Nobody should have to write again that classical music has a race problem. We find ourselves here time and again, overseers of an all-too slow change, making the repeated case for equality. But my recent discovery of white-supremacist and neo-Nazi forum Stormfront’s penchant for classical music got me thinking a little more about how to address classical music’s accessory to racism throughout history in the present. Between outright nationalism and the slightly less visible institutional racial bias, classical music has been—wittingly and unwittingly—instrumental in the propagation of racist narratives over its hundreds of years. Even for The Guardian, the “biggest issue of all” surrounding Herbert von Karajan was how he produced his performances; his membership of the Nazi party tucked neatly away between parentheses. The jury’s still out on whether his participation was only a means of saving himself and helping his career, but at a time when plenty of Europe’s artists and musicians left the continent not only to save themselves, but to avoid being party to the persecution of others, furthering your conducting career on the back of a genocide should have been inexcusable. The paper’s decision to republish a 1960 review of Karajan at the Festival Hall only last year fails to see the slightly sick irony in praising the conductor for giving the audience “chamber of horrors music.”
Among the vitriol and bizarre conspiracy theories, the members of Stormfront declare that “listening to the classics FORCES you to be white,” and that it “promotes a deep inner feeling when you listen to it rather than discord (as ‘rap’ does).” The first post, made in 2010 by user Karajan (the conductor’s Nazism is not lost on Stormfront members) specifically pits classical music against black culture, starting out as a tirade against white women “race traitors.” The post ends with a challenge: “Celebrate the power of your race and listen to more classical music. There are not many activities that you can take part in to be ‘pro-white.’”
What follows are hundreds of pages, eventually split into two threads, of posts mostly recycling the same few composers—Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Vivaldi, Brahms, Prokofiev, Debussy if we’re lucky. Anything with a connection to German nationalism is given extra merit. Wagner is adored; some opera performances aren’t posted because there’s a non-white face somewhere in the chorus. The specific way in which classical music vibrates the body’s cells is somehow brought into the discussion. One member denounces anything with a drum kit as non-white music, while plenty of others champion a wide music taste: Bach to Black Metal (so long as it’s Nordic). The precise ancestry of composers is discussed and dissected, there’s disagreement or reconciliation dependent on myriad and irrelevant factors. Mendelssohn gets a pass by some, because despite being born into a Jewish family he became a Reformed Christian as a child, whereas atonality gets a bad rep for being a Jewish invention designed to undermine the sanctity of classical music. There are tirades against modern opera stagings (where have we seen that before?). The whole discussion is an essentialist balancing act.
You don’t need me to tell you that this is a load of crap, but as banal as it might seem to sift through the hollow hive-mind of these keyboard supremacists, the implications of what they say should be taken seriously by those of us in the classical music world. One of the thread’s most prolific posters is “Revision,” whose profile picture is that of convicted French holocaust denier Vincent Reynouard. The idea that classical music provides some kind of sanctuary for somebody with his views (and the views shared by the Stormfront membership) should be completely unacceptable, and, moreover, should be something actively fought against. It’s not the fault of classical music in the 21st century that its past can so easily be co-opted by nationalism or white supremacism. But sitting in the concert halls of Europe and America’s cosmopolitan cities in a usually very white audience listening to a usually very white orchestra, we don’t seem uncomfortable enough. Julius, the protagonist of Teju Cole’s Open City, makes the same observation: “It never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city, and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them…. But Mahler’s music is not white, or black, or old or young, and whether it is specifically human, rather than in accord with more universal vibrations, is open to question.” What’s at stake is whether the classical world is content to be seen in this way—and despite its diversifying attempts, however noble they may be, this is how it is seen by many.
There’s a reason why the goons of Stormfront renounce pop music, or rock, or dance—these styles have reached a certain level of heterogeneity that no amount of eugenic conversational dissection can ignore. Although these genres were borne out of non-white vernacular musical traditions, they were, for a number of decades, whitewashed. The way they appear now, however, is for the most part antithetical to the ideologies of the far right.
Concert programming is an issue that comes up again and again whenever equality in classical music is discussed, and here is no different. If the classical music world wasn’t seen to be constantly championing the same set of composers, invariably white and male (you know the drill by now), things might be different. It shouldn’t take the Chineke Orchestra to bring Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges to London, or its cellist and 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year, 18-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason to donate money to his former school to ensure accessibility to classical music for all. We’re all too well aware of classical music’s checkered past when it comes to nationalism, so why is it that even now, 18 years into the 21st century, the likes of Karajan continue to be unambiguously celebrated as greats, as the “emperor of legato,” whatever that means, while racial bias is counteracted on a small-scale basis, somewhat distant from the money and opportunity of the classical music mainstream. That’s not to say that there’s a conscious push against the idea of a classical music sphere more in tune with the outside world, but complacency unfortunately breeds complicity. When the composer and performer Tyshawn Sorey spoke to VAN last year, he talked about the “punitive Jazz label” attributed to black composers that implies a whiteness to the classical notion of a “composer,” with which they would be incompatible. It’s within these invisible, institutional, or systemic biases that nationalists and white supremacists find fertile ground to propagate their views.
It’s an issue of classical music’s image. Atonality, new music, and modern opera are not the reserve of the far-right, but they are unfortunately also not what springs to mind for many uninitiated with the genre. Even if anybody with a degree of integrity would refute the notion that classical music is an essentially white form, the fact that one of the longest-running threads on one of the web’s most disturbing and extreme meeting points for fascist ideology entertains the notion should be impetus enough for us to act, instead of wait, for change. ¶