Classical Music Should Be Ashamed of Itself
When I was young, I trained heavily to become a concert pianist, and I had a successful (and VHS-documented) regional concert career as a teenager. I then pivoted to collaborative and ensemble playing, which I still do a lot of. Perhaps you know me as a piano teacher. I’ve been doing more of that lately, especially in the pandemic. Am I your piano teacher? Good on you. Take a day off practicing, keep reading, and look up everything I’ve done. Just one day, though.
I’m returning to my solo piano beginnings, but differently now. A couple years ago, I became aware, for the uncomfortable first time, of the scope of racism and sexism in classical music. I had started working as a collaborative pianist at Fisk, a historically Black university in Nashville, and I found myself playing composers I had never heard of. That led me to a lot of research as I learned there were giant gaps in my own classical education, and filled me with resolve to change the system that taught me. There are thousands of deserving works by womxn and composers of color that are left out of the canon. For me personally, it was very upsetting to learn of the existence of these works and to ascertain their quality, and to come to terms with the fact that I was not taught or encouraged to play a single one in my training. I’ve also had to grapple with my own assumptions, namely my assumption that if something was worth playing, it would be included in our hallowed "standard repertoire". The only conclusion one can draw from this faulty assumption is that womxn and nonwhite composers either wrote nothing good or nothing at all in the history of western classical music, at least until modern times. This is of course not true, but it is the assumption that tends to be made, whether consciously or not, whether we admit it or not.
Let’s look at Fannie Mendelssohn. I used to think she must not have been a “serious composer”. I assumed there was nothing there since I had never heard her work played. No one told me that before the end of her short life, she wrote a massive piano cycle entitled “The Year”, a behemoth hour-long multi-movement piano work that is larger in scope and frankly more inventive than anything her brother wrote for piano.
This piece belongs alongside the large-scale works of Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert and Frederic Chopin that all pianists know and love.
Women were not taken seriously as composers until the 20th Century, and even in the 20th Century, their work was largely neglected after their passing. Black composers suffered the same fate. Why is this gorgeous piece, just to name one example, not more famous?
”Mystic Pool” by William Grant Still
America has yet to deal with her racist past, and yet to repair the present, which cannot definitively be called "better". Systemic racism in this country and Europe is inextricable from Western Classical music. It would behoove all of us, especially if we are white or otherwise privileged, to take a long look at ourselves and our field and see what our part might be in righting the historic injustices that have kept worthy artists oppressed and neglected.
At the moment, America is in pandemic semi-lockdown, which has bought me a bit more time to practice and make videos. I’m not running around collaborating and teaching as much as usual, and my plan for this fall is to get as much unknown rep on Youtube as I can. Stay tuned. Thanks for reading, thanks for visiting, and come back.
Someone else doing it too: Piano Music She Wrote
110 Women Composers with Youtube and wikipedia links