Are “mononyms” in classical music racist and sexist?

October 25, 2020 • 1:00 pm

Although all liberal media sites are getting woke, sites like Salon and HuffPost have gone beyond the pale, while Slate always seemed to retain more sanity. After all, that was where Hitchens often wrote—though I’m not sure he’d be welcome there now were he still alive.  At any rate, there’s a new Slate piece that not only indicts classical music and its pedagogy as racist and sexist, but argues that this bigotry is instantiated in using “mononyms”—last names only—for famous classical white male composers (“Mozart,” “Beethoven,” etc.), but demeans female and nonwhite composers by using both first and last names.

The author, Chris White (an assistant professor of music theory at the University of Massachusetts Amherst), suggests that to rectify this disparity, we “fullname” all composers, putting them on a level playing field of respect. What I’m trying to figure out is how much of what he says carries some truth.

You can read the article below by clicking on the screenshot.


The indictment is given without question, and perhaps there’s some truth to it. I don’t know enough about classical music to judge—it’s one of my glaring areas of cultural ignorance.

The past several decades have seen the world of American classical music reckoning with its racist and sexist history; as it has with many other areas of culture, that process has greatly accelerated over the past year. In my own corner of academia, the previous several months have seen an explosive focus on the inherent white supremacy and male-centrism within academic music research. This explosion was sparked by a lecture and an ensuing article by Philip Ewell, published in September, in which he calls out mainstream American music theory for its institutional racism. This flashpoint was preceded by work in similar veins by scholars like Ellie Hisama and Robin Attas, and subsequently brought into mainstream musical conservations by YouTuber Adam Neely and New Yorker writer Alex Ross.

White goes on to cite various attempts to rectify the overlooking of composers with “marginalized identities”, but is mostly concerned with how this “erasure” proceeds via mononyms.

The habitual, two-tiered way we talk about classical composers is ubiquitous. For instance, coverage of an early October livestream by the Louisville Orchestra praised the ensemble’s performance of a “Beethoven” symphony, and the debut of a composition memorializing Breonna Taylor by “Davóne Tines” and “Igee Dieudonné.” But ubiquity doesn’t make something right. It’s time we paid attention to the inequity inherent in how we talk about composers, and it’s time for the divided naming convention to change.

. . . For a lot of intersecting reasons, music critics, academics, consumers, and performers in the mid-19th through early 20th centuries thought about music history as the story of a few great men producing great works of art. (Of course, this tactic is very common in how we tell our histories in many domains.) Tied up in the respect and ubiquity afforded to these men is the mononym, or a single word sufficing for a person’s whole name. These canonized demigods became so ensconced in elite musical society’s collective consciousness that only one word was needed to evoke their awesome specter. Mouthfuls of full names became truncated to terse sets of universally recognized syllables: Mozart. Beethoven. Bach.

On the one hand, then, initiatives toward diversity and inclusion are placing new names on concert programs, syllabi, and research papers, names that might not have been there 10 or 20 years ago—or even last year. But these names are appearing next to those that have been drilled deep into our brains by the forces of the inherited canon. This collision between increasing diversity and the mononyms of music history has created a hierarchical system that, whether or not you find it useful, can now only be seen as outdated and harmful.

. . .As we usher wider arrays of composers into our concerts and classrooms, this dual approach only exacerbates the exclusionary practices that suppressed nonwhite and nonmale composers in the first place. When we say, “Tonight, you’ll be hearing symphonies by Brahms and Edmond Dédé,” we’re linguistically treating the former as being on a different plane than the latter, a difference originally created by centuries of systematic prejudice, exclusion, sexism, and racism. (Dédé was a freeborn Creole composer whose music packed concert halls in Europe and America in the mid-19th century.)

Going forward, we need to “fullname” all composers when we write, talk, and teach about music. If mononyms linguistically place composers in a canonical pantheon, fullnaming never places them there to begin with. When we say, “Tonight, you’ll be hearing symphonies by Johannes Brahms and Edmond Dédé,” we’re linguistically treating both composers as being equally worthy of attention. And while fullnaming might seem like a small act in the face of centuries of harm and injustice, by adopting a stance of referential egalitarianism, fullnaming at least does no more harm.

The last sentence is a bit weird, as why change a practice if there’s no advantage to doing so? But what I’m concerned with is whether fullnaming is demeaning. Now I can’t speak to classical music, except that I know that “Mahler” is more famous than “Alma Mahler”, but perhaps using the single name for Gustav refers not to sexism, but to how often the music of the two is played—that is, familiarity. (Of course, the relative frequency of performance could itself reflect sexism rather than quality.)

So I thought about painting instead, trying to see if famous white male painters, like Picasso and Rembrandt, are referred to in mononyms more often than famous nonwhite painters or women painters. I failed in this endeavor because I couldn’t think of many famous female or nonwhite painters (their relative paucity, again, likely reflects historical oppression). The first woman I thought of was Mary Cassatt, whom I always call “Cassatt”, but then there’s also one of my favorites, Frida Kahlo, whom I call “Frida Kahlo.” So that didn’t settle it. Then there’s “Grandma Moses”, but I’m not sure if that counts as the sexist use of two names. And I can analyze only my own usage here, as I haven’t paid attention to how society uses names.

As for nonwhite painters, I was at a loss for blacks, but the first two Asian artists who came to mind—Hiroshige and Hokusai—came to me as mononyms.

What about authors? Here there might be some sexism, as I refer to “Hemingway”, “Fitzgerald” and “Joyce”, but also to “Flannery O’Conner,” “Carson McCullers,” “Emily Dickinson”, and “George Eliot” (not her real name, of course, but the double name avoids confusion with T. S. Eliot). It may well be the case that, in general, famous women writers are more often discussed using both names, and if that’s the case, then sexism is a possible cause. After all, “George Eliot” is at least as famous as “T. S. Eliot”.

What about my own field—genetics and evolutionary biology? Here, at least, I always use single names, like “Fisher, Wright, Kimura, Haldane, Mayr, and Dobzhansky” for the men, and “Ohta, Franklin, and McClintock” for the women. I also speak of “Hershey and Chase” (one male, one female), as well as the married couple “Lederberg and Lederberg” (to be sure, her nonmarried name was Zimmer). The Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology was given to Doudna and Charpentier, and might have gone to Franklin along with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins (they could have split the DNA-structure prize between Chemistry and Medicine and Physiology). I can’t speak of how others refer to scientists, as I haven’t paid attention to the issue. But now I will.

For all fields, though, an alternative hypothesis to racism and sexism is one of familiarity and fame.  It’s undeniable that women artists, writers, and composers were subject to discrimination— why else would George Eliot and George Sand be the pen names of women writers?—and that this surely explains at least some of the relative paucity of famous women artists. That is, there aren’t as many famous women composers because there weren’t as many women composers, period. And if you’re less famous, using two names is a better identifier.

I’m convinced that there may be some truth in White’s indictment, but the composers he mentions with two names are also less famous than Beethoven and Bach. To find out if discrimination is the reason for “duonyms” for women and nonwhite composers, we have to compare name usage for groups of people of equal fame but of different race or sex. Given the paucity of famous nonwhite or women composers and painters, that’s a hard experiment to do.

As I said, in science I don’t think I discriminate.

Well, those of you with musical knowledge can weigh in below, but really, this issue holds for almost every field of endeavor.

162 thoughts on “Are “mononyms” in classical music racist and sexist?

  1. Adele, Beyonce, Kanye? We use single names when the subject is very well known. Were one trying to distinguish between Mozarts then one would have to use Wolfgang or Leopold or Nannerl as required.

      1. But for a some decades after he died in 1750, ‘Bach’ might have meant Johann Christian or maybe Karl Philip Emmanuel. Major musicians like Beethoven realized how fantastically good the father was, but it was Mendelssohn who really got Johann Sebastian regarded as e.g. by me anyway, being the greatest genius I know of, not just musical genius.

      2. But when a mononym is used we know it means Johann Sebastian.

        Do we? (Though I can’t think of ever having had a need to refer to any of the Bach family.)

          1. Oh I doubt I’ve ever heard (certainly never sought-out) any of their music. But the … is a “pride” of Bachs the correct plural noun? … the pride of Bachs come up in pub & competition quizzes on a regular basis.

    1. Yngwie J. Malmsteen always includes the “J” — presumably to distinguish himself from all the other rock guitarists named Yngwie Malmsteen. 🙂

      1. Thank god all the other injustices have been fixed while I’ve been napping. Antonio Salieri, you are revenged!

              1. By its description, that film makes Liberace sound like a prick. I’ll have to see it.

                When I was young, I lived for a while in Palm Springs and regularly jogged by Liberace’s home. I’d sometimes see him and he’d wave.

              2. I saw it a while back and can’t really remember if L came across as a prick. I just remember being pleasantly surprised at home good Douglas was in the role.

              3. Some friends of my aunt and uncle’s in SoCal were really thrilled to have tickets to see L live and really tried to drag my parents along when they were visiting. Knowing my dad, he probably said “thanks awfully”🤓

              4. Same with my aunt and uncle’s friend. And I’m sure they would swear up and down that he wasn’t a “fairy”, as they said back then.

              5. Yeah, it is funny. My mom saw Liberace as a “nice boy who loves his mother.” All of us kids figured he was a “friend of Dorothy”, as my dad would say.

    2. In the cases of Adele, Beyoncé Madonna etc, the single name thing is a deliberate choice of the artiste.

      In the case of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven etc, the single name thing is something that has arisen by common usage.

      1. I would like to know if single-name recognition is dependent on time/year. That is, since composers of any sort at some point arose when there were either none or none like them.

        So going further back than 17th c., Purcell comes to mind (without looking at Wikipedia). Early Music has a host of composers I’d have to look up, but would be recognizable as single names.

        Then it gets murky – music was a tradition, played or “composed” (probably improvised) by whomever was around to do it, and nobody remembers them – the nth court jester of King so-and-so, or the tribal / nomadic news report in any given continent.

        It seems more likely that single name recognition is a product of trivial things – not a grand conspiracy of white Y-chromosome containing H. sapiens. Was there racism and sexism? Absolutely. Does it explain the invented problem of “mononyms”? Absolutely not.

  2. In Classical music, Clara Schuman is an apt example. She is well known as a composer, and in her time, mid 19th Century, also as a performer. But references to her are always with both names while her husband Robert Schuman, also a famous composer, is almost never referred to by both names. In fact, I am an aficionado of Classical music, and I had to pull out my vinyl copy of his piano concerto to see what his first name was.

  3. I think it more chivalry than chauvinism. In yesteryear, it was common to call males by their last name, whereas women would be called by their full names or with an honorific.

    But if it is a problem, why is the solution binyming everyone rather than mononyming everyone?

    1. There has been a complaint (at least it physics/astrophysics academic circles) that female researchers tend to get referred to as first-name, last-name, wheres males tend to get referred to as title (Dr, Prof.) last-name. The suggestion is that this is sexist (de-valuing women).

      I’m not sure whether this bias is real (I’ve never seen statistics on it), but this is a current issue in academia.

      1. Glad to see there are no other problems in Physics and Astrophysics needing to be addressed. Hopefully a few shots around the LHC will provide an answer to this burning problem.

  4. The explanation for this may be straightforward: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Nielsen, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and early Stravinsky are concert hall staples. Similarly, when speaking of famous dead novelists we often speak of Austen, Wharton, and Woolf without any need to mention their first names. Why? It’s because they’re well known. So there.

    Getting back to music, Florence Price isn’t a well-known name. As for Caroline Shaw, she’s young and has only been on the classical scene for about a decade. And speaking of Shaw, her disc of string quartets, called “Orange,” is very good. I pay a lot of attention to modern composers or composers from recent decades (thought not so much the avant-garde crowd though I do like Ligeti a lot) and this CD has become a favorite.

    But, hey, maybe Thorvaldsdottir will one day become an exception. If she gains traction, will there be a need to mention her first name? Thorvaldsdottir is a “tougher” composer who leans more into the avant-garde side of things, but I do like “Aerial,” a CD of hers that came out a few years ago (I particularly like the piece called “Aeriality”).

    1. “…Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Nielsen, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and early Stravinsky…”

      But Richard Strauss left out (and Wagner, Handel, Vivaldi)?
      Especially with Nielsen in there IMO.
      What with the Strausses of waltzing and operetta, that’s a case where everybody gets the know Richard’s first name isn’t Johann.

      Should one of them be “Wolfie” after that film? Did she actually call him that?

      I suppose that the uncomfortable question is whether any of the female composers between 1700 and 1950 were able, despite society’s making it very difficult for them, to compose music at the level of the male composers whose first names are seldom spoken. Of course, that is hardly answerable, “level” being very subjective.

      As you do, I rank Mahler very highly. There is an interesting parallel with the way many academics divide their time: make your money as a conductor (lecturer) then get a few months to furiously get composing (researching) done. But Mahler never got past his 50s. Maybe that career conducting made him a better composer than he would otherwise have been.

    2. But doesn’t Thorvaldsdottir present another problem? it identifies a woman in terms of who her father was. I’m afraid the whole Norse tradition has to go.

      1. At least it identifies her as his dottir. All the people in my family, regardless of gender, were “Richardson.”

        Marilyn vos Savant took her mother’s maiden name as her own; of course, she was actually taking her maternal grandfather’s name. Maybe women should be named “mother’s given name + dottir.”

  5. her nonmarried name was Zimmer – That’s another area where naming has significance. Women “lose” there names not only for themselves, but for their offspring. Nowadays many women keep their own names after marriage, and some kids get hyphenated. I guess it’s up to the individual, but, at least when I was first married, my wife tried keeping her family name and found it unworkable, since banks and other institutions had a very hard time processing her accounts. Maybe today it’s easier.

    1. Barry in #5 above mentions Thorvaldsdottir. I’d been ignorant of her music, but without checking, she is surely Icelandic. I wonder how the woke will handle that, quite independently of music composers–Mr. Sam Viking from Isafjordur would have had children with names Samsson and Samsdottir until recently. Suppose Sam had earlier passed by what’s now Ireland and captured Ilene as a slave/wife. Now they sometimes get Ilenesson/Ilenessdottir. I do realize that “Sam” and “Ilene” are not exactly common Viking, nor present-day Icelandic, names!

      Look up the results of a women’s half-marathon in Iceland, and maybe the first 17 finishers will all have a name ‘….dottir’.

      Oops, to avoid condemnation by the wokijerks and my life ruined:
      …men’s marathon….’…son’.

      Iceland itself must surely be condemned for its binary-ness.

  6. Chris White has obviously not a problem in life and can spend his time in totally irrelevant observations. Good for him

  7. And those poor Black (capital used advisedly) tadpoles do all the hard work on the stave, whilst the (partly) white (lower case, ditto) notes, such as semibreves (whole notes on PCC(E)’s side of the Atlantic) loll around languidly.

    More seriously, mononyms are much more common in rock and pop regardless of skin colo(u)r – Prince and Björk spring to mind.

  8. In this battle to correct history to be more fair to people of color, I draw the line at changing names. (Note that I’m talking about the changing of names we use to refer to the actual person or thing to which the name refers, not historical names applied to schools, etc. which is done only to honor the person, place, battle, etc.) Such name changes abuse language itself. We might have trouble reading existing books as they would presumably use the old names. While changing “Beethoven” to “Ludwig Beethoven” and, more generally, making names longer by adding more words, is not a problem by itself. But I object to it as messing with the process by which language develops and changes.

    Notwithstanding artists (eg, Madonna) which boost things along artificially, the use of a single name to refer to someone famous reflects a collective decision that the shorter name is preferred because the longer one is no longer needed to uniquely refer to the person. This should be the only reason to shorten a name. Shortening a name for the reasons named in this article makes such language changes into a political process. Do we want a future Trump, for example, to dictate what names we should use for things? No, leave naming as a purely natural language process.

    1. “Ludwig Beethoven” C’mon, don’t forget the ‘von’ or ‘van’–some ancestor had acquired this, though apparently his dad was a bit of an ass, if I remember correctly.

    2. Way back when, everyone in a community knew everyone else by first name and/or a nickname. Until there started be too many of us with the same first name or nickname, a surname didn’t exist so was not used. Then, very often, the surname identified your employment or that of your father. Or, it told people if you lived in/on a special feature such as a hill or vale, or what natural feature you lived by such as a tree.

      Why do some of us act as though European naming traditions are all there are, and that they don’t change?

      Seems to me AOC recently taught our glorious president, tRump (I never use his full name and often use other less kind nicknames) a lesson about how to properly address other people with respect.

      Artists of whatever sort have been free to use the names they wanted for recognition, whether a single first or last name, a nickname, or a totally made up name. My guess is that in other venues, such as science or math, if I were to say “Pinker” or “Coyne” or “Hitchens” or “Sacks” without a title or first name, everyone would know that I intended it with the greatest degree of love and respect.

      1. Yes, naming is a complex, dynamic thing. It really can’t, and shouldn’t, be legislated.

        Speaking of names and Trump, I read that Trump’s war on immigration has a “no blanks” policy with respect to the forms that potential immigrants have to fill out. This means that they routinely reject people with no middle name, no siblings, etc. on the basis of failure to complete the forms. I’m sure the historians are going to be discovering crimes committed by this administration for decades to come.

    3. I’d also note that it isn’t just famous people that become mononyms but also infamous people. Like Hitler, Mussolini, etc.

  9. in re ” … … now I will, ” .that. is all which .FLIP / REVERSE. actually requires for one’s knowing.

    After knowing, what one does with that knowledge matters.


  10. How ridiculous. And I mean that in the true, original sense: it’s laughable. In retaliation, I plan to yell “MacPherson!!!!” in a battle cry while wearing the modern MacPherson kilt whenever I can and especially at Classical music concerts (which lucky for everyone I never attend).

    1. That would excite the crowd. But, someone in the peanut gallery is bound to shout back: “Don’t you mean Diana MacPherson!”, and a brawl ensues.

  11. Yes, this article is absolute and utter bollocks
    What does it signify in any meaningful sense that great artists are known by their surnames? And what does it help if we use their first (christian) names? Surely that just emphasises their cute girly names?
    Plath and Austen would be turning in their Roberts.

    1. Query, Mr Kerr, Anyone, Anyone: signify ? So do you when speaking and writing all
      that you do, do you always, always signify,
      and have your ancestors as well always,
      always signified, then … … with such
      the ‘ othering ‘ modifiers: men painters,
      men writers, men artists, men farmers,
      men researchers, men biologists, male
      musicians, male letter carriers, male
      firefighters, the male governments of
      Venezuela and of India, of only the men of
      the militaries of Nigeria and of China and
      of North Korea, the man anchors of NBC,
      of the male rebels of Nicaragua and Syria,
      the men professors at Georgia’s School of
      the Americas and of the Kremlin, the male
      nurses upon this part of history’s overall
      beaucoup pandemics, SCOTUS’ male justices ?

      I disagree, as is, not ? my right to do so,
      … … is n o t ” absolute and utter
      bollocks. ”


  12. There is the potential for similar issues to arise in the chess world. From what I can tell, though, the naming of female and male chessplayers tends to be handled much the same.

    When I write about chess, I might first refer to “Magnus Carlsen,” and then later on either “Carlsen” or “Magnus” for variety. The 2020 US Women’s Championship was won yesterday by Irina Krush, and so she might be referred to in the same way: both names, last name only, first name only. But familiarity is important: many non-chessplayers know who Magnus is, but even some chessplayers wouldn’t catch an out of context “Irina” mention.

    Of course, if using only the first name, it helps to be unique or distinctive as “Magnus” and “Irina” are. You can’t just say “Mikhail” without the proper context, as that could refer to either Tal or Botvinnik. And it would be weird to say “And in Ludwig’s Fifth…”, but not to say “and here Fabi forgot his home analysis,” a reference to Fabiano Caruana, the world’s second-best player.

    So, in other words, this is a bit of a tempest in a teapot. Let’s use common sense and I’m sure we’ll get through this together.

    Larry Smith

  13. I think this whole thing is ethnocentric since there are many cultures where the name does not reveal the gender/sex and can be assigned to any gender/sex.

  14. It’s trivially true that famous people in the past have been mostly men. If they also had a somewhat unique name, and rose to (proto) stardom, their surname became like a (proto) brand. In a small, elitist circle like classical music or high art, I can see how that can happen more easily than elsewhere. But I don’t see what this is supposed to say. The women who could work in such a distinguished area where privileged, just like their male counterparts.

    This thesis doesn’t pass a sniffing test when you can instantly name Björk, Madonna, Halsey, Shakira, Pink, Cher, Adele and so on. These are also artist names, like brands, and the theory needs to account for how a surname naturally becomes a sort of brand for men, but not for women, while somehow calculating away factors like popularity and elite circles (and supposedly sexism each, if you’re a dilligent woke crusader). It interesting how easy postmodernists can separate cleanly what’s other cultural forces and what’s sexism, but throw their hands up when it comes to the role of genetics in some traits.

    We could quickly check this with famous male musicians. Some names arguably reach that level, but I am not really sure. Hendrix or Bonham perhaps, but even they are also frequently Jimi and John. What about Clapton, Coltrane, Cobain, McCartney or Knopfer? Are Parton, Turner, Houston, Stefani, Bush, Raitt mentioned more often with their first name? I mean, people generally mention Eric, Kurt, John, Mark, Paul etcetera and they are some of the most famous musicians.

    Looks like nonsense to me.

    1. Knopfer = Knopfler. I’m sorry, but he’s one of my most favorite popular music composers and guitarists. Any number of female artists are recognized by single first or last names: Dolly (Parton), Celine (Dion), Judy (Garland). The same for male artists.

      1. a typo only, and yes, reconizable. I was only in doubt whether they are referred to only by their surname and whether there was a difference, where I didn’t see any.

  15. Perhaps full names have become more common since we tend to address people by their first name, rather than the family name.

  16. So glad to be back to this nonsense🤓 WordPress cut me off again last Tuesday. (This and the latest ducks suddenly appeared.) This, to me, is a tempest in a teapot. So many much worse things to worry about. Oprah, Aretha, Omarosa(sp?), Kellyanne😖 And I’d much rather call Kamala by her first name as there are a ton of Harrises.

  17. The suggestion that using full names is old-fashioned chivalry has some evidence, at least in the UK. In the 1970s the leader of the Liberal party, Jeremy Thorpe, was prosecuted for threatening his secret gay lover. The newspapers always referred to him with both names in the court reports, and it was pointed out that they never did this with other defendants – anyone lesser-known would have been just “Thorpe” after initial identification.
    I think some newspapers were shamed into changing their naming practices.

    1. Saw either 2/3 or 3/4 of a great mini-series on Thorpe (one episode didn’t record) with Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant.

  18. This is a good example of obtusely pretending to misunderstand, and of assuming a malign intent when a more obvious neutral or benign one is available. Mononyms arise naturally as a very straightforward result of fame: the better known a person is, the more securely one can refer to them by a single name with confidence that those hearing or reading your words will correctly identify them. We refer to “Beethoven” without qualification not because he’s male but because there is no other even minimally well-known composer of the same name.

    The exceptions are not because of gender but when two or more people must be disambiguated: CPE Bach, WF Bach and JC Bach will always be known by their initials because they must be distinguished from each other, as well as their more famous father (JS). Even here, the fact that their father is often known simply as “Bach” is a good illustration of the underlying principle: he’s by far the most famous of them, and therefore the mononym is assumed to refer to him. The same principle applies to Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann: they are “duonymmed” to disambiguate them from Felix and Robert respectively, and when the mononyms Mendelssohn and Schumann are used they’re assumed to refer to Felix and Robert because they are far better known as composers.

    You can see the fame principle at work in the subtle variations of naming between different countries: Elgar and Britten are famous in the UK, but in Germany they’re referred to as Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten (or even “der englische Komponist Edward Elgar/Benjamin Britten”), since people are expected to need a little extra help to identify them.

    So why aren’t female composers who don’t require disambiguation not mononymmed? Very simply because outside the world of contemporary classical music, which is the only one in which they’re represented in approximately equal numbers, there are none who have approached the minimum threshold of fame required for mononymming to function (by which I mean for their identify to be recognized by someone reading of hearing the name without further help). But for contemporary classical composers, *no one*, male or female, has approached this level of general fame among the general public. For previous eras of classical music, general fame among a general public pretty much peters out by the mid-20th century (say, after Stravinsky and Schoenberg). And in those times (i.e. before the mid-20th century) there simply weren’t enough women working as composers to reach that level of impact, and those that were did not reach the level of achievement of male peers who are mononymmed. Despite decades of assiduous digging in musical archives and the performance of many long-forgotten works by long-forgotten, as well as relatively well-known, female composers, there have as yet been no discoveries of overlooked great female composers, or even great individual works, though many of them certainly produced professional work every bit as good as second- and third-tier male composers of the time (i.e. the kind of male composers who are also duonymmed, like Anton Rubinstein). Again, the situation has changed since the mid-20th century, and female composers have emerged who are every bit as good as their (duonymmed) male peers.

    In this respect music is very different from literature, in which from the late 18th century onwards there have been female writers of a fame, and critical regard, fully equal to their male peers. And here, as expected, the fame principle can be seen at work: Jane Austen is known simply as “Austen”, Emily Dickinson as “Dickinson”, while George Eliot, author of the greatest novel in our language, is frequently duonymmed only to disambiguate her from T.S. Eliot, while the Bronte sisters are duonymmed only to disambiguate them from each other.

    1. “This is a good example of obtusely pretending to misunderstand, and of assuming a malign intent when a more obvious neutral or benign one is available.”

      I think instead that you misunderstand. The author did not imply malign intent; it is the very fact that the reason is ‘benign’–historically male dominated field intentionally downplaying female contributions (very much like in painting)–that the author suggests “adopting a stance of referential egalitarianism.” Surely if it were not malign, there would be no objection?

      1. “When we say, “Tonight, you’ll be hearing symphonies by Johannes Brahms and Edmond Dédé,” we’re linguistically treating both composers as being equally worthy of attention.”

        That’s the malign intent right there, because it assumes that if we don’t give Brahms’s first name, it must be because we don’t think Dédé’s symphony is “equally worthy of attention”. That is an insulting assumption, and not what’s actually happening at all. What’s actually happening is that Brahms is familiar enough not to need further identification, but Dédé isn’t. Constantly first-naming composers who don’t need it is a waste of breath, and gives the impression either that the writer/speaker doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or that they assume their readers/listeners don’t know what they’re referring to. Both are tiresome.

  19. For many years listening to the radio I thought Bela Bartok was a woman, then I was presented with Karol Szymanowsky. I am not much into classical music

  20. What about authors?

    A counter-example would be Collette.

    And what are we gonna do about Homer and Virgil and Aesop?

    As for classical composers, the two-name convention works fine for Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, and Mozart. But it seems a tad cumbersome when it comes to Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

    1. The Ancients didn’t have surnames and first names like us. For example Caesar was Gaius Julius Caesar.

      1. What I mean to say is they weren’t used like we use our names and they were there to show what family you belonged to (genius) and basically to give you a place in the Roman society.

    2. And Russian names typically include a patronymic, so Rimsky-Korsakov is really:
      Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov. Moreover, the use of Latin letters is obviously oppressive, as it discriminates against Cyrillic letters, by which Rimsky is: Николай Андреевич Римский-Корсаков. The use of Latin letters only is systemic alphabetism and a microaggression against the marginalized Slavophile community. I am surprised that Professor White missed this
      obvious defect in the endless campaign for
      referential justice.

        1. Now I’m thinking of that one-named Falco fellow:

          Er war ein Punker
          Und er lebte in der großen Stadt
          Es war in Wien, war Vienna
          Wo er alles tat
          Er hatte Schulden, denn er trank
          Doch ihn liebten alle Frauen
          Und jede rief
          „Come and rock me Amadeus“

        2. Turned out after Mozart’s death that his wife (Constanza IIRC) was very smart and capable and ready to do her own thing, despite the way Vienna and elsewhere all over the world was around 1800.

  21. There might be something to it, in the broad sense. It feels different to refer to people by just their last name rather than by their full name.
    Anyway, it seems as much a solution to refer to women classical composers who have achieved timeless status by just their last name. I don’t know of any, however.

    1. And, if one uses another person’s full name, some people are given only initials a first names, some are given two names, some three names, or more, preceding the surname. Then you have the “Vans” and “Vons”, the “Mcs” and “Macs”, the “dotters” and “sons”, et al. And, then you have all the conventions about what surname to give a child, father’s, mother’s or some interfering other.

  22. The cause of Name Justice will not be advanced by using duonyms because it unfairly oppresses Spanish composers, who typically have 5 (or more) names in their complete monicker. For example, the composer called mononymically just “Albeniz” is actually:
    Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz y Pascual.
    The baroque keyboard composer known to us as “Soler” is actually: Antonio Francisco Javier José Soler Ramos.

    Professor White’s program of “referential egalitarianism” therefore calls on us to refer to all composers by five names, if not more, as a blow for Progressiveism.

      1. In today’s Spain the mother’s surname can precede the father’s. The child inherits the first mother’s and the first father’s surname in the order chosen by the parents. If a family has two children the order of the surnames is allowed to be different for each child.

  23. “Going forward, we need to “fullname” all composers when we write, talk, and teach about music.”

    This is ridiculous. It’s a conversation for editorial boards, not for public consumption. When he says “we,” who is he talking to, for, or about? Academic writing still follows the rule of stating the full name the first time it’s used and last names after.

    So if he’s writing to/for/about blogger, does he really thin the general public will think it’s sexist to say “Beethoven,” when they habitually say “Adele,” “Madonna,” and “Beyoncé.” (And now, also, “Her”) In fact, if he wants to equalize the status of women by the way they’re named on the internet, he could start by writing about the way only women are afforded this option.

    I don’t think it’s a bad idea to use full names (for everybody), especially online, where word counts are less of an issue. It is indeed somewhat elitist to assume a common language of “great men,” but everyone under the age of 95 nowadays has a cell phone and can say “Hello, Google. What is Beethoven’s first name?”

      1. And Raffaello as well.

        And Dante the poet, while the other two “crowns” of Italian literature, Boccaccio and Petrarca, are known by their last names.

      1. 🙂 I suppose if Bob of Toledo were the most famous painter of his time, one could. At the gallery one would say “Holy Toledo, just look at that Toledo!”

    1. Good one.
      I also cannot help but remember that “In death, a member of project mayhem has a name, his name is Robert Paulson.”

  24. Well, in the author’s defense, he does at least play an instrument. I had assumed his particular corner of “music theory” was going to turn out like “physics education”, which one can apparently teach without any knowledge of physics.
    But this article seems to be an attempt to draw attention to himself, or perhaps to draw some limited approval from the folks who want to smash and decolonize everything.
    I agree with others here that the naming conventions are simply a matter of expedience. We say Beethoven because it is assumed that the listener will know exactly who we are referring to. The listener almost surely knows his full name, and it is very unlikely that he will be confused with other composers.
    In the case of Ludwig Van, we are also not going to be confused about whether one is speaking of the composer, or of the Olympic ski jumper or chess champion of the same name.
    I can say the words “Beethoven” or “Chopin” or “Tchaikovsky” with no further comment or context, and we know that I am referring to a particular person who was a composer of music. I bet most educated people would even hear in their head a bit of their music on hearing the name. If I say “Glass”, you would probably look at the sidewalk, assuming I am announcing a hazard. If I say “Phillip Glass”, there would be less ambiguity.
    If sexism were involved, we would just not have so very many female artists and writers of music who go by one name.

  25. This White fella is a centrist. I learned this week from my ‘Gender & Intersectionality’ MOOC that musical notation is racist. Miles Davis is going to really cop it for that. God knows what will happen to Neil deGrasse Tyson when he finds out what they think of binomial theorem. (Yup, it ain’t good).

  26. And then there is football … the real kind.
    The two most famous historical players I can think of (in my lifetime):
    and of course

  27. There may be a point to using full names if you are mentioning two composers back to back. But we mononym composers and artists because they are great and because the name is instantly recognizable. That also applies to Madonna and Prince. Of course those are first names, and unusual ones. I think the author is really overstating the case.

          1. Right. I was just trying to play the pedant by pointing out that during the time that he used the symbol that Ken linked to to identify himself, he was typically referred to as “TAFKAP.”

            Odd character and often pretentious, as many top artists and celebs of all sorts often are, but he sure did make a lot of good music. Very sharp dresser too.

              1. It does seem to me like it would take some above average self confidence in order to get up in front of everyone and pull off behaving as if “you’re all that” convincingly.

              2. Selling it. I think you can learn how to sell it without being a narcissist. It’s when you believe your own BS that there is a problem.

              3. Definitely. It is possible to be very self confident and also not be a self-centered prick.

              4. Could of fooled me, merilee. That level of nonchalant understatement makes the Duke of Ellington and the Earl of Uxbridge seem like drama queens.

  28. I thought this passage was telling:

    “Scholarship and pedagogy concerning women composers, especially those married to other composers (Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, for instance), have called out the unsavory practice of reserving the mononymic surname for the husband while referring to the equally-if-not-more-accomplished wife by her full name.”

    If Chris White, or those he references, genuinely think that Alma Mahler or Clara Schumann were “equally if not more accomplished” than their husbands *as composers*, then they either haven’t been listening to their music, or they aren’t using any recognized criteria of critical evaluation. Alma Mahler was a talented amateur song composer, but wrote nothing that compares to Gustav Mahler’s songs, let alone his symphonies. Clara Schumann was a great musician — one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century — and a fine and accomplished composer, though not of the first rank. In some minor works on which she and Robert collaborated (such as the 12 Gedichte Aus Liebesfrühling, in which she wrote 3 of the 12 songs), her contributions match and blend with his, but his songs in that cycle are workaday productions. Nothing Clara wrote compares to Robert’s great song cycles Ditcherliebe, Frauenliebe und Leben, or the op. 39 Liederkreis. And despite being a greater pianist than her husband, none of Clara’s solo piano works compares to Robert’s Kreisleriana, Davidsbündlertänze, Symphonic Etudes, or the Fantasie in C. That judgement isn’t arrived at by an education steeped in white male supremacy. It’s derived from listening to the music, which anyone can do, afresh, at any time, for themselves. If anyone doubts it, I invite them to give it a go.

  29. It’s a pretty comprehensive waste of time, but around here one has to be careful, if talking astronomy and or geology to distinguish between the three Darwins : George, Charles and -wins.
    And if the conversation lurches into poetic similes for evolution, there’s a 4th Darwin to watch out for. “Lunatic” Darwin remains awkwardly ambiguous.
    Where the family name alone is sufficient to unambiguously distinguish who one is talking about, “mononyming” is fine. Otherwise, you need the binomial, or more, for disambiguation.

  30. 1. Bravo (pun intended) to the commenters unafraid to be called racist or sexist.

    2. “Going forward,”

    Oh dear…

    “… we need to “fullname” all composers”

    Prof. White fails to explain how this … “fullnaming”?… what does that mean and how will it work?… will solve problems of racism and sexism.

    3. Strauss. Richard or the Blue Danube one, who I never remember without looking. Both male. No sexism here.

    4. Will racism and sexism be solved when every name is .. what Prof. White said everyone must do? Multinymed? Is that a word, and can I use it in Scrabble?

    5. Insert Menckenism here as needed — Uh-oh, I just mononymed. Mononyms are everywhere!… this is precisely the effect that teachings of religion or a conspiracy theory have on the victim — one sees the signs everywhere, further confirming the truth of the religion or conspiracy theory.

    1. 6. It is special pleading to say *composers* have to be … fullnamed to solve problems of sexism or racism. Women can claim themselves represented in the greatest performers of recorded history as household lastnames : on the spot I can think of Uchida, Argerich, Te Kanawa, Hahn, Deutscher, Battle,… so why they don’t “count”?

      1. Very good point! Let me add a few more off the top of my head: Boulanger (Nadia, not forgetting about her sister Lili), Ponselle, Schwartzkopf, Callas, Caballe, Price, Landowska, Tureck…

      2. 6A. It is special pleading to insist that *classical* composer “mononyms” are racist or sexist. Consider the names of these iconic innovators that don’t count to Professor White :

        Satchmo <- not even his given name

        And if I wrote “Joni”, that would be sufficient – but so what anyway if not?

        Other iconic musicians that don’t count to Professor White :

        Billie Holiday <- sounds complete with both names
        Ella <- last name not really needed.
        Bird <- not even his given name.

  31. One woman goes by the name “She”, Ursula Andress. Name me one guy who goes by the name “He”. He-Man doesn’t count.

  32. As a society…. we have nothing (NOTHING?) better to do than these semantic games which don’t change a damn thing except satisfy a need in some people so self flagellate and virtue signal?
    Like… there is an ACTUAL racist outcome differential war on drugs going on people…..
    Voter suppression of black people…

    Y’know: REAL stuff.

    D.A., J.D., NYC

  33. Basquiat is a famous nonwhite painter who is known by his last name alone. I just found out five minutes ago that his first name was Jean-Michel.

    1. One of the great early performances by the great American actor Jeffrey Wright was as the title character in the biopic Basquiat, the cinematic directorial debut by painter Julian Schnabel.

      It features an all-star cast, including supporting roles by David Bowie as Andy Warhol and Gary Oldman as a thinly disguised version of Schnabel himself.

      1. Wright looks good in the trailer, but critics found the film wanting. “But as Schnabel has explicitly gone for the real Basquiat slant, it’s puzzling that Wright is given all of 30 lines throughout the entire film, the origins of Basquiat’s blazing talent are snubbed, his sexual orientation and Herculean drug intake are totally bypassed, and his web-like graffiti art is used only as background furniture.”

  34. I’ve noticed a slight difference in my usage of first, last, or ‘double namers’ when I refer to famous men and women in responses. But I figured this was just an area of future self-improvement, not a social injustice worth telling everyone to change the way they speak.

    In some ways this is the problem of wokeism in a nutshell. They take something that might be considered a legitimate but minor ethical issue that individuals are reasonably capable of handling themselves (should I boycott Chik-fil-a? Should I tell the professor he said something that I found offensive?), and they blow it up into a concern for all of society. If someone’s using single names for men and double names for women, call them on it. Make them aware. Then move on with your life. No more need be done.

    I’m reminded a bit of Ambrose Bierce’s entry for “Christian” in his devil’s dictionary. Tweaking it a bit…

    “WOKE, n. One who believes that social justice is an unimpeachable set of ideals admirably suited to the behavioral needs of his neighbor.”

Leave a Reply