your denial of the fact that Jackson characterized black people as having a special problem with Anti-Semitism supports tolerance for that statement. I don’t even have to be black to imagine how a black person might be capable to construe your statement as also being anti-black in effect. I’m glad we were able to clear this up.

    Joshua Clement Broyles

  4. Nicolas Meeùs

    I have been informed that Philip Ewell, on Twitter (which I don’t read), declared on 12 January 2021 that the above is « a remarkable statement of antiblackness ». I am afraid that my knowledge of American English leaves me unable to find any antiblack statement in the above, but I am grateful that, at least, he read the letter (or did he?).

  5. George

    Wow, a sensitive of treatment of a tricky subject. I totally agree.

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