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Art and Ideology in the Classroom

A graduate student at Northwestern University has been in the news recently for refusing to participate in a concert and consequently being threatened with failing a class. One of the works on the concert programme, a 1957 piece by Howard Hanson entitled “Song of Democracy,” uses text from two poems by American poet Walt Whitman, and although the piece in question does not itself contain any problematic lyrics, baritone Timothy McNair insists that Whitman’s racist attitudes and writings in other areas of life are sufficient grounds to refuse performing any works associated with his poetic output.

McNair’s professor for the course, Northwestern choral director Donald Nally, disagrees with this premise and insists that McNair’s refusal to participate in the spring concert will earn him a failing grade in the class. McNair has, in return, filed complaints with school administrators and with the NAACP (and presumably gone to the media with his story). Now before I go any further in discussing this situation, I’d like to clarify a couple of things that are not immediately clear in the media coverage and in other discussions around the blogosphere, like this piece by Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic.

1) Some stories and discussions refer to this performance as a final exam for a music class. This is only trivially true, in the sense that students do indeed receive course credit for performing ensembles, but these types of courses are not generally evaluated with exams. Rather, students receive credit based on their participation in rehearsals and the final performance. Thus, there are no other assignments on which McNair’s grade could be based–the whole thing centres around the concert programme in question.

2) Some discussions and commenters wonder why McNair could not be assigned another piece in order to make the problem go away. The reason for this, again, is that it is not an individual assignment–the piece forms part of a concert programme for a large choir and orchestra, and participation in the choir for a given number of terms is a degree requirement for vocal performance students.

So, this kind of dilemma is one that musicologists run into frequently, especially any time we have to teach Wagner. Richard Wagner, as many of you probably know, wrote some pretty viciously anti-Semitic things in his essay Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music) as well as in other letters and personal diaries. This is compounded by the (somewhat overblown) popular perception that Wagner’s music was later adopted with great enthusiasm by the Nazi party during the Third Reich (Hitler was a fan, but Wagner was performed less often from 1933-45 than in years prior and Albert Speer noted that most of Hitler’s inner circle detested the music). This perception has also led to a long history of controversy regarding the performance of Wagner’s music in Israel and elsewhere (a controversy that actually forms much of the plot in one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm).

There have been a number of (misguided, in my opinion) attempts in the scholarly and popular press to redeem Wagner’s image by appealing to contemporary culture or personal circumstances, just as there have been a number of attempts to read Wagner’s antisemitism into even the most unrelated aspects of his artistic output.* It is up to us as teachers, then, to present students with an honest look at Wagner’s politics and artistic works, and explain that whatever students (or professors) may think of him, his massive influence on contemporary and later composers essentially requires his presence in any responsible curriculum.


Gesualdo sure gets a lot of play for a guy who brutally stabbed his wife to death. Just sayin’.

Yes, you may say, but there is quite a difference between making students learn about an objectionable work and making them perform it. The latter, after all, actually requires a kind of physical embodiment and intentionality absent in even the most active or engaged analysis or appreciation. While this is undeniably true, I ultimately don’t think it can serve as a sufficient rationale for students (or performers generally) to avoid a given work or composer. The Western canon is full of works with problematic aspects, many of which are right there in the text to be confronted and dealt with by performers and audiences. Opera especially is full of toxic patriarchal values, many of which result in the abuse or death of their heroines (short list: Carmen, La Bohème, Giovanna d’Arco, Madame Butterfly, Tosca, pretty much all of them). When we expand the search for problematic material beyond the text and into the lives of the artists, we find even more problems. Among the most important composers of the Renaissance were a wife murderer and a child molester, after all.

But you can still be a fan of problematic things, and for musicians this sometimes means performing them while acknowledging (or sometimes, if possible, subverting) the ways in which they are problematic. This is especially true for music students and professional musicians who have chosen to train for so many years in order to perform what is ultimately a deeply problematic repertoire. While I don’t want to get into the debate about the nature of the work as a text, I think that most of us can agree that in the case of Western Art Music (just as in the case with literature), we can’t just go back and change things we don’t like and pretend they never happened. This is doubly true for what lies outside the text–history, biography, cultural context, authorial attitudes and intent.

A student in a graduate performance programme has implicitly signed on to this cultural project, and a part of the paedagogy of musical professionalism does in fact require that students learn to perform (and perform well) even when they do not like the work in question (for whatever reason). Mr. McNair is welcome not to programme works he finds objectionable for his own recitals, but if he really wants the kind of professional certification that an MM in musical performance stands for, he’ll just have to play by the rules.

Featured image: Library of Congress / George C. Cox

*In my opinion there are actually very few clear instances of antisemitic tropes in Wagner’s operas. The most widely agreed-upon (if still controversial) case is Beckmesser from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; some scholars have advanced the dwarves Mime and Alberich from the Ring cycle.

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal (paypal.me/dandonnelly) if you like his work!

1 Comment

  1. June 11, 2013 at 9:08 pm —

    Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. Taming of the Shrew is sexist as all hell. Etc., etc., etc. In my experience, students benefit from confronting these issues and struggling with the cognitive dissonance induced by a racist genius.

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