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Elevating the Elite in Music: El Sistema and Cultural Hegemony

photograph of a girl playing the trumpet in a group of young students

Since 1975, the Venezuelan program known as “El Sistema” has brought European classical music to the disadvantaged youth of the Latin American nation. Similar programs have been initiated in at least sixty countries around the world, sparking a global movement which aims to use classical music as a force for social change. El Sistema and its founder, José Antonio Abreu, have been showered with praise and awards by the international community; supporters say it produces not just excellent musicians but also model citizens, preventing widespread violence and criminality in society. Implicit in this philosophy, however, is the proposition that European classical music is both aesthetically and morally superior to other forms of music. While promoting or preferring classical music is not necessarily harmful, the tendency to elevate it over other musics, including local musical traditions, has the potential to enforce a harmful European cultural hegemony and suppress otherwise vibrant artistic practices.

The argument for El Sistema as an agent of social change references both the music and the performance practice of European classical tradition. The discipline required to learn an instrument, conduct rehearsals, and perform the music instills in children the values of hard work and commitment, keeping them from the path of immorality. Child’s Play India Foundation, a program inspired by El Sistema, uses strong language to describe the division between those “who may have otherwise gone down the drugs and drink route” from those who “lead a life of dignity, joy and empowerment.” This sort of language is reminiscent of historical criticism of various popular music genres, including jazz, rock, and rap. Valorizing the discipline and training of classical musicians implies that successful musicians in popular, commercial, and folk traditions lack the same work ethic, talent, or requisite moral fiber. Taken to its most egregious extreme, this attitude can be used to support racist portrayals of native people in historically colonized countries like Venezuela and India as lazy, hedonistic, and unrefined.

Although race-oriented denigration of popular music is obviously unacceptable, there may be some merit to the notion that European classical music, being an “art music,” requires more training and technical skill than other forms. (Some styles of popular music even emphasize accessibility while criticizing classical music as elitist.) On the other side of the coin, the time and resources required to play classical music is often cited as a barrier to entry for disadvantaged people — in fact, righting this imbalance is one of the primary purposes of programs like El Sistema. That said, the focus of the Child’s Play Foundation in India on European classical music is difficult to defend, considering India is home to two major classical traditions of its own, each of which bears comparable complexity and historicity to European classical music. While I cannot presume to have a complete grasp of the moral and social context of Indian classical music, one worries that Eurocentricity has played a role in the promotion of European classical music over local traditions in India.

This is not to argue that the people of Venezuela and India should not play European classical music or should be restricted to their own local traditions. Cross-cultural exchange and participation ensure vitality in the arts, and to suggest that only musicians native to a given region can play music from that region would be to impose an overly simplistic view of race, geography, and history. Music, art, and culture are ever-changing and ever-blending entities. On the other hand, when European music is elevated socially above local music traditions, even by local musicians themselves, Eurocentric elitism threatens to cause great and lasting damage to the cultural identity of a people and rob the world of artistic contribution and much needed diversity.

Classical Sexism: Gender Bias and Female Conductors

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

Classical music has a long legacy of sexism, and the most evident reminder is often standing right in front of the orchestra. I’ve stared at this inequality for most of my own musical career. In twelve years, I’ve worked with only one professional female conductor, but countless males. And even in the world of instrumentalists, equality can be hard to see. I remember being in middle school band, shocked that there wasn’t a single boy in the flute section, but all the professionals my teachers told me to listen to were men.

What I have observed in my own musical experience is a global epidemic. In a recent survey of British artist signers representing at least five conductors, 95% of those represented conductors were men. A major orchestra’s web page showed 27 upcoming male guest conductors and no female conductors. These are two statistics presented by James Murphy, the managing director of the Southbank Sinfonia. He presented a brief video on the issue for the Association of British Orchestras, which, incidentally, has offered only four of over 100 titled conducting positions to women across 61 orchestras. The lack of visibility for female conductors is most discouraging for the upcoming generation of female musicians. Murphy and accomplished American conductor Marin Alsop both argue for the importance of having visible role models, which can be hard to find for young women.

In 2013, the plight of female conductors was widely publicized when Marin Alsop became the first woman to conduct the BBC Proms Closing Concert. Though her accomplishment was considered a breakthrough and seen as a glass ceiling shattered, so much remains to be done. Indeed, the same week as Alsop’s Proms performance, another well-known conductor, Vasily Petrenko, said that “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things.” This kind of inexcusable comment is all too common. And demeaning remarks are only a part of the problem — women in classical music lack basic exposure. In 2015, composer Judith Bingham said she tried to keep track of how many classical pieces a radio station played, and came up with less than one a week.

Since Alsop’s Proms success, female conductors have been afforded more opportunities, such as Morley College’s program for aspiring women conductors. The workshop-style course has grown since its founding in 2014, and is offered across the United Kingdom. The Women Conductors Program “seeks eventually to eliminate any remark about whether a conductor is a man or a woman so that conductors are judged on their talent alone,” echoing Alsop’s own views.

The problem is ultimately systemic, which does not make it excusable. Women’s contributions to the music world have been largely ignored longer than we can identify, but certainly a few notable cases come to mind; Mozart’s sister was also an incredibly talented pianist, and both Schumann’s wife and Felix Mendelssohn’s sister were talented composers prevented from pursuing their arts.  

“We all want a society in which we don’t have to think or talk any more in terms of male or female conductors,” argues Murphy, “but this won’t just magically happen. Nobody else is going to do it for us.” He’s careful to say in his video that he’s also struggled with the implicit bias, as does much of the industry. Murphy’s intentions are good, but it’s another problem when a male managing director has to tell the British classical music industry that hiring women would be good business practice, and that it’s largely important to keep up with the times.

Of course, the problematic gender bias in Western classical music is a symptom of the sexism that has defined Western society for many hundreds of years. Much of conducting involves leadership qualities that have been traditionally perceived as masculine, and women who take on these qualities are not respected in the same way that a man might have been. Alsop puts a finer point on it: Society interprets women’s gestures very differently, so that if women are exuding an aura of extreme confidence that can be deemed off-putting, whereas it’s desirous for men.”

Little by little, the bias against women in classical music is changing. Thirty years ago, no woman had conducted for the BBC Proms, and today, more than half of the professional flute soloists I’ve met and worked with in my college career have been women. However, complacency is unacceptable, and it’s important to acknowledge that this article presents only one small facet of the greater issue of sexism at large. For example, I did not provide statistics on women of color in the Western classical world, nor did I consider other kinds of music outside symphonic classical music. Ultimately, one female conductor is not “good enough” to have suddenly achieved equity in the musical profession, and until a woman can be a conductor without being a “woman conductor,” we have not done enough.  

Classical Music and the Cost of Perfection

Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a singer. I was that child who always told her friends and family that she was going to be on American Idol when she turned sixteen, but was actually talent-less, which usually fostered an encouraging pat on the back and an “oh, that’s nice, dear,” from amused adults. Thanks to several outstanding music educators, I fortunately grew into my voice in high school, and decided I wanted to pursue a career in opera.

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Cultural Appropriation in Classical Music

The majority of the classical music we know and love today has been steeped in European traditions for generations. It is not uncommon, however, to see hints of other cultures within classical music composition. Sometimes this is done as an authentic ode to another culture’s music, but can also be exploitative if not done with proper knowledge and respect for the culture.

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Censoring Richard Wagner

The Romantic Era of music brought us some of the most beloved minds in Western music we have ever known. Beethoven, Verdi, Puccini, Chopin – the list could go on and on. Following Beethoven’s brilliant instrumental music legacy, however, one German composer’s ingenuity stood out above the rest – Richard Wagner. While he was alive, Wagner was the single most popular composer in Germany. Even today, Wagner is one of the most celebrated composers in all of Western music history, and his operas are still performed worldwide. Unfortunately, however, his legacy has been tarnished by his radical anti-Semitic beliefs which were translated into many of his operas. Questions about the ethicality of performing his art in a modern setting have long been debated by the classical music community.

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Classical Music’s Accessibility Dilemma

As music becomes increasingly accessible in the digital age through means such as Spotify, traditional live-music presentations of classical music have taken a bit of a beating. Even long-standing, socially prominent venues have recently faced financial turbulence. In 2014, the Metropolitan Opera found itself in a $22 million deficit due to shortcomings in both its ticket sales and donor contributions. Desperate to attract more audiences in order to keep afloat, the greatest modern minds in classical music have been forced to rethink how to market classical music to make it consistently appealing to a broad range of audiences. In the process, ethical questions have risen concerning the preservation of the art – is the integrity of classical music being sacrificed as the industry strive to create new events that will ignite new interest?

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