Some of the stuff published these days forces me to do extra research. I have to make sure the pieces are bona fide, rather than vicious spoofs or else excerpts from psychiatrists’ case studies.
One such piece is by Philip Ewell, explaining why Beethoven was barely an above average composer, and the only reason he’s considered a genius is the domination of music theory by white males.
Even reading his article twice left me undecided whether the author is a madman or a satirist of Swiftian proportions. To be fair, these days it’s hard to tell the difference; actuality outpaces any satire, no matter how mordant or grotesque.
However, it turns out that Dr Ewell isn’t a satirist at all. He’s Associate Professor of music theory at Hunter College, New York, which used to be a reputable institution. That narrows down the diagnostic options for his condition.
Having listed his academic credentials on his blog, Dr Ewell then describes himself as “an activist for racial, gender, and social justice in the field of music theory.” That self-identification should by itself justify a call for the men in white coats.
However, I have no interest in Dr Ewell’s problem, be that innate or cultivated insanity. What does interest me is the insanity of an era in which academics can write, and their readers take seriously, manifestly deranged gibberish.
It’s tedious to analyse Ewell’s output on merit because it has none. However, because the statements he makes add facets to a clinical picture of modernity, bear with me for a few paragraphs. The first one is unadulterated Ewell:
“‘Master,’ and its derivatives (masterwork, masterpiece, masterful), carries both racist (master/slave) and sexist (master/mistress) connotations. In music theory “masterwork” is generally applied to compositions by white males. But Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is no more a masterwork than Esperanza Spalding’s 12 Little Spells. To state that Beethoven was any more than, say, above average as a composer is to state that you know all music written on planet earth 200 years ago when Beethoven was active as a composer, which no one does. Beethoven occupies the place he does because he has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for two hundred years, and we have been told by whiteness and maleness that his greatness has nothing to do with whiteness and maleness, in race-neutral and gender-neutral fashion. Thus music theory’s white-male frame obfuscates race and gender, one of its main goals.”
As an aside, I suggest that, before Dr Ewell puts pen to paper again, he learn the difference between ‘masterful’ and ‘masterly’. Also, when the word ‘Earth’ designates a planet, it’s capitalised, something a chap ought to know long before he has earned an advanced degree.
Yet Dr Ewell makes up for his ignorance of basic English by the refreshing gall of his pronouncements. For example, it’s commonly believed that the purpose of music theory is scholarly study of how music is made, its history, processes and principles.
That, according to Dr Ewell, is a misapprehension. Music theory is there to enable “white males to obfuscate race and gender.”
Dr Ewell insists that “even terms such as … ‘fin de siècle’ can be considered euphemisms for whiteness and white framing… [because] the mapping of time itself is white racially framed in the Gregorian calendar.”
Hence, even saying that Beethoven was an 18-19th century composer, never mind a great one, is blatant racism because Pope Gregory XIII, for whom the Western calendar is named, was a white male. That unfortunate nativity invalidates our calendar, leaving us without any time reference at all. After all, the alternative Julian calendar was also named after a white male, Julius Caesar.
Having thus solved the philosophical problem of time, Dr Ewell then destroys the very concept of aesthetic judgement by ridiculing its premises. Since it’s impossible to know every note of music ever written everywhere in the world, we can’t judge Beethoven’s greatness.
Greatness is relative. Thus, Beethoven may legitimately be considered above average only against the background of the composers we know. If, say, we take Hummel and Weber as representing the average, then yes, Beethoven may be marginally above that level.
But do we know every chant sung by an African shaman or a Tasmanian aborigine? No? Then how can we know Beethoven is any better than they are? We don’t. And if we insist we do, we are racists and misogynists.
To prove that no absolute standards exist, Dr Ewell cites the example of Esperanza Spalding, whose 12 Little Spells is to him easily a match for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The only reason this fact isn’t universally acknowledged is that Miss Spalding is neither male nor white.
Here I have to own up to a glaring gap in my musical education, which indirectly proves Dr Ewell’s point. Until I read his article I hadn’t had the foggiest who Esperanza Spalding was. However, thanks to YouTube, that hole was plugged.
She’s a young double bass player, who composes and performs pretentious pseudo-spiritual jazz songs of no musical value whatsoever. There, I might as well have had “racist and misogynist” tattooed on my forehead.
I’m only dissing Miss Spalding because she’s a black woman, and I’m neither. I must have forgotten what century we live in, and now that both the Gregorian and Julian calendars have bitten the dust, I’ll never learn.
The sheer insanity of Dr Ewell’s pronouncements is rare even by the standards of whatever century we live in (choose your own calendar). But the general thrust is quite widespread.
Every white male composer (which more or less means every composer) represents a burr under the blanket of modernity. Where are the black female Bachs and Beethovens?
Discounting, at the risk of sounding bigoted, young Esperanza, I can think of only two female composers of note, Hildegard von Bingen (12th century, by the racist calendar) and our contemporary Sofia Gubaidulina. And even they can’t quite match, well, Bach and Beethoven.
Therefore, since ideology always trumps such incidentals as reason and taste, Ewell and his ilk have to debunk our whole aesthetic frame of reference and shift it into their political comfort zone. There composers are regarded as masters only because they are white men: music theorists have formed a cabal designed to marginalise black women composers who are as masterly (or ‘masterful’, to Dr Ewell) as the men.
Recently, when it was discovered that Easter Sonata, wrongly attributed to Felix Mendelssohn, was actually composed by his sister Fanny, the Ewells of this world perked up. You see? Fanny was every bit her brother’s equal. Well, judging by that strictly mediocre piece, she wasn’t.
And Clara Schumann supposedly could compose rings around her husband, him of an overblown reputation. Alas, Clara, one of the best pianists of her time, only ever composed little nothings catering to popular tastes at her recitals. Neither Robert nor, more to the point, Clara herself considered her a composer.
But at least both Fanny and Clara could produce genuine, if not great, music, which is more than one could say for Esperanza Spalding. Dr Ewell really pushed the envelope there.
However, the important thing to realise is that it’s illiterate, tasteless, ideology-crazed morons like him who set the tone at our formerly reputable universities. They are the ones who form public tastes (most comments on Ewell’s blog are glowing).
To paraphrase Chesterton, those who believe in nothing, will believe in anything.