Last week, the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced their 2016–2017 season, and I decided to crunch some numbers on the composers represented to give something of a demographic overview of what’s in store at Disney Hall next year.
I only counted each piece once. Most of the concerts at the Phil are played several times (frequently Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, with quite a few Sunday matinées), but I didn’t include the repetitions because it felt redundant. For concerts that are inexactly repeated (i.e. the Friday show includes a piece not on the Thursday program or vice versa), I counted the new pieces, but not the repeated ones. (Antonín Dvořák’s ninth symphony is the one piece that really strained this policy — it shows up on two completely unrelated concerts in different parts of the season. I decided to only count it once.)
Even tho there are some chamber pieces mixed in with the orchestral fare, I counted every piece they’re currently advertising. In addition to avoiding tricky questions of how many players are necessary for something to go from being chamber music to orchestral music, my basic philosophy was that if they’re advertising it as part of their season, it should go into the breakdown of that season. There are several concerts — mostly organ recitals and mixed chamber affairs — where the rep has yet to be announced; I obviously couldn’t count those, but given the trends I’ll get into below, I doubt that these concerts will shake up the big picture very much.
I also didn’t weight by length. Admittedly, I maybe should have, since a 90–minute symphony by Mahler is certainly a more substantial thing than a five–minute Renaissance In Nomine, but a) that makes the math considerably harder than I’m willing to commit to, b) there are a bunch of new works that I have no way of knowing even a ballpark length of, and c) I kind of like the egalitarian sweep of counting each piece the same regardless of length, so this is what you’re getting. If someone else feels like weighting by piece length, send me the link and I’ll gladly post it here.
The result was a list of 145 pieces, and then I just went thru and added some rudimentary demographic information about the composer, which I’ll dig into below. I’m going to present some rudimentary remarks on the categories I tallied first, and then I’ll dive into some general conclusions at the end.
This is kind of a ridiculous chart. The 145 pieces of the LA Phil season were written by 71 different composers, and this is a breakdown of the relative portions. The big purple chunk a little above 3:00 is Ludwig van Beethoven, with Franz Schubert directly beneath him. The plum slice that comes after the red band is Richard Wagner, and fourth place is tied between Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius (who both outrank Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Obviously, it’s not a perfectly even distribution, but I’m pretty happy with it. There are a lot of composers represented here, and even the most played composer clocks in at less than 7% of the pieces on offer. There’s a lot of room to hear diverse compositional voices; no one composer is absolutely dominating the conversation.
Year of Composition
A couple of things to note here. First, everything before 1700 comes from one concert, and those dates should be treated as provisional in the extreme. Renaissance history is hard. The spike around 1800 is almost entirely due to Beethoven, which is kind of amazing. The big swell for Late Romanticism is unsurprising, but it’s heartening to me how far it carries into the 20th Century. There’s a lot of Early Modernism going on in this season, and that brings such joy to my caustic New Objectivist heart. The trough in the middle of the 20th Century is as expected, but I was surprised to see a similar trough in the middle of the 19th. Between the European political turmoil of the era and the shadow of Beethoven intimidating composers towards chamber music and art songs, it makes sense that there wouldn’t be many staples of the repertoire from that span, but if you’d asked me which mid-century span would be better represented in a mainstream orchestra program, I would have expected exactly the opposite of what’s actually happening here. Nifty!
The big spike at the end represents all of the commissions and premières that the Phil is involved with. It definitely makes it look like contemporary orchestra music is really healthy and thriving, but given the fate of most new works across time (people did write plenty of orchestral music in the 1840s, after all...), I’d be hesitant to draw any conclusions at this point about what a similar breakdown would look like for an orchestral season a century from now.
The Not As Good
There are four sections in this chart because I’m not sure what to do with Franz Schubert. My understanding is that there’s enough circumstantial/coded evidence for several Schubert scholars to be comfortable assuming he was gay, but I haven’t actually read their arguments myself, so I’m not comfortable saying it’s a 100% settled issue. More broadly, assuming that current models of sexuality in the United States are applicable to conceptions that operated centuries ago on a separate continent often leads to difficulties. Fleshing that out obviously goes way beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that before a certain point, it becomes pretty questionable to describe people as either gay or straight — those simply weren’t identity categories that meaningfully existed. So this chart represents a drastic oversimplification of a convoluted and under-illuminated landscape. (About half of the “unknown” chunk comes from this — i.e. historical composers where there’s just no information about their relationships — and half of it comes from contemporary composers whose sexuality is not obvious from a few minutes of searching around.)
Even tho 7–13% (depending on how you count Schubert) might seem pretty good given the usual stats about this demographic that get bandied about, I’m putting this under “not so good” because it isn’t really LGBT representation — it’s cis white gay/bi male representation. (Using that slash because again, distinctions that are clear and important in the present conceptual landscape haven’t always existed, and I don’t think it’s productive to try to discern how someone who died in the 1800s would identify if they were alive today.) The overrepresentation of cis white gay/bi men in compositional circles in the 20th Century is an interesting historical anomaly, but to get full marks on this, we’re going to need some lesbians and trans folks in the repertoire.
I almost didn’t include this section. If retroactive application of contemporary conceptions of sexuality puts us on thin ice, trying to do the same with racial categories puts us in a pot of boiling water. Many in the contemporary United States would view Antonín Dvořák and Johannes Brahms as “equally white”, but that would not necessarily have been a view held by everyone in 1880s Germany. Indeed, one of the big overarching issues in the late 1800s was the confluence of burgeoning Nationalism (complete with strong racial and ethnic undertones) and musical style: Many Eastern European composers wrestled with the desire to write music that reflected and celebrated their ethnic or national “character” while still being “respectable” enough from the viewpoint of Germanic intellectuals/audiences/critics/etc to avoid charges of displaying a “lack of refinement” or “barbarism” thought to be inherent in certain racial/ethnic groups; and many eugenicists treated the peoples of Southern and Eastern Europe as “inferior races” compared to those living further to the north and west, with all the disgusting, dehumanizing connotations that phrase implies. Which matters more for the present purpose, the racial context that the piece was written in, or the context it’s being played in today? What are the appropriate considerations when defining the boundaries of whiteness for this kind of breakdown?
I don’t have good answers to these thorny questions. As I said, I nearly conceded defeat and left out this section entirely. But classical music in the contemporary United States does have a problem with overwhelming whiteness, and I think it’s vitally important to call attention to its many manifestations. So here we are. I defaulted to using a definition of whiteness pertinent to the contemporary United States, since that’s the context that the LA Phil is performing this season in. For pieces where I feel confident tagging for race, the Phil is doing a grand total of three pieces by composers of color.
The one “unknown” is probably white — they’re a Renaissance composer that I could find zero information on. I would be surprised if they weren’t white, but I don’t want to go the “white until proven otherwise” route, so I thought this was the most responsible choice. The starred slice here is not Schubert but Beethoven. The question of Beethoven’s race has been raised repeatedly over the years, and I’ve seen several tumblr posts go by with hundreds of thousands of notes adamantly asserting that Beethoven was black. My understanding is that the overwhelming majority of Beethoven scholars do not find these claims credible, but I’m also well aware that “mainstream scholars” have historically not always been the best at fairly and dispassionately considering unorthodox claims put forward by or on behalf of historically marginalized groups. (You can read a pretty jargon-free overview here, tho I don’t know that I agree with absolutely everything that author says.) I’m not interested in getting into the weeds on this issue, I merely want to note it as an additional potential complication and move on.
We’re back on firmer ground here, but that’s cold comfort, because this is pretty bleak. The LA Phil is doing two works by women this coming season, and one work by a composer whose gender I couldn’t ascertain but was probably a man. They’re doing better than the Metropolitan Opera, but only barely.
On the whole, these numbers are disappointing, but not surprising. Big–name classical composers are overwhelmingly straight white men, and this season largely reflects that. It would be striking if a major American orchestra announced a season that was full of composers from diverse racial backgrounds and actually approached gender parity.
That is a damning indictment. That a season that so blithely reflects and reenforces sexist an racist hierarchies should be so unremarkable says a lot about the current state of classical music institutions, and none of it good.
This is not to say that the upcoming season is a bad one. There are a ton of concerts that I want to see. The Bartók piano concerto cycle will be stunning, and the juxtaposition of Schubert symphonies with Mahler song cycles is unexpected and thought-provoking in all the best ways. On many fronts, this is a smart, interesting season with a lot of riches on offer. It just fails so badly in other equally important areas.
Classical institutions market themselves as bastions of High Art. I think the distinction between high and low art is largely bullshit, but I’m very sympathetic to the idea that one thing classical music does very well is to offer up transcendent experiences, to open up and facilitate communing with emotional spaces beyond our everyday experiences. Presenting a season like this shores up the insidious notion that the cishet white male experience is neutral and unmarked; that all deviations from that are somehow Other; that the path to universalizing transcendence can only (or most regularly and easily) be found thru their experiences, impressions, and thoughts; that art made by those who deviate from those norms will forever be bogged down in identity politics–laden Specificity. A season like this shores up the lie that individuals from marginalized groups cannot make Great Art, that their works have been and continued to be pushed to the periphery of the repertoire on a purely meritocratic basis untainted by the deliberate and forcible exclusion of these groups from artistic life.
Defenders of seasons such as this will often trot out some variation on an artistic institution’s obligation to provide programming of the highest quality. Surely they have to present the best music they can, right? Am I really asking them to patronizingly lower their artistic standards just so that women and people of color make the cut?
This is not the choice at hand. The alternatives are not “an artistically compelling season that happens to overwhelmingly favor cishet white men“ or “an artistically mediocre season that includes a good balance of historically marginalized groups”. The alternatives are “an artistically compelling season that overwhelmingly favors cishet white men” or “an artistically compelling season that doesn’t do that”. (Unless, that is, you want to try to argue that women, black people, or trans folks haven’t and can’t write great music, but if that’s the tack you’re taking, you’re only revealing your own vast ignorance of the rich tradition this genre has to offer, so . . . ) Yes, this season includes any number of interesting, thrilling, stimulating concerts, but it also doesn’t include an infinite number of other such concerts. The Mahler/Schubert juxtaposition mentioned above is an interesting exploration of the relation between song-like symphonies and symphonic songs, but what about using Bacewicz’s violin concerti as a lens on the evolution of the virtuoso in the 20th Century? Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to explore the flourishing of English Romanticism? Alex Temple to delve into pastiche, kitsch, and glitch at the dawn of the internet era? The idea that a concert featuring the music of those historically excluded from the concert hall can’t also be sensational, transcendent, or an avenue for the exploration of fascinating historical trends is patently absurd.
I’m also dubious about claims that a more diverse season would be impossible for marketing reasons. If that’s true, it says pretty dire things about the classical music scene, but I have reason for doubt. I’ve been to more than a few contemporary showcases at the Phil, and they draw pretty healthy crowds. In addition to being rather condescending, the notion that classical audiences will flee like frightened sheep from a season full of unfamiliar names betrays a surprising lack of faith in the marketing department. If we have marketing people that can sell millions upon millions of Shake Weights, I’m sure there are people out there who can make the case for seeing this violin concerto instead of that one. Is there really zero marketing potential to being able to claim an orchestral season with actual gender parity? That seems . . . odd.
This isn’t just about pre-existing audiences, tho, it’s also about attracting new ones. I believe — and I think many people are in this boat with me — that classical music still has emotional significance today, that it’s still relevant to the times we live in. Many people don’t see it that way. In broader society, classical music has a reputation of being dated and irrelevant, a relic of an aristocratic past. It’s hard to counter that message with a season that seems to reflect those past biases so strongly. It’s hard to convince new people that this art matters today when the face we present seems so reflective of yesterday. There is not a single work by a black composer on the upcoming season; how can we seriously maintain that this is an art form that speaks to a diverse and pluralistic society when white people are (almost) the only ones speaking? The more diverse the music we present, the more diverse our audiences will become. If we care about the future of this music, we must stop re-enforcing the worst tendencies of its past.