One of the reasons I became a musician is that I’ve always felt that a career in music is a great way to avoid doing harm. Most professionals are in positions where a serious mistake can cause damage. I could not handle that pressure. As a musician, if I make a mistake, the sound waves simply float away. Generally speaking, music is reasonably innocuous most of the time. But the world of music history is full of such inequity that one must acknowledge the social justice issues in music. When music excludes certain groups, it does harm. When music makes one group feel left out or disregarded, or threatened, that music does do harm.
Take for instance our vast repertory of western classical music. Almost all of it was composed by white men of the 18th and 19th centuries. These men, even the poor ones, lived privileged lives. They say Johann Sebastian Bach had 23 children. No he didn’t. His wife, Anna Magdalena, had the children. Imagine what her life was like dealing with such an enormous family, while enduring many pregnancies, while Johann was pursuing his art. Anna was talented too, but we will never know if she could have composed music. Perhaps she did, and let Johann take credit. It is a historical fact that she helped him write out music scores, and that their music hand notation was essentially indistinguishable by the end. So, Anna took care of a huge family...AND helped with music work. Sound familiar? Yet, no one applauds her work.
One reason that we do not hear the piano works of non-white-male composers is because musicians are not taught early on; their teachers were not taught this music, nor their teacher’s teachers, and so on, all the way back to the date of composition. It starts at the piano lesson level. As a piano teacher, I introduce works by great women composers as soon as I can. I do so on the merits of these wonderful works and not because I’m a feminist, though I proudly am. I simply don’t want to miss out on any excellent music. But I should do much more.
For me, WHO writes the music matters. I do not play music written by anti-Semitic composers like Wagner. I do not play any confederate tunes. But I should be even more mindful of who writes everything I play. Reading an accurate biography of Beethoven will make you loathe many aspects of the man. Read a modern analysis of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, and it will be ruined for you. So many classical composers were men who, though musical geniuses, were not necessarily people one would admire. Why do we accept this? In other genres, I can think of only a handful of pop artists that should elevated for their humanity. We treat our artists as if they have some inherent wisdom, but they don’t. So, at the very least, we should not accept misogyny in our music creators.
Music is by no means an equal opportunity profession. I was lucky enough to have parents who could afford lessons, a piano, and had time to drive me to music class. Later in life, my composition teacher was a privileged white man teaching another privileged white man the works of dead privileged white men. Seems like some sort of weird nepotism now that I really think about it. Gender bias is everywhere in music (as most of you know) but especially in improvisatory styles. Many great non-male musicians have worked their way to the top in Jazz, but it is still a male-dominated genre...to an embarrassing extent.
Moving on, what is our role in the progressive development of music? Play the works of non-white-male composers. Great ones... not just singer/songwriters... I’m talking about great composers. It starts there. Commission such work. Do so, not as a political statement, but because we want to hear this music. It’s part of our collective human achievement. Historically, there are several female composers who, working twice as hard as their male contemporaries because they were also doing all the work at home, were able to add masterpieces to our classical repertory. Clara Wieck Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn are my favorites, but there are so many with less known names which I have obviously never studied. The music exists.
My goal going forward is to focus more on the works of non-white-male composers, both at church and in my personal music study. It shall be my professional development in the fall when the learning curve of the pandemic flattens a little. Next year is going to be wonderful. I can’t wait...