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When an institution sponsors an event, there is an implicit suggestion that some of its people approve of the event’s content. As such, the April 12 event titled “Dvořák’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music,” co-sponsored by the James Madison Program Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship and the Department of Music, should be an embarrassment to Princeton students and faculty.
Rather than representing the complex richness of Black American music and histories, some of the speakers glorified white composers who intentionally appropriated Black American music. Misrepresentation is worse than no representation at all; it causes harm instead of doing good. Institutions that program events must ensure that communities on campus are not only represented but represented well, with community members involved in the decision-making process.
Formatted as a panel on “Black classical music” and moderated by Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship Director Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, the speakers included: Joseph Horowitz, who recently authored a book of the same title as the event; Dr. John McWhorter, an associate professor in the Slavic Department at Columbia University who favorably reviewed Horowitz's book; and Professor Sidney Outlaw, a celebrated baritone on the voice faculty of Manhattan School of Music and Brevard Music Center.
Despite the title of the event, the content was not primarily about music written by Black people. In the musical selections performed, only one Black American composer, Harry T. Burleigh, was represented. Otherwise, the panel discussion barely included any content about Black American composers or musicians. Apart from Burleigh, the panelists briefly mentioned only a few Black composers active in the first half of the 20th century — including William Levi Dawson, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, R. Nathaniel Dett, Florence Price, and William Grant Still — with few details of their biographies or musical works noted. No Black composers or songwriters active in the last 50 years were mentioned.
Instead of centering music written by Black people, most of the speaking time was focused on the composers Antonín Dvořák, George Gershwin, and Charles Ives, none of whom was Black. Guelzo claimed that Ives should be “in the pantheon of U.S. classical music,” and panelist Joseph Horowitz said that Gershwin’s opera “‘Porgy and Bess’ is the fulfillment of Dvořák’s prophecy.”
The most egregiously shocking detour of the evening occurred when Dr. McWhorter said, “I have a fantasy that in 50 years, white people can sing ‘Porgy and Bess.’” To this, Horowitz added, “until we have a white Porgy, the full stature and the very identity of this opera will remain obscure,” claiming that “the greatest recordings” of the opera were by Lawrence Tibbett who, according to Horowitz, “happened to specialize in singing ‘Black,’ but he was white.”
The mere consideration of a white “Porgy and Bess” at a Princeton event is flagrantly appalling. The opera “Porgy and Bess” was premiered with an all-Black cast, and most productions since have followed this precedent.
Professor Outlaw mentioned the troubling history of Black singers being relegated only to Black roles, while also having their multifaceted talents ignored: “I'm cool with that as long as arts administrators of opera companies are going to be willing to hire Black people for regular standard repertoire.”
There are many reasons why this country does not need a white “Porgy and Bess,” not even fifty years from now. The main reason, however, is the long and painful history of white Americans taking on “Black roles” in music and theater, replete with hurtful, mocking stereotypes.
How could this event, supposedly about “Black classical music,” stray so far from the course? The answer is hidden in the event’s title, “Dvořák’s Prophecy,” coming from the book by Horowitz. According to Horowitz, composer Antonín Dvořák predicted that U.S. classical music would be rooted in Black American and Indigenous melodies, and his prediction never came true because American composers became overly fascinated with European modernism during the 20th century. Horowitz suggested a reorientation of U.S. music history around composers who used Black American and Indigenous music as source material.
There are many problems with Horowitz’s central premise, as well as his supporting evidence.
First and foremost, his concept of “Black classical music” is overly reductive and does not adequately represent the complexity and multiplicity of Black expression, music, and scholarship in the United States. His work ignores many storied living composers, including Tania León, Roscoe Mitchell, Alvin Singleton, and countless more. It additionally ignores scholars such as Amiri Baraka who point to “so-called jazz” as “American classical music.” Black American contributions to “popular music” were briefly mentioned, but not seriously considered at this event — a mistake. The musical innovations of Black Americans have been foundational to music in America and across the globe. This fact should be wholly celebrated and not relegated to a “popular music” footnote.
Dvořák himself had a flawed understanding of Black American music, having conflated spirituals with blackface minstrel songs written by the likes of Stephen Foster, as he wrote in 1895, “The white composers who wrote the touching Negro songs … had a similarly sympathetic comprehension of the deep pathos of slave life.” Dvořák’s own arrangement of Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” for orchestra and chorus premiered at Madison Square in 1894, with Burleigh and the renowned soprano Sissieretta Jones as soloists expected to sing such insulting lines as “still longing for the old plantation.”
The foundational error in Horowitz’s concept of “Dvořák’s prophecy” is that it prioritizes composers whose works are rooted in appropriations of Blackness and Indigeneity. Salient critiques of appropriation are plentiful from the likes of bell hooks, Greg Tate, and Dylan Robinson, and have been outspokenly voiced since Frederick Douglass, who called blackface performers “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens.”
Prominent Black contemporaries of Dvořák and Gershwin likewise offered critiques. The composer Will Marion Cook, who had studied with Dvořák at the National Conservatory of Music, suggested in 1898 that, in Dvořák’s works based on Black American music, “something lacked … which even Dvořák’s great genius failed to comprehend, and only a Negro who had seen and felt and suffered could supply.” Similarly, the composer Hall Johnson wrote a lengthy and scathing critique of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” for “Opportunity” in January 1936, in which he illustrated via metaphor how white appropriations of Black American music fail to capture the underlying depth of meaning: “Only we who sowed the seed can know the full and potent secret of the flower … all they can ever grasp is a handful of leaves.”
Apparently without knowledge — or in willful ignorance — of these critiques, the speakers at the event glorified Dvořák, Gershwin, and Ives, with “Black classical music” added as an apparent afterthought, perhaps an attention-grabbing headline to maximize attendance.
In “The White Image in the Black Mind,” literary scholar Dr. Jane Davis explains how the ideology of white liberalism “boosts the egos of whites and reduces [Black people] to crutches used by whites to bolster their idealized self-images.” Similarly, Horowitz and Guelzo put forth an ideology that canonizes white composers under the false pretenses of “Black classical music.” This bait-and-switch advertising is not only misleading, harmful, and dangerous; it is poor scholarship.
The presentation of Horowitz as a dubious expert on these matters is a travesty and disgrace, grossly magnified due to the support of this institution. Given its stature, Princeton has a responsibility to perpetuate offerings that align with its values and mission. Otherwise, attendees may conflate the flawed pseudo-scholarship of a speaker with the institution itself and, worse, come away believing the speaker due to their institutional backing. Judging from my own experience, the views of this panel unequivocally do not represent those of faculty and students in the Department of Music. Rather, students and faculty alike would find the views expressed to be deeply troubling if not abhorrent, making this co-sponsorship all the more concerning.
A credible scholar should have been invited to speak on this subject. In fact, one such scholar, musicologist Dr. Matthew D. Morrison, was on campus a week later to lead a seminar hosted by the Department of African American Studies (AAS). Perhaps for similar future events, the Department of Music should seek to collaborate with AAS rather than the James Madison Program.
For how long will Princeton uplift voices of white hypocrisy to the detriment of its proclaimed goals of diversity and inclusion? Time will tell.
Peter Christian is a Ph.D. student at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, enrolled in the Princeton-Rutgers Exchange Program. He can be reached at email@example.com.