The recent controversy over Oxford University’s alleged decision to “de-colonize” its music curriculum was, like so many media storms, based on an exaggeration of the facts. First, Britain’s Daily Telegraph became privy to a proposal for Oxford’s music department to revise their degree requirements to address the “white hegemony” of the current curriculum. Among the specific changes sought were a diversification in musical genres and composers studied, a reduced focus on composers active during the colonial slave-holding period, and a lighter emphasis on musical notation because it is a “colonialist representation system.”
This story moved swiftly around the internet, often with a headline trumpeting that Oxford intended to get rid of sheet music — claims Oxford’s music department immediately denied. According to their correction of the story, they simply want to diversify their curriculum as inspired by their training at an “away day,” intending to add to the variety of music studied without eliminating what they currently offer. Additionally, it was pointed out that this proposed revision and the accompanying claims about the complicity of their department in upholding white supremacy stemmed from a single professor.
Of course, a wish to broaden their offerings automatically and necessarily entails a diminishment — one composer chosen to be studied means another neglected — yet ultimately, none of this is truly the standout feature of this cultural fracas.
The department may have clarified their curricular intentions, but that does not address the rampant misconceptions that undergird what developed into a hot news story in the first place. Whether from one individual or many, it’s the assertions about Western music and the presumptions supporting its criticism that are the real issue demanding a further inquiry.
The term “Western music” came into use as an attempt to rectify the non-inclusiveness of the term “classical” music. For instance, I once heard a diversity coordinator query at a conference, “Whose classical?” in response to a statement about “classical music.” Most of the audience would immediately have thought of the Western canon when hearing the phrase, and that was his point. Of course, there is some truth to this.
Every culture has a classic tradition whose existence, at the very least, deserves to be recognized. The issue at stake now, however, is much more than consideration for cultures that lie outside the Western tradition.
What should be of paramount concern for those who care at all about Western civilization is that “recognition” is becoming “replacement” through the cudgel of woke ideology. Otherwise, we’d see and hear more examples of the musical heights of other cultures and see compelling evidence of the value brought to Oxford undergraduates by their being made aware of these cultural achievements as part of a well-rounded education.
Instead, what we get are intellectually bereft condemnations of the white European nature of Western music. If that last sentence doesn’t make you pause, you’ve missed the extent to which these social justice warriors are not acting in defense of marginalized cultures but in offense against the West.
In his 2001 book “Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe,” Jeffrey Hart notes that multiculturalism is “an ideological academic fantasy maintained in obvious bad faith. It really amounts to a form of anti-Westernism. That is, all cultures are to be respected and valued except the civilization of the West.”
That assessment explains a good deal of what we’re seeing in Europe and America right now and why the words “white,” “Western,” and “European” have become de facto condemnations rather than statements of racial, cultural, and geographical fact. The pertinent question now is, why are people so timid about defending Western civilization, or even in offering the simple rebuttal that Western music is European because that’s where it originated, developed, and flourished?
Our more politically correct name for this music is quite apt — the music that we used to refer to as “classical” is a thoroughly European phenomenon, developing over hundreds of years through the innovation, improvisation, and inspiration of countless musicians across the entirety of Europe.
Beginning in the early Middle Ages, Europeans were on the move. Whether in pursuit of religious instruction at far-off monasteries or university education, travel was extensive and frequent. Indeed, minstrels, who would have starved if they’d restricted themselves to a single town, made their living by traveling from place to place.
Without a doubt, music regularly intersected with trade, where minstrels played alongside mule teams bringing goods from far-off regions. All of this movement most certainly exposed people to the music their fellow Europeans were producing. As such, it’s positively absurd that, after more than a thousand and a half years of development in a specific region, its inhabitants have to justify the dominance of their tradition in the place where it was born and grew into an incredibly complex art form.
One of the faint sounds of protest against the vacuous attacks on Oxford’s curriculum, specifically, that Western music notation should be abandoned because it is a “colonialist representational system,” addressed the accusation by pointing out that music was notated as early as the 9th century after a long period of development as plainsong handed down orally from one liturgist to another.
The system of notation we have today developed gradually, becoming more complex as liturgical worship went from a monophonic sound (with a single vocal line) to a polyphonic sound (multiple lines). A system of notation up to the task of recording all of the simultaneous sounds developed out of need. All of this innovation, which should be celebrated as the great European achievement that it is, occurred more than 700 years before the trans-Atlantic slave trade came into being.
That it appears few of Oxford’s music staff — some of whom must be musicologists — were stricken with horror over the attack on their curriculum or are willing to defend their life’s passion, is the sound of the Goths hammering on the door. Our silence, on the other hand, is the sound of the door being opened from within. Apparently, the “old guard” has a new mission.