White Supremacy & Music Theory

by David Yearsley, February 22, 2017

For several years my grandparents lived in a small house on the same property on Bainbridge Island as my nuclear family—nuclear in more than one sense, since our home was a dozen miles from the base for the United States’ Pacific Trident fleet that opened for business (but not to protestors) on February 1st, 1977 at Bangor, Washington in the first weeks of the Carter Administration. In those days presidential transitions were as smooth as a 560-foot, 17,000-ton monster of the deep slipping through the Hood Canal and loaded with enough MIRVed intercontinental ballistic missiles to kill everyone on the planet. That nearby body of water had been cursed by its geology: narrow, deep, and protected.

During those years I’d often walk over to the little house and watch basketball games on television with my grandfather. At some point during every game he’d remark that “There sure are lots of black players.” He’d say it as if he were realizing the fact for the first time. He was born into an Irish-American community on the Hudson River and from the age of six he had labored in the Haverstraw brickyards. Given his background, it seemed to me even at the age of eleven or twelve, it was hardly surprising that he’d harbor such attitudes towards dark-skinned people. But I was too young and he was too old for me to put up any embarrassed or aggrieved resistance to the comment. I just treated it like a pass out-of-bounds and let the game and our joint watching of it go on as before.

I liked to play basketball, but also the piano and the organ. The organist at the local Episcopal Church gave me a copy of the second edition of Donald J. Grout’s A History of Western Music. The first edition had come out in 1960 and the book went on to be the best selling and most influential music history textbook of its time, perhaps any time. Under the editorship of subsequent scholars it has gone through many editions, the ninth appearing in 2014.

A robust copy of the third edition of Grout’s History can even be seen on the cover of the U. S. News & World Report of April 16, 1984. Beneath white letters that read “America’s Youth in Search of a Cause” are four college students, two men and two women. The woman in front clutches a spiral notebook and A History of Western Music, to which the eye of is immediately drawn. The block letters GROUT on the volume’s spine appear near the center of the photo.

Three of the four of these “youths,” who look to be around twenty years old, are clearly white. The ethnicity of the woman with her copy of what was by then simply called “Grout” is unclear, at least to me, though she too could well be of purely European extraction—whatever that means.

A letter sent a week later by Grout’s wife Margaret to Claire Brook, the vice president and music editor at Norton, boasts that “The cover, which is in color, shows the title and Donald’s name clearly.” Grout died in 1987, so he, too, witnessed the high water mark of his own fame and that of his book. Mrs. Grout had taken over her husband’s correspondence because he was unable to write himself from the early 1980s.

A few years prior to that my grandfather walked over to our house on Bainbridge Island and saw my copy of A History of Western Music on the kitchen table. “Don Grout?” he exclaimed with surprise. “I know Don Grout!” It turned out that they had been fraternity brothers at Syracuse University in the 1920s. My grandfather promptly wrote to the great music historian and within a few weeks I received a letter from Professor Grout encouraging me in my organ studies. Grout had come to Cornell as university organist and professor of music in 1945. Since 1998, I have been one of the university organists and a professor of music at the same institution. I still have his letter.

Recently I went in search of my grandfather’s letter to his old pal, which indeed survives in folder 41 of Box 53 of the voluminous Grout papers housed at the Cornell University Library. It is touching to read of my grandfather’s pride, and to think of the seemingly random events that led to the reconnection between the two old men.

As Grout’s correspondence from the 1970s and 80s is arranged alphabetically, my grandfather Kennedy’s folder is nestled alongside that of Joseph Kerman, one of the great musicologists of the generation that followed Grout’s.

I also have a very warming letter from Kerman from 2007 thanking me for my review of his penultimate book, The Art of Fugue: Bach’s Fugues for Keyboard. He died in 2014, but I met him first at the beginning of my time at Cornell in the late 1990s when he came to Cornell to deliver the annual Donald J. Grout Memorial Lecture, endowed by Grout’s widow in his honor.

The catalog of these 82 boxes of Grout’s papers is filled with the names of other important music historians, both famous and infamous. Grout had a long correspondence with Friedrich Blume, a professor of musicology at the University of Kiel in northern Germany. Blume was a hugely prolific figure whose vast publication list included a book on the “racial problem and music” as well as a three-page essay on the same topic printed in the 1939 Festschrift to celebrate Hitler’s fiftieth birthday. In that contribution Blume argued that although there was as yet no “scientific” basis for linking racial characteristics with the various forms of musical culture, these diverse practices nonetheless “had ultimately to do with racial disposition.” Concluding his tribute to Hitler, Blume affirmed that “the national-socialist focus of music research has the unambiguous task of laying the foundation on which the structure of musical race-research can be erected.”

The canny Blume came through the de-nazifaction process untouched, retaining his professorship and remaining head of several musicological initiatives begun during the Third Reich. Blume was one of the major figures of German and international musicology during the post-war period, the later mission joined by Grout in the 1960s. In their correspondence there is much strategizing about grant money supporting international musicological cooperation from the Ford Foundation, that crucial, if furtive Cold War institution. The letters also offer glimpses of geo-politics, as when strategies for dealing with academics from the Eastern Bloc are discussed. Blume sometimes mobilizes a darkly grandiloquent rhetoric, as in a typescript he sent to Grout of an article that had appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on August 30, 1964: “Music research, which has grown all-powerful across the entire world faces the truly global task of cataloging all the musical sources strewn across the terrestrial globe [Erdball].”

For the most part, however, the correspondence is professional and cordial, the exchange focused on their mutual commitment to the expansion of their shared humanistic discipline, the letters often concluding with small talk about weather, family and the joys of swimming.

It is in the folder for 1968 that Blume’s true colors blaze. A letter written to Grout on September 5th, 1968, two weeks after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, spurred Blume to lament that “we have had bad experiences with the Russians,” while remaining silent about the Russian’s experiences with the Germans in the war: “For the Russian there is only one thing: primitive, naked and brutal violence.”

The student unrest of the spring had already unleashed a series of letters from Blume fulminating against what he calls student protesters, political agitators, and “the blind idealists and weaklings of the university faculties.” Blume hurls abuse at the “egg-heads” [Blume writes to Grout almost always in German, but here uses the English phrase in quotes]—Herbert Marcuse, Paul Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno. All were Jewish and had taken refuge in America from the Nazis before returning to Germany after the war. “You have your student unrest,” Blume commiserates with Grout in a letter of May 30th, 1968, “but as far as I can see in the newspapers, it is of a much weaker degree than ours. For that you have your Negroes. [Eure Neger].”

Except for a few carbon copies of official institutional communications, Grout’s letters to his friend are not preserved in the Cornell archive. A rare parenthetical remark in a letter from Blume of May 16th, 1968 complaining bitterly about the student unrest agrees with Grout’s assertion that “the younger generation is ‘too permissively’ brought up.” “Not brought up at all!” Blume responds.

During the most turbulent days of that turbulent year, Grout and his fellow faculty members stood round-the-clock, unpaid guard at Cornell’s music building, Lincoln Hall. Yesterday afternoon the annual Donald J. Grout Memorial Lecture was held there, given by U. C. L. A. Professor Tamara Levitz, and entitled “Remembering Otto Kinkeldey, Donald J. Grout and the Exclusive White Origins of American Musicology at Cornell.” Levitz is also the 2103 Kinkeldey Award-winner for the best book in musicology. Thus two towering figures of Cornell music history were in her crosshairs.

Levitz spoke much of “exclusivity” and the “good old boy network.” She did not delve into the political convictions of Grout or Kinkeldey, who, beginning in 1930 held a chair at Cornell in musicology, the first at any American university. Instead of scrutinizing individuals, Levitz wanted us to concentrate on structural factors that ensured what she kept calling “White Supremacy” in the American Musicological Society.

But as she went through the minutes of old meetings of the 1930s, I thought of my grandfather’s letter to Grout, and Grout’s to me. It was not the “Old Boy Network” that had landed me my job. Donald J. Grout was long gone before I applied for a position at Cornell. It was, Levitz might have claimed, the systems and structures that he, and before him Kinkeldey, had built and nurtured that, by a series of seemingly unforeseeable events had elevated me to place in the Cornell outpost of the Ivory Tower.

As Levitz spoke, I also thought about Blume’s letters and those basketball games on television. I knew my grandfathers’ comments about “blacks” were in some way racist, but I also knew he was a long way from being a Klansman by night. If Grout’s letters to Blume survive in some German archive, they are unlikely to shed a uniformly positive light on him. Undoubtedly, the fact that a great figure (male and white) had encouraged me to continue at the organ and learn my music history had, even if in a small way, molded my ambitions and career path. Even if I am not an overt White Supremacist, as Levitz would have it, I do benefit from White Supremacy. It seems I’m a passive White Supremacist organist and musicologist.

Just before yesterday’s Levtiz’s talk, I taught a class on the music of Bach and Handel in the same room where the Grout Lecture is held. Of the dozen students taking the course half are of Asian heritage; several of them are citizens of Taiwan or the People’s Republic of China. Perhaps the most committed culture of Bach appreciation now thrives in Asia. To myself I have remarked on the many Asians who love Bach, though I haven’t done so out loud as my grandfather did about African-Americans when watching the NBA.

As Levitz continued with her lecture, I also thought of the U. S.-sponsored naval base on South Korea’s Jeju Island three hundred miles from Shanghai, operational now for one year. I imagined the Trident subs slipping into its port whose construction destroyed a soft coral reef and unique estuary that had been a UNESCO biosphere conservation site. I thought of the doomsday clock now three minutes from midnight, and the ardent nineteenth-century German nationalists who created the Bach cult that, as Friedrich Blume might have put it, had spread across the earth ball. The Bach cult in Asia now thrives amidst a menacing nuclear atmosphere of high alert.

I hold it to be good thing that so many students from Asia are interested in music that was exhumed and venerated by good and bad old boys and, as the years went on, a few girls, too. Where would musicians and music be without friends—and enemies?

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

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