Saving the Classical Canon
with John McWhorter
In previous TGS episodes, John and I have talked about the ways that DEI initiatives are lowering the standards in the performing arts, and in the classical music world in particular. But it’s also influencing the classical world in more subtle ways. Let’s set the issue of performance standards aside. Classical music isn’t “better” than other genres or forms, but it does demand more of its performers and listeners than most other Western music. Truly appreciating it requires a certain depth of knowledge and intensity of concentration on the listener’s part. So we shouldn’t be surprised that there are relatively few dedicated classical music fans, people able and eager to buy tickets to the symphony and shell out for Deutsche Grammaphon LPs. Even a mediocre pop act can sell numbers of tickets that the Berliner Philharmoniker could only dream of.
Given that classical music is, at least today, a relatively niche affair, there is no reason to expect that its audience and performers would reflect the demographics of the population as a whole. Nevertheless, DEI advocates are trying to bring “proportional representation” in the classical world, almost by any means necessary, including by ditching the very idea of classical music itself. As John and I discuss in this excerpt from our most recent conversation, attempts to make classical more appealing to black audiences by watering down programs with more easily “digestible” music are not only condescending toward black listeners, it’s doubtful that any of this will make classical music itself more appealing.
Some things in this world are just challenging. There’s no way around it. Understanding high-level mathematics or the structure of a Brahms symphony or Thomas Mann’s novels requires effort and dedication. They’re not for everyone. Trying to make them seem easier than they are not only does them a disservice, it leads us into delusion. And ultimately, delusion is all these DEI incursions into the performing arts have to offer.
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GLENN LOURY: Let's see. We had Don Baton, the music conductor, on the show incognito.
Don, I gotta ask you. Your camera's off and your voice is disguised. You're incognito here. Obviously you don't want your identity revealed, and we will respect that, but what are you afraid of? What ill effects, what negative repercussions do you anticipate could attend you publicly taking the positions that you've taken here and signing your real name to them?
JOHN MCWHORTER: I want to reinforce, because of a certain Twitter thread that I noticed, or more than a few: I am not Don Baton. That was not me. It was another person. Continue, Glenn.
Yeah, that was another person incognito on the show. We had Jamie Beaman. Isn't he your friend, the actor?
JAMIE BEAMAN: We're in rehearsal and there's a scene going on and the scene stopped, because the Latina actress started berating this white actress because she wasn't being ugly enough in her bigotry in the scene. The director was standing right there and really didn't guide this. This white actress was struggling with playing a bigot. And then the white actress starts to cry, feeling put upon, and everybody's watching this happen. From outta nowhere, one of the other BIPOC members of the cast starts screaming—and I'm talking unhinged levels of shrieking—gets up, charges over, gets in this woman's face and says, "You're not the victim. Stop crying. This isn't about you. This is not about you. This is about her."
JOHN MCWHORTER: And now Jamie's doing a Substack, folks. He's really going for it.
We had Vincent Lloyd recently, the African American scholar at ... where is he? Villanova.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Villanova, right. “Vanillanova,” as they used to call it.
So it was a pedagogical dispute, at the end of the day that, that you ran aground of. That is, you wanted to have kids come to conclusions with which your antagonists might have agreed. But you wanted them to reach them through a process of deliberation, and they wanted it to be dictated, as it were, to be nailed to the wall, and people would then know what to think.
VINCENT LLOYD: Yes. I think everyone in this situation was in an awkward position. The various figures I describe in the article were also themselves victims. They were given a task to communicate this anti-racist curriculum and implemented it in a way that I wasn't happy with and, I thought, shut down seminar discussion. But it was ultimately the broader forces in the nation, specifically in the Telluride Association, that resulted in something that was actually not a seminar happening.
I think we can all appreciate the richness of what a seminar can be, where we all come in with different assumptions, all of those assumptions are challenged over time, no one ends where they started, and we see that there's an unfolding of our own understanding of self and world that happens in the seminar.
And next week I'm going to interview—unfortunately we couldn't do it this week with you, John—a couple of students from Stanford Law School who are gonna be talking about stuff that's going on out there on free speech things. But anyway, I mentioned all of these. There's a thread that connects them, which is young, preprofessional and early professional African American writers, intellectuals, scholars, musicians, artists—you find this in the museum curator world as well—are up in arms, driven by identity considerations to challenge standards. You know, what makes for a beautiful symphony that's worth performing today? How does an actor do her craft, even when she has to portray characters whose views she does not herself personally embody? And if that makes you feel [un]comfortable, how do we talk about it? The issue of the Telluride seminar that Vincent Lloyd was associated with and how you do that.
But the substantive work of the organization or the institution is to some degree becoming captive to the identity dynamics. That's one illustration of which is, “Don't tell me I'm not good. Don't tell me I have to measure up to your standard” when a conductor says, “No, not like this. Like that,” and you want to bring your non-European lived experience to bear on the deliberation about how to perform the symphony.
JOHN MCWHORTER: I'm sure that's happened, or I'm sure it's happening. “Black conducting.” I'm sure it's coming. And, “Don't impose your standard on me. Why can't we do it in our own way?” Yeah. That's gonna be interesting, actually.
We haven't really given a lot of attention to this dimension of the problem, that standards are relative. I mean, what do you say, for example, to somebody who says, “I need to have black sufficient representation in the orchestra in order to draw people” and “I need to make the music that we play somehow reflects the diversity of the potential audience in order to draw people into the seats in the theater” and “Your insistence on a kind of rigid interpretation of the European canon as it's always been done, because you've defined that to be excellence, is really asinine. It's kind of rigid. It clings to something, when in fact it should be organic and it should be open to the ebb and the flow of the changing currents of the milieu within which it's embedded”?
Mm-hmm. No. Classical music, same thing. Now, of course there are gray zones, but classical music is a majestic thing. Majestic for many reasons. There are black people who've written it majestically. Those people should be played more than they have been in the past, and not just Florence Price. That is certainly the case. But the idea that if there are only so many black bassoon and oboe players, that if there are only so many black people in the audience for classical music, if it's below 13%, then there's some sort of tragedy and it means that black people are not welcome, that the symphony orchestra isn't welcome to black people?
It may feel good to say that. It can feel good in many ways, depending on who you are, but it doesn't necessarily make sense. For one thing, there's nothing wrong with black people being underrepresented in classical music. How does it hurt black America if we only get so much viola and we only get so much Mahler? Why do we have to think about it that way at all? And really, if bringing more black people in means that you start doing music that involves charismatic and repetitious rhythm—and music like that is majestic in its own ways, too—but if the idea is that to bring black people in, you have to start doing some pieces that jam, as in the same rhythm over and over again with lots of improvisation, et cetera: no.
Because that's not what classical music is, and frankly, it's almost condescending to put those two forms together and call them the same thing, just because black people might like one more than the other. And the thing is, that music that is making your head bop, et cetera, black people, we all have plenty of ways of accessing that music. We don't need to go to the symphony hall to hear it, and frankly, probably shouldn't. You might want to, say, bring in African drumming, like the most complex form of this rhythm-based music. You might. But that's not classical music. Why? What's the point? Unless you're going to have all the drumming. Suppose the typical black couple doesn't want to go in and listen to 20 minutes of the drumming, in all of its complexity, but then the rest of it is Mahler and something by Brahms, and maybe they're not particularly interested in that. And if they're not, who cares? People are just trying to have something to be upset about.
But aren't you playing fast and loose with what's a really hard problem, which is the construction and evolution of a canon. You keep just saying it's classical music, it's classical music, as if that was somehow not itself already a historically produced aggregation. I'm not against it or for it in saying this, I'm just saying it's within the realm of human manipulation. It didn't just fall from the sky. And by invoking it in that way, it's like you inure yourself against the urgings of those who want to continue to innovate in some sense. I understand the impulse, and I'm not against anything or for anything here. I'm just saying, it looks like it's a hard problem to know when you would allow that kind of thing to come in and color and alter the thing that you cherish, the thing that you call majestic.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Yeah. And I should clarify, because I just did a Times piece where I said that we do need to reevaluate in some ways what we consider to be, for example, higher or lower, what is classical, et cetera, as in much American musical theater, I think, is artistically cut from the same cloth as opera. And I think that the idea that Puccini is classical music, but Most Happy Fella and Showboat and Titanic are not classical music. I don't think it makes any sense. I think that the main reason we think of opera as somehow higher is because it tends to be in other languages, and so we can't understand what the people are saying. If it were sung in English, I think it would be much clearer that Madame Butterfly is not somehow higher art than Showboat. It's just that it's in Italian.
So, yes. And so we do need to make sure that we're not being too fussy about what classical music is, because things do have to change. But it comes down to what I always say: Whatever we let in should not be easier. The idea should not be to make it less of a challenge to appreciate, to make it less artistically rich. And what's artistically rich? What I mean is if the music, unless it's a particularly elaborate form of it, if it's based on the same thing over and over and over again, where your joy in it is the charismatic feel that it gives you to move your body to it.
If the music is jamming, that's not the same, nor is it the same if you're doing something that would make more sense at a pop's concert. Now, a pop's concert might have some really good music, but if you're doing something like the overture to Fledermaus except set to a disco beat, or if you're doing John Phillips Sousa marches instead, which are so easy, you know, any child would love John Phillips Sousa marches. That's different from wrapping your head around maybe just part of Tristan and Isolde or trying to get what's good about a Brahms symphony that you're not gonna immediately whistle. I don't want to see it dumbed down just so that brown people will come in. If classical music is so white, I honestly believe, so what? We have plenty of access to our own music in other places. I don't get the concern.
Yeah. I like the way you put all of that. I'm thinking about science, about mathematics right now. I'm thinking the hard stuff, the complexity, the brilliance when you see an absolutely intricate and deeply reasoned and profound elaboration of human intellect in the various constructs and imagined developments that then have their own their own language, their own way of articulating the insights. These things are not self-evident. They're layers and depths of reflection and human imagination. I agree. There's something there. It's very hard to put your hand on what it is, but pop science and science are not the same thing. Not even close.
JOHN MCWHORTER: No, there are rankings and there are classifications, and some people are gonna say, oh, we got over that lowbrow, middlebrow, highbrow stuff decades ago. But no, a lot of it was thrown out rather deliberately because people didn't want to hurt black people's feelings, once again. And there's plenty of high art that's come from us. We don't need to be preserved in that. Our feelings do not need to be catered to to that extent. But yes, of course there is highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow. I find those classifications very easy, and it has nothing to do with white and black. But everything is not the same. “A Fifth of Beethoven.” Remember? Beethoven's Fifth set to a disco beat?
Yeah, I remember the pop version of that.
JOHN MCWHORTER: I remember that being played in the street. It's damn catchy. It's not as good as the real thing. It's not that everything is music. Things can be ranked.
I was just going to observe, I think there's a theme here about the visceral, the thing that comes up from the loin. It's a brainstem thing. You're not thinking about it. And the thing that's up in the frontal lobe, the thing that's highly intellectual. That theme has to be everywhere, doesn't it? For example, in the church where people get religion and they allow the feelings of the spirit to possess them, which many religious, sophisticated people would take as a kind of lower-level or infantile spirituality.
I can move you with a hymn or with a preacher who gets up in the pulpit and shouts and theatrics. But have you actually thought deeply about the dilemmas and the impossibilities of the kind of thing that an Aquinas or the guy Augustine and City of God or whatever would be grappling with? The meaning of life at some more reflective or deeper level. That's just one example. You're gonna see it in music. You're gonna see it in a lot of things.
JOHN MCWHORTER: There's room for both, as far as I'm concerned, in this thing called life. It's just that do you put them in the same places? That's all. Episcopalianism and Baptism, they're different things.
Do I get this right, John, that you object to this coloration of the African essence as somehow being visceral and not cerebral. You say “we dance, we're gonna party.” Our thing, our trope is rhythm, not the hard-nosed discipline of the dedicated mastery of the canon of the craft?
JOHN MCWHORTER: Oh yeah. Our thing is rhythm as opposed to mastering not going with the rhythm, which is what it is. The rhythm is the easier thing. The rhythm is what comes naturally. But if you kind of resist the temptation of the rhythm, then you start inventing things like watches and the like. What we're being saddled with is that which is easiest. And if anybody thinks I don't know how elaborate jazz is, they need not think it. And you know what else? If anybody thinks that the reason I distrust rhythm is because I can't dance, I would surprise you. I don't dance as badly as you probably think. I don't dance the way I would like to. You're right, you can tell. But not as badly as a lot of you probably think. I can move.
That's funny, John.
JOHN MCWHORTER: It's not that. It's just rhythm has its place. It can be even a large place. But for us to be associated only with the visceral and the the immediate, it's a slur. It's completely a slur. No matter how thrilling a certain kind of white person finds black intuitiveness and what's it called? We are “authentic.” That authenticity is moving to the beat. Well, that's cute, but there's a lot more to being human than that.
Inclusion really means exclusion of unapproved ideas. Equity is marxism rebranded for the 21st century. Diversity means minority mascots.
I'm starting to think that diversity may not be our strength after all. We tried the E Pluribus Unum thing and DEI turns that on its head. Meanwhile, Finland is once more rated as the world's happiest country. For anyone keeping score, the population is 93% Finns and 6% Swedes, the antithesis of the diversity that allegedly makes us so powerful. Diversity CAN be an asset but not in its current deployment, where it ruins everything it touches, to include classical music with this nonsensical push for "proportional" representation.
Are we going to do that with jazz, too, or country music, blues, rock, and other genres where one demographic has a clear majority? And why would we want to? Diversity is the variety of musical choices that are available. I don't really care about the violinist's race or the guitar player's gender or the singer's sexual orientation. I doubt anyone cares about those things. They care about whether the person is good at his/her craft or not, very much like sports, which for some reason escapes all talk of proportional representation. The worst part is that reconfiguring the numbers typically involves a watering down of standards, which is a horrible message to send to minorities and it does them no favors among peers who hardly see them as equals.
Let people pursue their own interests. It is a concept so simple that no wonder it eludes the equity police. If a black musician likes classical and a white one likes jazz, good for both of them but it needs to be a decision each makes as an individual, not something forced on the rest of us by some outside head-counting group. Some people might recall that our country had a dalliance in which a lot of things were racialized. How'd that work out, and why would anyone want to do that again?