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?

19 thoughts on “Thinking of the Music of a Rabid Racist on His Birthday

  1. colin holter

    Not having heard it, my gut instinct is that a long and bombastic piece from the early 20th century entitled “Sonata Teutonica” is almost certain to represent a deliberate encoding of Spenglerian racialist ideology. I wrote earlier about H. P. Lovecraft, whose entire literary thesis was predicated on a downfall of humanity caused in large part by miscegenation, and this Powell dude sounds pretty similar.

    I’d submit that it doesn’t really matter whether or not one can tell that Powell was a racist just by listening to his music divorced from a cultural or biographical context (and furthermore that such “ex nihilo” listening would be a very problematic practice no matter what repertoire we’re talking about). We know that Powell was a bad person, and we’re on very firm ground when we assert that his music is an articulation of an absolutely disgusting and pathetic worldview. Eff him.

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  2. ChristianBCarey

    Yeah, it’s sometimes difficult for me as a listener to separate the polemical diatribes stated by composers from their music. Much as I regret saying so, I’ve found it harder to cosy up to Ruggles and Wagner since I learned more about just how odious their views were. But I think that has more to do with me than with any encrypted ideas in their music.

    Still… Sonata Teutonica?!?

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  3. davidwolfson

    Yeah, you wouldn’t want to listen to a racist diatribe—but a piece of instrumental music isn’t a racist diatribe, no matter how much its composer might want it to be. Everyone who listens to a piece of music gets something different out of it. The conversation is between the music and the listener, not between the composer and the listener. Beethoven’s dead, and his political views are immaterial to how I hear his music; likewise with Wagner; likewise with Powell, if I’d ever heard any (I admit that Frank’s description doesn’t make me eager to find it).

    Now, if he were alive, that might be a different story; if buying his music meant funding his cause, that would be reason enough to stay away. But he’s dead. He can encode all he wants to; I’m going to hear music. It’s possible to appreciate Shostakovich’s music without any knowledge of Soviet Russia, after all.

    David Wolfson

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  4. colin holter

    Yeah, you wouldn’t want to listen to a racist diatribe—but a piece of instrumental music isn’t a racist diatribe, no matter how much its composer might want it to be. Everyone who listens to a piece of music gets something different out of it.

    I think a piece of instrumental music could absolutely be tantamount to a racist diatribe. Certainly you’re not obliged to register the combination of musical topics and metaphorical formal gestures that might be necessary to bring such a diatribe about. But you’re equally at liberty to take Rudyard Kipling’s pastoral view of colonialism at face value, or I guess whatever value is in front of face value, for instance. In this respect I think that reading a work of literature is pretty similar to “reading” a performance of a piece of music. To put it another way, the only way not to be bothered by Wagner or Ruggles or Powell or whoever is to keep the blinders that obscure incriminating details both generally sociocultural and specifically musical over your eyes for as long as possible.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t dig Parsifal: It just means that digging Parsifal exposes a deficiency in my moral character that allows me to enjoy experiencing a mystificatory, socially retrogressive spectacle.

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  5. cbustard

    Ironically, considering Powell’s racism, his best-known work is “Rhapsodie nègre” for piano and orchestra, a splashy, Lisztian workover of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

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  6. cbustard

    moreover…
    For that recording of “Sonata teutonica,” pianist Roy Hamlin Johnson condensed the piece to about 43 minutes. Originally, it ran more than an hour.

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  7. MarkNGrant

    Individual composers’ politics may be disgusting at times, and you or I or someone else may find a given composer’s music suggestive of those politics, but there is not necessarily, ipso facto, any exact concordance between a composer’s racial views and his musical style and expression. There have been avant-garde racists. Take Edgard Varèse. As Vivian Perlis wrote of him, Varèse had “prejudices that would not be tolerated today. Varèse (as well as his composer friend Carl Ruggles) regarded Jews, African Americans, and other ethnic groups with a measure of contempt.” Do Arcana and Ionisation sound prejudiced? Does Sun Treader sound anti-Semitic? (For that matter, can Ezra Pound’s Cantos be said to be fascist in artistic form, in poetic style?) Where do we put Webern’s music here? His dubious sympathies during the war lead Schoenberg to turn a deaf ear to appeals from Webern’s family for aid after Webern’s murder.

    France had something of a John Powell in Joseph Canteloube. Canteloube became an ardent musical nationalist of the French equivalent of the German volk, his writings about regional aesthetics borderline racist. Do Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne sound like the music of the Vichy collaborationist that he was? Some gay people denounce Charles Ives as a rabid homophobe and attempt to villainize his antigay attitudes and place them on a par with Wagner’s anti-Semitism. Ives certainly didn’t like (his word) “sissies”– he disowned Cowell after Cowell’s imprisonment on a morals charge, only restoring cordiality when Cowell married Sidney Robertson– but whether or not Ives was homophobic, does his music sound homophobic? (I guess it must to some people, but it sure doesn’t to me.) I’ve been involved in promoting the music of Percy Grainger for thirty years, and it’s not possible to do that without being thoroughly aware of and disgusted by Grainger’s anti-Semitism and peculiar claims for “Nordic” culture (though he denounced Hitler and called for the defeat of the Nazis in a February 1939 letter). There are indeed one or two compositions by Grainger that could plausibly be heard as racist, or at least colonially patronizing in the Kipling sense. But I find such Grainger works as The Lonely Desert Man Sees The Tents of the Happy Tribes, Under En Bro, and Faeroe Island Dance Tune so other-worldly to the ear, and such sympathetic expressions of the diversity of human culture, that his occasional bizarre ideas have no sway on my hearing of his music, which speaks far more eloquently for itself and for him.

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  8. colin holter

    Mark, I get what you’re saying – but I think the standard of “sounding racist” is impossible to hold a work of music to. Does Stephen Foster’s music sound racist? If so, isn’t this because we know the lyrics are packed with words we wouldn’t dare utter today? I suspect that if we were to take a survey, we’d find that “racist-sounding” music (if we can identify any) is only racist-sounding because it invokes tropes or topics that we know to be associated with demonstrably racist people or organizations. It’s hard to say that Ruggles’ music is racist-sounding, but it’s often claimed that his music is individualistic; given Ruggles’ sociohistorical milieu, the position-taking of “individualism” could map neatly onto an aspiration to align oneself with the socially dominant, which of course means the white. Again, it may not sound racist, but as a cultural artifact with its own historicity that we’re obliged to understand in context, it’s very reasonable to assert that it articulates an ideology that includes a racial dimension.

    Naturally you can pretend that you don’t know that Ruggles was a racist, and maybe nothing in the music will contradict you: However, you do know that he was a racist and that Ives was a homophobe and that Grainger was an anti-Semite. This knowledge shouldn’t stop you from listening to their pieces (and I’m sure it won’t), but it should make you think. It’s music, after all—what is it supposed to do, if not make us think?

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  9. bgn

    Looking at the question from another point of view…
    I am a gay man. So is John Corigliano. So what does it say about me that I haven’t yet heard a piece of Corigliano’s that didn’t strike my ears as gimmicky and poorly constructed? That I would prefer to listen to the music of an ideologically objectionable homophobe like Ives or Varese than to that of an ideologically unobjectionable mediocrity like Corigliano (or Rorem, or Barber)? Should I start doubting my own pretensions to liberalism? My sexuality? My musicality?

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  10. philmusic

    I have mentioned before that perhaps its expecting a lot of composers not to be people of their own time. That said I do like what George Lewis said that one might make a distinction between what one says and what one does. For Varese I believe that Poeme Electronique would seem a work that belies racism.

    Perhaps I’m wrong. Oh Colin I always read “individualism” as not the Ayn Rand kind but rather as against all flags.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s against all flags page

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  11. MarkNGrant

    Composer Roy Harris said of Nadia Boulanger that she was “a magnificent human being.” But he also noted, in an oral history, that “I would have to say that she was a profound reactionary. She knew Franco and went down to see him. She knew Mussolini. She visited Mussolini.” The American stage director Harold Clurman, who was a good friend of Aaron Copland and spent much time in Paris in the 1920s, also knew and admired Boulanger. Clurman wrote in his memoirs, “Yet for all my abiding regard for her, I could never forget that she had said that Roy Harris, who through Aaron’s recommendation and encouragement had come to study with her, would go further than Copland because, unlike Copland, he was not handicapped by being a Jew.”

    Ned Rorem has also written about Boulanger’s prejudices. When you start scratching the surface of history, you find these attitudes were not uncommon among even the immortals.

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  12. Colin Holter

    Ned Rorem has also written about Boulanger’s prejudices. When you start scratching the surface of history, you find these attitudes were not uncommon among even the immortals.

    And yet they weren’t universal – which to me suggests that the solution is to have no immortals rather than to forgive and forget.

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  13. bgn

    “No immortals”
    Now there’s a drastic solution. Does that mean dismissing any past music because of the danger that its composers may have held immoral prejudices? Does it mean judging all music according to the ideology of its composer rather than how it sounds? (And getting back to my earlier question, does it mean that one is obliged to admire the music of composers that hold all the proper sociopolitical attitudes, even if one doesn’t actually like listening to it?)

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  14. rtanaka

    Lots of history is pretty ugly once you get down to it — I think it’s probably best to accept the fact that everyone has their flaws and that music too, is flawed in the same way that people are. 200 years from now people will probably be casting judgments on the sorts of things we’re talking about now too, but that doesn’t mean that everything of what we’re say right now is useless.

    Reading some of Cosima Wagner’s memoirs, it’s pretty obvious that Wagner was an anti-semite and that some of it is explicitly reflected in his output. But we listen to him because he epitomized something about his time, for all its good and bads. If people took a more detached view — that they’re an example to be learned from, as opposed to something we must all emulate — I think there probably wouldn’t be so much controversy.

    As Colin said, there are no immortals. Geniuses and heroes are social constructs designed for the purpose of political control. Why anyone would choose to aspire to such a thing, I do not know.

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  15. mdwcomposer

    But what of the opposite? Does a warm, generous, sympathetic well-rounded human being automatically produce music (or any art) that is “morally superior” in any detectable way? Or even listenable?
       – Mark Winges

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  16. rtanaka

    Does a warm, generous, sympathetic well-rounded human being automatically produce music (or any art) that is “morally superior” in any detectable way?

    I’d say so, although the art world is filled with so much pretensions and ulterior motives now that you’d be hard pressed to find a composer who would be that pure. (Arvo Part gets pretty close, and his music definitely does deal with issues of morality, so maybe that’s one.) I don’t make a distinction between the creator and their output, because if you analyze it enough there’s always something that ties in the work with the decision-making process of the individual. People who say otherwise are still hanging onto the manufactured ideal.

    Being “nice” isn’t always about telling people what you think they want to hear, because that sort of thing can be more cruel in the long run. So any “moral” piece is bound to have at least some edge to it, even if its done with the best intentions in mind. That’s probably what makes talking about these things so complicated.

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  17. Ed Campbell

    Miles Davis was well known to be overtly misogynistic and a fanatical
    racist. One could say ‘whitey’ deserved (deserves) it but where does that put us? Some view the Jewish historical claim to being ‘The Chosen People’ as synonymous with the label ‘The Master Race’, and thus an inherently racist position. Growing up in NYC, there was a sense that people from New Jersey were ‘less than’ us. People from Manhattan refer to people from Queens and Brooklyn as ‘the bridge & tunnel crowd’. Vegetarians and Vegans now look at meat eaters as ‘Barbarians’ and ‘Murderers’. Non-Smokers vs. God-Cursed Smokers (“Loathsome creatures!”).
    It is sad to me that Ives and Ruggles were small and mean in this regard. But somehow I sense that to feel an anger towards them about this is, in part, a reflection (however opposed) of some similar small and mean thing in myself.
    I bet Bach didn’t spend too much time hangin’ with the brothers in his hood?

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