Rethinking the Concert Hall – Part 3: Programming (Diversity)

This is the third installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the first part here and the second part here.

Programming (Diversity):

Ah, the classics… Beethoven, Handel, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Debussy, Brahms. Names that appear on countless concert programs year after year. Names that fill “best of” lists and those cheesy classical compilation albums. Names that pretty much any person would recognize, whether they are familiar with classical music or not. Names that have stood the test of time.

However, as wonderful as these composers and their music are, something is missing. Where are the women composers? Where are the non-white composers? Where are the living composers?

One burgeoning issue that classical organizations are now facing regards the subject of repertoire and programming. Each year, when orchestras announce their upcoming seasons, there is an alarming focus on the same dead, white (mostly European), and male composers. Little space, if any at all, is left for variety—namely new works and/or works by minorities. (This post focuses on the latter area. The first—the issue of new music—will be the subject of the next installment.)

As such, the following question has become more pertinent than ever in this day and age:

How can orchestras better reflect the diversity of our modern world?

The canon, not the cannon!

The notion of the classical music canon is mostly to blame for this phenomenon. Similar to other forms of art such as painting, literature, and film, the classical canon consists of what are considered to be the “greatest” pieces of music ever written—ones that are time-tested and deemed worthy of being heard over and over again. However, this canon is naturally restricting. Let me explain why.

Now, the classical canon didn’t always exist. Pre-1800s, most concert audiences wanted to hear the newest pieces from the hottest composers. (Haydn’s visit to London is a perfect example of this—people would often flock to concerts that featured his latest symphony.) As the Romantic era got underway, though, concertgoers gradually became less interested in the new and innovative and turned their attention to the works of past “masters”—figures such as Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart—who, by this point, had all been long dead. Beethoven, whose music had received mixed reception during his lifetime, was particularly lauded and over time, he became the stoic figurehead of Western art music. Furthermore, the concert hall was no longer a place for mere entertainment—the music heard within its walls needed to be serious, contemplative, and morally uplifting.

Yet the emergence of the canon also had some disturbing side effects, creating limitations for composers and artists who didn’t “fit the mold” of the traditional classical musician. Namely, women in the nineteenth century were not typically encouraged to be creators of music—only basic skills on the piano and singing were deemed socially acceptable for most. Of course, there were plenty of women who DID compose despite societal expectations, but many people at the time didn’t believe that women could become truly “great” composers like their canonic counterparts. (One particularly shocking diatribe can be viewed in the 1890 book Woman in Music by the Boston music critic George Upton. It seriously has to be read to be believed.)

Lilian Elkington in the 1920s
Ever heard of Lilian Elkington? Sadly, few people have.

Naturally, this created some obstacles for living composers, many of whom strived to meet these new expectations and write music that was intellectually stimulating and would ultimately secure their place in this “musical museum” (a term coined by musicologist J. Peter Burkholder). Johannes Brahms is probably the most famous example of this struggle—it took him over twenty years to complete his First Symphony and gather the courage to have it performed in public. Its premiere finally occurred in 1876, when the composer was forty-three years old. (Ironically, despite his initial reservations, Brahms is now a prominent member of the canon alongside the other two “Bs”—Bach and Beethoven).

Other minorities and composers of color faced hardships as well, with many having to overcome racism, discouragement, and other roadblocks to get their musical voices heard. A number of these figures triumphed despite the circumstances, but sadly, as a whole, many have been lost to the annals of history and are unknown in today’s public consciousness.

Fast forward to 2018. Has the canon—this metaphorical list of “great” dead white guys—changed or diversified at all? Are there any women or composers of color who have been added to this exclusive group? Let’s take for instance both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra. When both orchestras announced their 2018–19 seasons earlier this year, how many women composers appeared on their lineup?


Yup, that’s right. In the seasons of two full-time orchestras, two of the most esteemed ensembles in the United States who perform hundreds of pieces throughout the year, neither will present a single piece by a woman this concert season. It doesn’t take a PhD in musicology to realize that something is pretty messed up with that.

When I see orchestras continue to program all-male seasons.

Now, to be fair, the Philadelphia Orchestra has since rectified their oversight, and there are plenty of other organizations who ARE doing amazing things to promote women composers and composers of color, both living and deceased. The LA Phil, for instance, has a genuinely astonishing lineup planned for their 100th anniversary season. Some 20+ works by women will appear throughout the orchestra’s season this year, which is more than any other full-time orchestra in the United States. The group will also present some concerts that highlight composers of color, including a mini-festival featuring the music of William Grant Still. This is an eclecticism that is unprecedented and one that orchestras around the globe should strive to model.

Interestingly enough, whenever there is talk about diversifying efforts within orchestras and arts organizations, there seems to be a tiny contingent of people who are hesitant. Some worry that the classics that they know and love will somehow disappear, that Beethoven will never be played again. What a ridiculous thought! Seriously, Beethoven is not going anywhere anytime soon. Pieces by minorities will only complement these time-tested works and allow them to be heard in a new light.

Others roll their eyes, “I just want to hear good music regardless of who wrote it.” Well, I would say to them, how do we know if the music of Lili Boulanger or Julius Eastman or Ethel Smyth is any good if it’s almost never performed? Discussion and actual steps for diversity within classical music are crucial, since—as I’ve shown—there are anachronistic ideas that are innately embedded within this canon that we now take for granted. Ideas that have controlled precisely whose music gets to be remembered and heard over and over.

At this point, before I wrap things up (and before I start coming across as a whiny SJW—heaven forbid!), I would like to emphatically stress that I have absolutely NOTHING against the “classics.” These composers and pieces remain beloved for a reason—it’s some pretty darn good music! And further, the whole reason that I got into classical music and music history was because of the classics! Pieces like Tchaikovsky’s The NutcrackerHandel’s Water Music, and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony all hold fond memories that I cherish to this day, and all deserve to be played and heard for years to come.

What can be done, though, to set aside this outdated narrative and enter a new chapter? There are many possibilities, but rather than outline them here (there are many others who have done so more thoroughly and eloquently), I will suggest what is perhaps the easiest and most obvious solution.

Simply put, orchestras and other music organizations need to make an actual, tangible commitment to diversity in the music that they present to the public.

That’s it. Draw up a plan, establish a quota, and stick to it. Simple, really.

The California Symphony is one such organization who is committing to change. Among other policies, the orchestra has instituted an admirable plan for diversifying their concert programs beginning this season:

We commit that 80% of programming will honor core masterworks repertoire of the European tradition and 20% will focus on underrepresented talented constituencies.

Specifically, with five concert sets per season and typically three pieces on each program, California Symphony performs about 15 works each year. Of these 15 slots, we commit to program:

At least 1 female composer

At least 1 composer of color

At least 1 living composer

We acknowledge that often, but not always, a female composer or composer of color will also be living. In these circumstances, we still commit to filling all three slots, meaning an additional living composer will be programmed on the season.

See how easy it is? No frills. No extra money spent. No harm done to the “classics.” Just an opportunity to showcase good music that represents ALL voices.

Classical music is a gift that has the power to transcend barriers that so often divide; let’s make it a tool that can showcase the best that humanity has to offer rather than just the talents of a select group.

To be continued…

Links for further reading:

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