A Canceled Music Theorist Responds

Timothy Jackson

Editor's Note: Professor Timothy Jackson of the University of North Texas has recently been targeted for by an academic mob. His colleague's grievances are based on his defense the music theorist Heinrich Schenker, and by extension modern music theory as a whole, from the spurious charge of “systemic racism.”  The University of North Texas should defend Professor Jackson’s rights to speak freely on any matter of scholarly or public importance but also to vindicate his professional character and explicitly reject the aspersions cast upon it.

Professor Jackson has written a statement on the controversy. It is worth reading and disseminating. We republish it here.

The controversy engulfing me and Professor Philip Ewell of Hunter College is widely misunderstood as a debate over “racism.” This controversy is actually about whether or not the Twitter mob may silence open discourse and scholarly debate at the University of North Texas.

Professor Ewell certainly has a right to express his ideas. He labels as a “virulent racist” the great music theorist Heinrich Schenker. By extension, he argues, modern music theory is institutionalized “racism” and those who teach and defend Schenker are “whitewashing” music theory. We who have dedicated our life and scholarship to Schenker’s ideas are, by extension, inescapably racists.

I had the courage to object. But I did so by following the usual course of open academic debate. The Journal of Schenkerian Studies sent out a Call for Papers to everyone in the Society for Music Theory, including Professor Ewell. We deliberately collected different viewpoints, some supporting him.

Professor Ewell himself made no response. The claim that the Journal somehow denied him a voice is simply false.

Instead, as Professor Ewell explained in this paper, he chooses not to read the responses at all. He and the Twitter mob nevertheless shout down our viewpoints as “racist.” I have requested that the Journal and the University of North Texas Press immediately make all the responses publicly available.

I have run the Center for Schenkerian Studies at the University of North Texas for two decades. My colleagues and I have a long track record of opposing racism. For example, the Center rescued the compositions of Paul Kletzki thought lost to the Holocaust. At the time he composed, Kletzki was condemned as “racially inferior.” His work is now performed around the world thanks to our Center. In 2011, this earned a Grammy nomination, bringing recognition to UNT.

I have personally promoted and mentored people of color from around the globe. They come to study music theory at UNT. I also stand by my life-long support for providing resources to people of color in the United States to nurture the appreciation of classical music from an early age. Perversely, this too is now condemned by the mob as “racism.”

I also took issue with Professor Ewell for looking the other way at anti-Semitism among black intellectuals. In this, I suppose I am guilty of agreeing with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. My response gives concrete examples of this anti-Semitism in rap music.

I still appeal to Professor Ewell to join me in opposing this disturbing and racist trend. I continue to hope and believe that Professor Ewell and I are fundamentally on the same side.

We should teach and take Schenker’s life and career as exemplary. As my response to Professor Ewell points out, Schenker’s confrontation with racial supremacy in National Socialism led him to conclude in defiance: “Music is accessible to all races and creeds alike.”

Schenker was not considered “white,” certainly not part of a “white male frame.” They spat on him as a “sow Jew”—denying him standing as either “white” or “male.”

I still believe there is universal humanity in Schenker’s intellectual victory over racism and in music theory. But that victory is perishable. It can only survive by staunchly defending open discourse and an open society. It will never happen by kneeling before the Twitter mob.


Timothy Jackson

Distinguished University Research Professor of Music Theory

College of Music

University of North Texas

Denton, TX 76203

 Image: Weston MacKinnon, Public Domain

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