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.