Photo of a most excellent statue of Angsty Beethoven, from a recent trip to the Naples Conservatory of Music; my favorite thing about this statue is that from the side, you can see that Ludwig has draped himself on this rock like everyone’s favorite mermaid.
When you’ve been performing music for as long as I have (and I’ve been performing since before I had any understanding of what a job or career was) you can go a long time before you realize that you’re complicit in a quiet and unstated kind of hypocrisy.
And that hypocrisy is this: classical music is universal, right? It spans languages, cultures, distance, age, and time. It’s extremely powerful stuff that everyone—and anyone—can relate to.
And yet! Although people of every sort have been writing music for as long as written history exists, and a whole freaking lot of classically trained musicians exist in the world (seriously, have you noticed how many of us there are? it’s nuts!!), the suspiciously vast majority of music performed is music written by a relatively small sample of white European male composers.
How universal is that, really?
The thing that I used to think, and that unfortunately a lot of people still believe, is that this is simply because women and people of color haven’t contributed much to the classical music canon. This type of thinking is easily debunked, though, if you put even the tiniest, laziest amount of research into music history, or even just history in general. Women and people of color (POC) have been a big part of the story, but when it comes time for us in the present to curate selections from the historical record, we end up reinforcing the idea that only a small subsection matters.
“So you’re not being inclusive of enough dead people,” you say. “Big whoop.”
Well, Reader-Who-I’m-Imagining-is-a-Sullen-Teenage-Me, it is a big whoop. The way we represent history can lead to unfortunate perspectives on culture that end up affecting modern society, and how we see people today.
- For example, society’s curious failure to recognize that computer science was essentially invented by a woman, and started out as a woman-dominated field, has led to the stereotype that computer science is men’s work, which in turn can cause people who don’t otherwise look like idiots to genuinely believe that women are not “biologically disposed” (????) to be programmers or computer scientists.
- Or how about the fact that the story of human culture across the world has always been one of immigration, and that patterns of trade and migration have been shaping and creating the places we’re familiar with from pre-history to modern memory…and yet enough people have been pushing the narrative of cultural or racial identities being threatened by “others” that uninformed stereotypes have led to people facing increased hostility, being taken away from their homes, and murdered? Or that those who were told their cultural identity was threatened by immigration set in motion a decision that has already undermined the stability of a cultural capital, limited the career growth of a whole generation, and threatened a country’s ability to even feed itself or keep its citizens healthy (and alive)?
The way we frame history has actual, real-world consequences. The way we tell a prologue can affect how we choose to continue the story.
So while it may seem laughably trivial to say “Hey, why don’t we play more classical music by people who aren’t just dead white dudes?”, I think it’s one of those little things that subtly shapes how we view people and culture as a whole. Perpetuating the myth that exclusion is a normal component of something legitimizes the excuse that exclusion is necessary for maintaining the status quo. It is also a little messed up that the choice to be more representative of a real collection of voices from history requires a conscious deviation from an established canon, but hey, this is a messed up world sometimes.
Anyway, that is the arduous thought process behind my realization of “holy crap, I really need to play some music by women and people of color.” It’s not an earth-shattering change, but it’s what I can do with my power as a musician—and hopefully it’ll convince other musicians to follow suit, and audiences to listen with open ears.
Now here is where you, dear reader (who I’m no longer assuming is Sullen Teenage Me), get to help.
- My goal is simple: to incorporate music by composers who are female and/or POC into my concert repertoire. Currently the number of pieces in my hands that fit this criteria is 0.
- I’ve been doing my research, but I am positive that there’s a wealth of composers out there I just haven’t heard of yet. So if you know any women/POC composers who have written works for the piano, please tell me via comment or tweet! (I might compile my list into a future blog posts so other pianists can have at it.)
- If you are a somebody or you know a somebody who organizes or promotes concerts and would like to support a concert featuring inclusive programming, please let me know!
P.S. You can read more on my thoughts on classism in music or the role of art in the world on this blog, and if you’re the type of person who digs interesting articles, I have a few more lists, and I often share cool things I read on Twitter.
P.P.S. I just got back from wiggling my fingers in Italy and here’s the proof.