Thinking of the Music of a Rabid Racist on His Birthday
By the time this is published I will have crossed the Atlantic and, depending on how soon you check in after it goes live, will either be on a train heading from Brussels to Amsterdam to attend the 2010 Gaudeamus Week or will have already made it to the Gaudeamus opening reception (on that front, more soon).
But before I headed out of town I updated some of the information in our NewMusicBox composer birthday database. You might have noticed that on whatever day you visit NewMusicBox you can see a list of American composers of all stripes who were born on that day. A few years ago, I learned about a composer opining that his name did not appear on NewMusicBox on his birthday because “Frank doesn’t think I’m important enough.” How silly. My crystal ball can only ferret out the birthdays of composers if that information is accessible somewhere—a personal website, a readily obtainable book, I’ve even resorted to Facebook from time to time. If you’re missing from our list, just drop me an email. (Include a relevant subject header please!)
Anyway, all of this is a prelude to a story about a composer born today (September 6) named John Powell. I had known precious little about him, except for owning a recording of his solo piano music which I hadn’t listened to for many years, until I updated our birthday database.
Powell (1882-1963) was a formidable piano virtuoso and his hefty and very long compositions for solo piano—such as the Sonata Psychologique (1906) and the Sonata Teutonica (1913)—are beyond opulent and frequently border on being overbearing. (I remembered this much but had it re-confirmed when I dug up my old CRI disc and listened again a few days ago; you can hear snippets of it on Amazon and come to your own conclusions.
There was nothing particularly memorable about the program notes for the recording, so I was really unprepared to discover a substantial and well-documented essay online (in PDF form which contains a vivid account of Powell’s extreme racist ideology and the very active role that he took on behalf of racist causes. Admittedly music history is filled with embarrassing anecdotes and even more substantial character flaws present in many important composers of the past—there’s a reason it’s taboo to play Richard Wagner’s music in Israel. But nothing I have ever read compares to Powell’s distasteful trajectory. In 1924, the lifelong Virginian helped sign in to law a Virginia Racial Integrity Act, which made it illegal for “whites” and “non-whites” to marry one another and, earlier on, authored a pamphlet urging like-minded citizens to shun immigrants and to prepare for “final solutions of our racial problems.”
While I am truly aghast at John Powell’s attitudes and actions, I have never believed in censorship, so I would never call for a ban on the performance of his music. Not that it needs one; how often does his music get performed nowadays? I’d dare say this essay might be the most attention he receives on his 118th birthday. But his story poses larger questions. People like to say that music has nothing to do with the biography of the person who wrote it—in fact, that’s a typical response of an otherwise politically progressive Wagnerite. But upon hearing Powell’s music, I did find it overbearing even before I listened again with the knowledge I had gained from the essay I’d read. Might his music actually be the music of racism? Can music connote such things? And if so, might it be even more important that people listen to such music with informed ears so that such repugnant and outmoded ways of thinking be thoroughly rejected once and for all?