Mediocrity's Envy of Genius: The Dirty Secret of Cancel Culture

AP Photo/MTI, Peter Kollanyi, File

The Cultural Revolutionaries at the New York Times this week reviewed the witch hunt against classical musicians, who stand accused of racism simply because the great Western composers happened to be white. Cancel culture is despicable in all of its manifestations, but I take this particular instance personally: I trained in the school of musical analysis founded by Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935). My principle teacher was Carl Schachter, who also taught Prof. Timothy Jackson of the University of North Texas, the target of this particular witch hunt.


It’s all about envy.

My childhood piano teacher kept a recording of Florence Foster Jenkins, the deluded society lady portrayed by Meryl Streep in a 2016 comedy, as a horrible example for youth. Her voice would de-feather a screech-owl, but no-one was allowed to tell her she couldn’t sing. The only classical musician still active who bears comparison to Ms. Jenkins is a certain Philip Ewell, now a professor of music theory at Hunter College, who posts videos of himself torturing a cello until it squeals in pain. Prof. Ewell is African-American and has won his fifteen minutes of fame by denouncing whiteness in classical music.

All this would be of scant interest except that Prof. Ewell has become the scourge of alleged racism in the classical music world, and may have succeeded in extirpating from the academy a grand tradition of musical analysis that began with Beethoven. Ewell also dismisses Beethoven as merely “an above average composer” whose prominence erases the contribution of composers of color. Thanks to Ewell’s rampage against supposed white supremacy in classical music, the living chain of teacher-to-pupil transmission of this aspect of Western civilization may be broken irreparably.

For the strong of stomach (or hard of hearing), I refer to the fugue of Bach’s 5th Cello Suite as performed by Prof. Ewell (at minute 3:25) in a video posted on his personal website. It is hard to find a single note in tune; it is the sort of butchery that would earn an aspiring high school musician a condescending pat on the shoulder and a suggestion that he switch to the triangle. No-one was allowed to tell Florence Foster Jenkins how awful she was because she was rich and connected; it is a complete mystery to me why no-one has had the courage to stop Prof. Ewell from humiliating himself in public. Unlike the deluded Mrs. Jenkins, Ewell surely knows that everyone is laughing at him behind his back. The work he has put into his performances shows that he wants to play well, but is condemned to sotto voce ridicule.


To have played Bach this way is a humiliation. To push it into the public’s face is an act of unadulerated rage: You, my listeners, will have to suffer along with me, the talentless Prof Ewell thinks. This isn’t the Emperor’s new clothes so much as the Emperor as flasher. And Ewell is entirely right; the music world must bite its collective tongue and suppress a laugh on pain of excommunication.

Whatever our musical preferences, these are moments in which we need the classical style of composition. The musical style we inherit from the great composers is a continuing presence in our lives through film. The classical style of composition will never go out of fashion, my teacher Carl Schachter liked to say, because the movies need it; it is the only kind of music that can tell a story. “There are those,” intoned Ewell in a recent blog post, “who would actually take issue with me saying the Ninth Symphony is no more a masterwork that Spalding’s 12 Little Spells simply because we are told by whiteness and maleness that this couldn’t be the case. Beethoven was undoubtedly an above-average composer and he deserves our attention. But to say he was anything more is to dismiss 99.9% of the world’s music written 200+ years ago, which would be unscholarly, and academically irresponsible.”


Wrote the New York Times:

Professor Ewell, who also is on the faculty of the City University of New York Graduate Center, declined an interview with The Times. He is part of a generation of scholars who are undertaking critical-race examinations of their fields. In “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” the paper he presented in Columbus, he writes that he is for all intents “a practitioner of white music theory” and that “rigorous conversations about race and whiteness” are required to “make fundamental antiracist changes in our structures and institutions.”

For music programs to require mastery of German, he has said, “is racist obviously.” He has criticized the requirement that music Ph.D. students study German or a limited number of “white” languages, noting that at Yale he needed a dispensation to study Russian. He wrote that the “antiracist policy solution” would be “to require languages with one new caveat: any language — including sign language and computer languages, for instance — is acceptable with the exception of Ancient Greek, Latin, Italian, French or German, which will only be allowed by petition as a dispensation.”

Last April he fired a broadside at Beethoven, writing that it would be academically irresponsible to call him more than an “above average” composer. Beethoven, he wrote, “has been propped up by whiteness and maleness for 200 years.”


The grudge that mediocrity bears against genius is the purest form of evil. Thomas Mann’s postwar reworking of the Faust legend tells of the failed composer Adrian Leverkuhn who, in the final phase of syphilitic dementia, has written a cacaphonous cantata “to take back Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.” Leverkuhn had made a deal with the Devil and suffers the consequences. If the Devil has any taste in music, he won’t be in the market for Ewell’s soul.

Black Americans have a splendid history in classical music. The great Marian Anderson, who sang the national anthem at both the second Eisenhower inauguration and the Kennedy inauguration, had the voice of the century according to Toscanini, as well as sublime musicianship. Hear her in this arrangement of Brahms’ song “Of Eternal Love.” The soprano Kathleen Battle is the best coloratura of my generation, a far cannier interpreter than, say, Joan Sutherland. Battle used high intelligence and unerring musicianship to turn a rather small natural voice into a virtuoso instrument. Anderson became an icon of the civil rights movement by showing that a black contralto could produce authoritative interpretations of the Western classics. Ewell’s envy-ridden rampage is a disgrace to her legacy.



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