Excluding Beethoven: Western Art Music’s Identity Crisis

Imagine a Western art music canon that doesn’t include Beethoven simply because he is a white man. The fact that Beethoven’s music is often hailed as a testament to the heights of humanity’s artistic achievement (though we should remember by whom and according to what metrics) would be inconsequential. Denying Beethoven recognition would come in response to an identity he had no part in making, before even a single note had sounded. If, in the unlikely event we decided to pay any attention whatsoever to Beethoven’s works, we would of course make sure to preface any discussion of his music with an acknowledgment of his white male identity.

When talking about Beethoven, “the music itself” simply would not exist. Instead, the white male identity would be sufficient grounds for refusal, so the music would never come under consideration. The consistent use of identity as a gatekeeper would be reflected in the composition of the canon; a glance at its records would tell us which identities were privileged and which were not. The presence of a few outliers would only bring the near-ubiquity of the normalized identity into sharper focus.

We have no problem rejecting this scenario as improbable when its subject is Beethoven. The degree to which his music is culturally imbedded makes it easy to read the above as contrived, an over-the-top caricature of equity and social justice initiatives rooted in questions of identity. And yet, identity is the primary determinate for inclusion or exclusion within the Western art music canon—our dismissal of it as a factor when we talk about Beethoven says more about us than it does about the role identity plays in these situations.

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

The canon is composed almost exclusively of one identity: white men. This disparity is indisputable, so in order to address it, our focus needs to be on why it exists, not on whether or not it does. Composers who are not white men have always been active in Western art music. Given this reality, how might we explain their near-absence in the canon, and what role does identity play?

A person’s identity activates certain presumptions that influence the reception of that person’s work. White supremacy, the centering of white ideas, ideals, and identity, intersects with sexism to bestow upon white men the presumption of inclusion. When we claim not to see color, what we claim not to see is whiteness. When we claim not to see gender, what we claim not to see is the male gender. When we talk about white male composers, we only talk about their music, and their identity fades into the background. We don’t consider the possibility of tokenism when we program Beethoven, we just program Beethoven.

When we talk about composers who are not white men, we talk about their identity before we talk about their music. Are we programming Florence Price solely because of her identity as a black woman? Is Julius Eastman on the program just because of his identity as a queer black man? Any identity outside of the established white male standard carries with it the presumption of exclusion—of needing to be justified. The unspoken belief is that music by non-white and non-male composers isn’t good enough on its own to merit inclusion. These anxieties about quality and even basic competence betray our biases about who belongs, and who doesn’t. When we a priori place the burden on composers who are not white men to “prove” that they belong, our starting belief is that they don’t.

Julius Eastman

Julius Eastman

Those who refuse to acknowledge the influence of identity on the question of inclusion vs. exclusion don’t deny that there are deeply entrenched and ongoing inequities plaguing Western art music. Instead, they look to shift the blame for the disparity to factors unrelated to identity. Claiming, “I only care about the music,” they suggest that everyone has an equal opportunity for recognition and reward, that meritocracy will ensure the quality of the canon. According to this line of thought, a composer’s inability to succeed under these circumstances is indicative of personal failure—not discrimination. Identity doesn’t factor in, they assert.

Identity-blind approaches such as these are disingenuous. When a purported identity-blind approach denies the influence of identity but results in a canon overdetermined by it, we haven’t actually removed identity from consideration. We’re instead ignoring the existence and impact of widespread oppressive forces, such as racism and sexism, that are intimately correlated with one’s identity. When we don’t acknowledge the ways that injustice operates, we ensure its reproduction. People who claim that they don’t want music “politicized” tend to be the same people who benefit from the inherent politicization of Western art music. White people understand identity politics as “the way things are”—the overwhelming presence of the white male identity within the Western art music canon is considered normal, if it’s acknowledged at all. The presumption of inclusion allows whiteness to remain invisible to white people. Yet the white framework is not an objective framework, and a canon of nearly all white men is not a politically neutral canon. To argue for identity blindness in situations of identity-based oppression is to argue for the perpetuation of injustice. It is to argue for the implicit superiority of those in power and the implicit inferiority of those who aren’t.

Identity is therefore essential to canon formation. Imagine again the initial scenario and consider what the musical landscape would look like if the white male identity carried a presumption of exclusion. Consider the number of voices lost and others erased because of the accident of birth. I’m sure many self-appointed guardians of the canon would bemoan a world without a J.S. Bach, a W.A. Mozart, or a L. von Beethoven.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Although the pool of music available for listening and our access to it continues to grow, the list of works we reserve for our concert halls—the works we speak about in low, reverential tones, that we institutionalize, that we hail as “genius”—remains small and exclusive, composed almost entirely of white men. It’s an impossible game, one rigged from the start, a closed circularity of greatness. The canon is both an artifact of and a support system for the underlying social structures that influenced its formation, and so becomes the focal point both for those looking to effect change vs. those interested in conserving the status quo.

Though injustice may appear immutable, we must all continue to push for justice. This begins with recognizing and supporting the ongoing efforts to diversify the Western art music canon and being openly critical of those who refuse to do so. Pointing out an example of injustice forces those in power to make a public decision on whether they will do nothing and thus remain complicit, or whether they will take steps to redress the injustice. Concerts featuring only the work of white men should be the exception, not the norm. Limiting or declining to program Beethoven for a season in the interest of performing equally engaging music by historically marginalized composers is not cancelling Beethoven. Promoting equity is not victimizing white men.

Nor should we restrict our attention to the existing Western art music canon—we must bring the same energy to bear on commissioning, programming, and promoting contemporary works of composers from underrepresented identities. Now in its third season, Amanda Gookin’s Forward Music Project continues to bring socially conscious music of the highest caliber into the world. Other organizations, such as New Works Project, push to make the commissioning process more accessible and inclusive. People looking to support specific initiatives can turn to organizations such as Castle of Our Skins and Boulanger Initiative, who champion Black artistry and women-identifying composers, respectively. The Institute for Composer Diversity hosts multiple databases that facilitate programming for equity, and their programming guide helps us understand what a more balanced season looks like.

Ashleigh Gordon and Anthony R. Green of Castle of Our Skins--Photo by Monika Bach Schroeder

Ashleigh Gordon and Anthony R. Green of Castle of Our Skins–Photo by Monika Bach Schroeder

Our efforts to promote equity cannot begin and end in our music communities. In our day-to-day lives, we are all affected by policies rooted in issues of identity, including race, gender, class, sexual preference, ableness, and immigration status, among others. Consequently, we must all work to understand the ways these policies shape the distribution of power and privilege in our lives. If you’re white, certainly read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, but let that be the start of a conversation that includes writers such as James Baldwin, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ijeoma Oluo, and Ibram X. Kendi. For more music-specific writing, select any resource from this extensive bibliography as your starting point. Music publications like I Care If You Listen, NewMusicBox, and VAN Magazine are likewise excellent. Expand your ears with podcasts such as The Daffodil Perspective or TRILLOQUY.

When we don’t name these forms of identity-based oppression, we ensure their continuation. But simply naming is not sufficient—if we don’t actively disrupt these issues, we ensure their continuation. If we want a more just society, we must work for it.