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Woke cancel culture threatens some of our greatest works of art

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The cultural traditions of Western civilisation have been under consistent attack for some years, none more so than classical music. Previously, the immortality of this music seemed assured and invincible. Now, some of its greatest composers are labelled ‘dead, white males’ and tainted with elitism and colonialism.

Classical or art music is in dangerous, unmapped territory, and not because people are averse to music. On the contrary, it remains part of everyday life, especially pop music, with strong personal appeal, above all to younger people. But pop music is crowding out the classics, including a tradition of art song or German Lieder that reached a high point in the Romantic era of 19th-century Austria and Germany, and was adopted by thousands of composers in many nations. Perfected by Schubert in hundreds of songs with peerless melodies and harmony, art song may not survive unless performers become its defenders and warriors.

Such are the lamentations of Professor Graham Johnson, celebrated British piano accompanist and pedagogue, who recently held six days of Lieder masterclasses at the Sydney Conservatorium. Organised by Jeanell Carrigan, Associate Professor in Collaborative Piano, the course included works by Schubert, Wolf, Schumann and Richard Strauss.

Johnson’s breathtaking analysis, warmth and humour transformed many student performances, culminating in a moving concert reflecting new-found dimensions of feeling and complexity.

Among music lovers, the Lied attracts a minority of enthusiasts, so why conserve this tradition with the drawback of poems in a foreign language? Isn’t it also elitist and over-refined? Elitist perhaps, as it is championed by a small number of devotees. Even so, this multifaceted art reveals much of Western music and civilisation in miniature. As a microcosm of history and social change, the songs touch on themes as diverse as ancient Greece, nature, or exhausted French soldiers returning from Russia during the Napoleonic wars.

Piquant, sensual, entertaining or awesome, a web of melodic fragments binds each poem to the music, depicting an atmospheric landscape far greater than the sum of the two. In the Lied, a sophisticated quartet of poet, composer, singer and accompanist represents some of the most inventive music in the Western canon.

Emotional gradations from delicate to passionate can be swift, and the slightest nuance of tempo or volume may signify shifts in meaning. The communication to listeners is intimate, often expressing universal pathos. A modulation can pull at the heartstrings and a single note or dissonance echo danger in the storyline.

Without the props of opera and the demands of a conductor, both singer and accompanist experience vast freedom of interpretation within an enmeshed musical relationship.

Extensive knowledge is not required to enjoy the songs, only some initial exposure and an English translation of the text. With greater familiarity, the vignettes release their secrets, encouraging repeated pilgrimage and contemplation. But today, the Lied, and classical music generally, are being cancelled by politicisation.

Critical Theory is dividing society into oppressors and victims based on race, gender, colonialism, etc. dressed up self-righteously as social justice. An offshoot of postmodernism and Marxism that marched from the universities to mainstream society, this movement threatens Western culture and civilisation with its agenda of subversion and autocratic control.

To eradicate opposition and advance its revolutionary aims, critical theory’s activist ‘woke’ arm wields ‘cancel culture’, and in relation to music, silences ‘problematic’ composers deemed morally reprehensible.

In line with the ideology, academics at Oxford University’s music department have questioned whether their mostly white faculty is prejudiced in favour of white musicians and ‘white musics’, and suggested African, global and popular music should gain preference over composers such as Schubert. Some professors also believe the method of grading itself can be seen as a ‘colonialist system of oppression’.

Viewed through the lens of colonisation and the slave trade, Handel and Mozart are condemned as privileged white males who oppressed a victimised minority. Research has revealed that Handel invested in the slave trade. Mozart is implicated by association because his father, Leopold, turned a blind eye to the wealth of patrons whose fortunes sprang from plantations in Jamaica. Beethoven’s aristocratic sponsors may have escaped the infamy of slavery, but they were entitled, and his titanic 5th Symphony, dedicated to noble patrons, is ‘a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism’.

Although Schubert had few benefactors, he is typecast with other denigrated European composers. Yet this Midas of the song, says Johnson, is a man for modern times – a composer who could express the gamut of emotions but especially identify with the weak and marginalised. Despite suffering despair and alienation from then-incurable syphilis, Schubert remains a bearer of tenderness and gentleness that receptive listeners can pass on.

The Lieder of Schubert and other composers demand a reach for excellence, also sought by faculty at conservatories steeped in merit, lineage and traditions. These objective standards are not consistent with subjective post-modern criteria often accepted in schools and the wider society.

If music education in schools continues to decline due to ideology, lowered standards and underfunding, the Lied could become an endangered species on the road to extinction. With such prospects, an event like Graham Johnson’s masterclasses offers a sorely needed corrective.

One of the daunting aspects of Lieder is the language. In this regard, there is an intriguing Australian connection in Sir Robert Randolph Garren, a barrister who was involved with drafting the constitution of Australia and became the first-appointed solicitor-general. A noted writer and poet, Garren translated many of Schubert’s songs into English. Rediscovery of his fine translations could stimulate interest in the genre’s greatest composer and improve accessibility for English-speaking audiences.

In any case, the East has grasped the baton of Western classical music, including Lieder. Children of Asian immigrant families already dominate Western conservatories and classical music is well-established in Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. With enormous interest in China, many budding musicians study in the West and continue Western traditions of performance and teaching back home. The pivot to the East could challenge critical theory’s corrosive path in classical music including Lieder. A priceless cache of songs and singular representatives of Western civilisation is at stake.





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