Identity politics is on the rise in the world of classical music. If a composer isn’t a woman, or is from Western descent, they no longer fit the classical canon. That is the development Kees Vlaardingerbroek, musicologist and artistic director of the Dutch NTR ZaterdagMatinee, identifies and criticises. His opinion article was published on 23 April in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. The following is a translation.

In 1961 the VARA, a Dutch public broadcaster, took the initiative for a new concert series in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. The series was quickly given the name VARA-Matinee by the public. Driving force behind the series was the prominent Labour Party and VARA member Jan Broeksz. He wanted to keep his followers, who had in 1961 been given their Saturdays off, out off the pub. Up until then, the working week had been 5.5 days, with people working Saturday mornings. He also wanted them to have access to high culture and the best that Western civilisation had brought forth. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms had to be within everyone’s reach.

Those heydays of the classical canon are far behind us now. From the 1990s onward, the combination of leftwing cultural relativism (‘all cultures are equal’) and rightwing neoliberalism (‘if you want to throw musical parties, finance them yourself’) caused a swift decline in the Dutch cultural infrastructure. Music schools, orchestras, libraries: they disappeared rapidly or were forced to operate on a ‘free market’ basis. Theaters and concert halls were built, but mainly as matters of prestige, only seldom in service of a vision that underscores the inherent value of art and culture.

Patriarchal Hegemony

The last few years a new threat has emerged in the form of ‘identity politics‘, imported from the United States. Advocates of equal rights for the different genders are – in principle – fighting for a noble cause. But it is often unclear how one is to determine if there is marginalisation or discrimination in a certain field. Claiming that ‘to measure is to know’, British composer Joanna Ward this season kept track of gender equality in the commission of compositions for the BBC Proms. Although Ward was satisfied by the fact that 45% of all European, British and world premières during the Proms were compositions by women, she expressed apprehension about the fact that the average duration of the works of women was shorter than that of the men, 13,5 minutes against 21 minutes.

Her conclusion is that there is still a patriarchal hegemony in new music. But she apparently doesn’t ask herself two important questions that are highly relevant. Firstly, what is the ratio between male and female composers at the moment? If there are more female than male composers, then even that 45% in the Proms is a sign of a crooked ratio. But what if it’s the other way around? Why would half of all commissions then have to be awarded to women. What’s more, one could argue that ordering compositions shouldn’t be on the basis of colour or sex. For example, one could select on quality alone, from a number of anonymous compositions.

Radical Thinkers

But while Ward researched current practice, some of her colleagues take aim at the culture of days past. The radical thinkers amongst them are of the opinion that the past should conform to their political norms. Is there no female or black composer from the first half of the 18th century equal to Bach?

These activists solve this particular problem by claiming that 19th-century German nationalists propped up Bach. English newspaper The Daily Telegraph published an article on 15 April in which Lucy Noble, artistic director of the Royal Albert Hall, blamed the dominance of ‘white male titans‘ for the lack of interest in classical music among young people. Although her plea for attention for music by women and minorities is valid, she throws out the baby with the bathwater by making artistic values subservient to political considerations. Widening the canon isn’t enough, the canon itself has to go. Seeing Bach as an absolute genius, while also asking people to pay attention to great female composer Camilla de Rossi, his contemporary, isn’t acceptable in Noble’s circle.

The dangers of this assault on heritage should not be underestimated. The Amsterdam Concertgebouw does not have a future without Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. A forced replacement of the great masters by female contemporaries or composers with non-European roots will irrevocably lead to destruction of public interest, to empty concert halls and eventually even their closure. And Amsterdam without the Concertgebouw is just as unthinkable as Paris without Notre Dame. It is a mistake to think that ‘our’ past must be rewritten or destroyed because it has an unmistakable dark side. That dark side must not and cannot be denied, instead, it has to be discussed even-handedly. At the same time, it is cynical and destructive to deny that Western musical history has brought forth incredible wealth. Let us enjoy that wealth fully and without feelings of guilt.