Texas Campus White Supremacy Row Stars a 19th-century 'Racist' Jewish Composer

The Journal of Schenkerian Studies and its editors found themselves under attack at the University of North Texas. But should music theory be changed to meet today’s views?

Amir Mandel
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Composer Heinrich Schenker (1868–1935). Schenker did write music but was actually chiefly a theoretician.
Composer Heinrich Schenker (1868–1935). Schenker did write music but was actually chiefly a theoretician.Credit: Hermann Clemens Kosel
Amir Mandel

When he founded an esoteric journal based on the works of a composer who died in 1935, Prof. Timothy Jackson surely didn’t anticipate the ruckus that ensued some 15 years later on the campus of his employer, the University of North Texas.

Jackson teaches musicology there and in 2005, founded the annual journal whose driving “muse” is the music of Heinrich Schenker (1868–1935). Schenker did write music but was actually chiefly a theoretician, who developed a method for the structural analysis of tonal works. His method is widely accepted by musicians, musicologists and teachers as a way to understand structures and processes in works of the core Western repertoire. The esteemed pianist and president of the Jerusalem Music Center, Murray Perahia, is one of the outstanding devotes of Schenkerian analysis.

Schenker himself died of diabetes and was buried in the Jewish section of Vienna’s central cemetery. His wife Jeanette was arrested and deported from Vienna in 1942. She died in Theresienstadt in 1945.

This summer, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies and its editors found themselves under attack at the University of North Texas campus because, the detractors explain, the Schenker method is steeped in white supremacy.

University of North Texas. The Journal of Schenkerian Studies and its editors found themselves under attack.
University of North Texas. The Journal of Schenkerian Studies and its editors found themselves under attack.Credit: Michael Barera

Actually the assault had begun last November, when Prof. Philip Ewell of Hunter College, New York claimed that the study of music theory is institutionally constructed around a sense of white supremacism. Ewell made special mention of Schenker, calling the Austrian Jewish musician an “ardent racist and German nationalist.”

The heads of North Texas University subsequently appointed a committee to “objectively examine the editing processes” to ensure they met the standards of best practice in scholarly publication and to recommend strategies to improve editorial processes where warranted.

This is euphemism for a declaration of censorship. Jackson is threatening to sue the university for restricting his academic freedom.

Pornographic operas

This duel is part of a broader conversation on imposing values and political censorship not only on theory but also on the music itself. Censorship of content and values is of course nothing new. The opera “Cosi fan Tutte” (“So do They All”), the last of three magnificent operas written by Mozart to librettos by Lorenzo de Ponte, was called “pornographic” in the 19th century and was almost never performed. The opera “Carmen” also drew arrows at the time – less because of the music and more because of the sleazy goings on and the wantonness of the heroine.

But now a global assault seems to be underway to render music politically correct, at the possible expense of key artistic assets.

Usually the sturm and drang focuses on opera, which features both verbal and dramatic content and places interpersonal dramas and urges at center stage. The most common of human drama focuses on relations between the sexes and opera has been roundly criticized for the type of relationships its expresses. A great deal has been written about opera as an arena of sexual assault. “Carmen,” which raised fury in the 19th century because of its wanton heroine is infuriating the moralists now because she is murdered on stage and the end of the opera.

In 2018 “Carmen” was staged in Italy with a different ending: instead of Don Jose murdering Carmen, she shoots him. The producers explained at the time that the plot tweak was designed to discourage femicide. That presents an inexhaustible opportunity for creative solutions. We won’t need to boycott Wagner in Israel any more. Simply transfer the plot to a city in Eastern Europe, make all the characters Jewish and change the language of the songs to Yiddish.

Mozart’s operas are receiving special attention. A series of articles describes “The Magic Flute” as misogynistic (in the struggle with the priest and her ex-husband Sarastro, the Queen of the Night undergoes a transformation from victim to assailant), and racist (Monostatus, who is a slave and attempts to sexually assault the white heroine, Pamina, is Black). Other articles speak of misogyny in “Cosi fan Tutte,” in which women are unfaithful.

The grandest opera of them all, “Don Giovanni,” is being recast as an artifact of rape culture because the hero, a conqueror and charismatic man, brave, challenging and a character with whom to identify, is also an indefatigable sexual predator. As the conductor Teodor Currentzis put it in a conversation about his own version of “Don Giovianni”: We are attracted to the stranger, the complex, the other.

The opera 'Carmen' also drew arrows at the time – less because of the music.
The opera 'Carmen' also drew arrows at the time – less because of the music.Credit: Yossi Zwecker

Here Currentzis touched on an essential point. Human beings have complex, ambivalent feelings. There is love and compassion, as well as rage, jealousy and violence. They have an abundance of imagination and fantasies of various kinds. Art is made of all these and builds an imaginary world that reflects the range of urges and behaviors that human beings can express, in reality and imagination. Its strength is in the way these things are presented and in the ability to evoke an emotional experience, to ignite the imagination, to provoke thought, to change the viewer. Art isn’t a “good behavior” card and is not obligated to moral codes.

It is clear that social systems and values find their way into works of art. Mozart’s basic values and those of his librettists, De Ponte and Schikaneder, were formed in the 18th century, and relationships between the sexes – which are actually complex and subversive – in the works are rooted in the 18th century reality. Attempting to change the relationships between the characters, which are essential to Mozart’s psychological dramas, are so destructive that they evoke the Taliban smashing the Buddha statues in Afghanistan. In that case too, people demolished magnificent cultural assets for ideological reasons. They assumed, as does the politically correct culture, that art, like thought, must adhere to the leading and proper values in society.

But what characterizes a proper human being in cultured society isn’t oppressing urges, thought or imagination: it’s managing one’s behavior in a manner that respects the rights of others. It isn’t necessary to create a sterile environment that suppresses human urges, nor even to deny all the history in which the balances of power, rights and basic values were different. On the contrary, the human ability to regulate our own behavior is enhanced by being aware of our dark sides, our recognition of them, and imposition of methods to control them.

Denial of urges, like the denial of history, does more harm than good. When it comes to art, denial is destructive and attempts to create shallow culture. Probably this latest attempt will fail, as previous assaults on art have failed, although the assault of the politically correct is more violent and totalitarian than the assault of the Soviet regime on culture at the time, because it also targets the art of the past.

The grandest opera of them all, 'Don Giovanni,' is being recast as an artifact of rape culture.
The grandest opera of them all, 'Don Giovanni,' is being recast as an artifact of rape culture.Credit: Tobias von Marillac de St.Julien

The claim that classical music is identified mainly with white culture is true. “By the way, [it’s] less European and Christian than is usually thought,” says Prof. Shaul Katzir, the head of the Cohen Institute for the Philosophy of Science and Ideas at Tel Aviv University. “European and Arab culture were intertwined at certain points in history, and influenced each other, in certain areas of music as well. There are other cultural influences that invaded classical music, from the Far East and from African American music,” he says.

A time to expand

However, to this day most classical composers are white men, and the discourse in the classical musical community and audience too tends to presuppose that Western classical music is superior to over other forms of music, such as Arab, Persian, Indian, Far Eastern, or jazz and other structures whose origins do not lie in white culture.

This discourse seeks expansion and change, not only for reasons of morality and values, but for artistic reasons too. It does not however seek to erase the achievements of the past. Johann Sebastian Bach was an employee of the church; he was European, Protestant and conservative. Four of his sons became successful composers, but none of his daughters. Teaching girls music simply wasn’t in Bach’s conceptual world. That does not detract from his status as the greatest composer in the history of music and will not make me give up his works.

Naama Perel Tzadok, an Israeli composer whose works reflect her own roots in the Yemenite and Tunisian community.
Naama Perel Tzadok, an Israeli composer whose works reflect her own roots in the Yemenite and Tunisian community.Credit: Aviva B-H

“Now is the precise time that this should happen, expansion,” says Naama Perel Tzadok, an Israeli composer whose works reflect her own roots in the Yemenite and Tunisian community, as well as the exploration and study of music that is not Western. “What you are saying about Schenker and Mozart’s operas sounds like censorship. I don’t want damage done to the marvelous assets of the past. I want consensus, in the present, about overcoming boundaries and re-examining what artistic music is, from all sorts of directions. There’s no need today to cling to Europe or the Western boundary. One can unravel the ends and see what is needed now, not just rely on the past. Not to erase it, simply to examine new possibilities.

“Mozart couldn’t do anything else. That was his environment. A person can’t act otherwise than his culture. Today you can encounter [other] cultures at the push of a button,” Perel Tzadok says.

It’s true that Western culture hunkers down in elitism, she adds. “I have been asked why I insist on defining myself as a composer and my works as classical music rather, it was said, than a writer of songs in the realm of ‘world music.’ Both the teachers and the audience ask this. Conventions need to be shattered and ideas need to be opened up. It’s not clear how the form of a sonata can be incorporated into the structure of a ‘maqamat’ [melodies typical of Arabic music]. They don’t go together. To connect the cultural foundations, new forms need to be developed. Instead of complaining and criticizing, or denying the past, one should simply go and create.”

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