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The New Yorker

BLACK SCHOLARS CONFRONT WHITE SUPREMACY IN CLASSICAL MUSIC. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his book “Stride Toward Freedom,” wrote, “On a cool Saturday afternoon in January 1954, I set out to drive from Atlanta, Georgia, to Montgomery, Alabama. . . . The Metropolitan Opera was on the radio with a performance of one of my favorite operas—Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor.’ So with the beauty of the countryside, the inspiration of Donizetti’s inimitable music, and the splendor of the skies, the usual monotony that accompanies a relatively long drive—especially when one is alone—was dispelled in pleasant diversions.”

What does it mean, if anything, that King was listening to bel-canto opera as he made his historic journey to preach his first sermon at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church? One response would be to find something curious, or even contradictory, in the image of King enjoying Donizetti behind the wheel of his car. He was poised to become a titan in the civil-rights movement; classical music is a world in which Black people have seldom been allowed to play a leading role. Much the same question could be asked about W. E. B. Du Bois, who admired the music of Richard Wagner to such an extent that he attended the Bayreuth Festival, in 1936. Even though Wagner was notoriously racist, Du Bois said, “The musical dramas of Wagner tell of human life as he lived it, and no human being, white or black, can afford not to know them, if he would know life.” …

Since nationwide protests over police violence erupted, in May and June, American culture has been engaged in an examination, however nominal, of its relationship with racism. Such an examination is sorely needed in classical music, because of its extreme dependence on a problematic past. The undertaking is complex; the field must acknowledge a history of systemic racism while also honoring the individual experiences of Black composers, musicians, and listeners. Black people have long been marginalized, but they have never been outsiders. …

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