Programming music by underrepresented groups: how do we reach our new normal?

By Megan McLaughlin

The year 2020 started with even more performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s compositions than usual — many symphonies, chamber music societies, and organizations announced their plans to perform all of the legendary Romantic composer’s nine symphonies, complete piano sonatas, string quartets, and more in honor of his 250th birthday. It’s a shame that the dead white guy can’t be here with us to celebrate.

In the 2019 report of “The year in statistics” from Bachtrack, a London-based online classical music magazine, Beethoven was listed as the most performed composer of the year, based on the 34,648 concerts the publication listed on their website. Beethoven was also first in 2018 and 2016, and was second only to Mozart — another dead, white, male composer — in 2017, 2015, and 2014. Considering his undisputed popularity in ordinary years, many were not thrilled to hear of a yearlong celebration of a composer who is already given plenty of attention.

The yearlong Beethoven 250 celebration has resparked the conversation about why we keep praising the music of long dead, white, male composers. In this day and age, there are plenty of composers who are living, of color, and/or do not identify as a cis-het man, whose music deserves to be heard. Many of the voices in the conversation about inclusivity in music promote such composers, but does adding a qualifier of being “queer” or “black” or “nonbinary” compromise the music itself by only being acknowledged through the composer’s identity?

Ironically, some of those who call for greater inclusivity in the field of classical music take their mission to a level that could be called exclusive. Many orchestras have programmed concerts composed entirely of works by female composers — something I would describe as well intentioned, yet misguided. Programming concerts only of works by female composers is in the same vein as taking a full year to celebrate Beethoven 250 when his works are already enormously popular. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you necessarily should.

Including music by female composers in concerts should be a means of expanding and diversifying repertoire in ways not seen historically. Highlighting female composers because they are women results in comments by concert-goers such as “this is a powerful message,” instead of praise for the music itself. 

While many attempts at inclusivity fall short of genuine, Musicology Duck’s #ListenWider challenge is an example of advocacy done right. Inspired by Book Riot’s #ReadHarder challenge, Musicology Duck started 2020 by announcing their hopes to listen to music that will push them to think harder, as well as encouraging others to do the same. The list of 30 prompts includes “a campaign song for each of the opposing candidates in any election, current or historical,” “two different tracks that sample the same song,” and “a song written by or from the perspective of an immigrant,” as well as points that address gender and race. Instead of encouraging inclusion for the sake of inclusion, the #ListenHarder challenge pushes listeners to engage with thought-provoking music as a means of expanding what they typically listen to, as well as think about and admire the many factors that contribute to a piece of music’s composition.

I am a woman who plays a brass instrument — another area traditionally dominated by men. For my Junior Recital this past October, I performed works by Jane Vignery, Jan Koetsier, and Valerie Coleman — three works that I wanted to devote several months of my life to learning before sharing them with a group of over 50 family members, friends, and mentors. Following my concert, I had more than one person congratulate me on curating a program of all women composers. Joke’s on them — Jan Koetsier is a man, and I picked works because of how much I liked them, not because of who wrote them.

Fighting the good fight of promoting inclusivity in classical music is something that should happen immediately, but not all at once. Putting one piece by a woman on a concert with white men instead of programming works by only female composers is a way of saying “here’s our new normal” instead of “this is a full-out revolution.” You can hate Beethoven because his music is overplayed, but you can’t hate him for writing music that was revolutionary in its day and influenced the state of the classical music that came after. Regardless of who composes what, we’re all musicians, and we should support each other. I want to see more music by minority composers because they have a valuable perspective and brilliant pieces to share, but I want to do it the right way.

Inclusivity is great. Tokenism is not. Some of the voices calling to cancel Beethoven 250 are getting the two mixed up.

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