The suggestions we propose are worth employing if they make our students play their part in making our world more beautiful, equitable, and just. Our classes can become places where we can effectively expose classism, racism, and sexism even when issues of identity are not the primary topic of conversation.Making your students "play their part" in exposing classism, racism and sexism would seem to be a viciously ideological goal and one having nothing to do with music history. But no, this is crucial because of the horrific history of music, dominated by European males:
At the beginning of your class, state the obvious: the canon of western art music is dominated by European male composers. By acknowledging it, you also show your students that you plan to explore moments of the canon’s construction. One way to offer transparency is to point out to your students that you will be using the pronoun, “he,” frequently in class because systemic conditions favored men as composers and performers of western art music. Women were frequently denied access to musical training and elite cultural networks. Similarly, when teaching about the history of classical music in America, make sure to specify if the people in the audience or the people involved in the production of music were white or black Americans. In being explicit about this, you make students aware of the ways in which racism functioned in histories of classical music in America. By offering these explanations to students, we make transparent that assumed racial or gender norms were actually historical processes.Moral condemnation is smuggled in through the use of undefined terms like "systemic conditions" and "elite cultural networks" which are markers for unsupported theories about history that are, frankly, nothing more than cultural Marxism. This is only a hair's breadth removed from simply stating that Beethoven was a racist, classist oppressor simply because he was a white European male and wrote good music. This is not a School of Music, this is a School of Resentment.
How we got to this sorry state of affairs is by short-circuiting the appropriate tool for the study of art forms, aesthetics, and replacing it with crude ideological ones like collective identity politics, equity and social justice, all of which stem from cultural Marxism. I think the way to push back is to reassert the role of aesthetics.
Is it not perfectly obvious that the reason we perform a great deal of music by Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and others is that their music is overwhelmingly powerful from an aesthetic point of view? The instant you lose sight of this you leave the door open for the Diversity Counselors to come in and put you in the stocks for failing to honor the contributions of women and people of color. If you have no aesthetic reason for preferring the music of Robert Schumann over that of his wife Clara Schumann, then you might as well play her music instead and rectify an historic imbalance. If you have no way of evaluating music in terms of aesthetic quality, then the only reason you have for programming music by, say, Camille Saint-Saëns over that of Cécile Chaminade is that audiences seem to prefer it. But maybe that is simply because they have not heard much of Chaminade. So again, programming her music instead would seem to right an historic imbalance. And so on for every sliced up identity group you can imagine: gay composers, transsexual composers, composers from the Caribbean, black composers, indigenous composers and on and on. Once you start slicing up the population into identity groups there is no logical stopping place short of the individual. And in fact, the only actual existing elements in a society ARE individuals--all the rest are mere abstractions.
So, given the fact that the best way to resist this project is to revive the practice of aesthetics, I think I will do a short, crash course on it, based on a very fine survey of the field by Monroe C. Beardsley titled Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. This is a substantial volume, over 600 pages, first published in 1958 with a revised second edition in 1981. In it he surveys the central issues, theories and problems in aesthetics and offers a usable theory of his own. One of the central issues is the question of the relativity or subjectivity of aesthetic judgement, so a good part of the book takes on that problem.
Aesthetics, almost banned from serious consideration for decades now, was not dismissed because of the weakness of its philosophical foundations, no, it was rather a case of being replaced by more fashionable topics such as the doleful trio of classism, racism and sexism such as we see over at Musicology Now.
I have actually put up lots of posts on aesthetics before and you can search for them using the widget on the right, but I want to do something a bit more organized and put up a few posts that condense and summarize the arguments in Beardsley's book.
As an envoi, let's hear something by Cécile Chaminade and then something by Camille Saint-Saëns. First, the Concertino for Flute and orchestra by Chaminade (the music begins at the 2:15 mark):
And the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for violin and orchestra by Saint-Saëns: