Beyond Dead White Guys: Byron Schenkman Expands Classical Music

The musician and music director’s latest program, this Sunday at Benaroya Hall, explores connections among Czech composer Antonin Dvorak and pioneering American composers of color

By Gavin Borchert


October 25, 2019

Ever since their pathbreaking and provocative “Queer Baroque” concert in 1996, keyboardist Byron Schenkman has led the way in bringing issues of gender and sexuality into Seattle’s classical music scene. Now, Sunday evening’s concert, next up in their “Byron Schenkman & Friends” chamber-music series, will explore the connections among Czech composer Antonin Dvorak and some pioneering American composers of color. In 1892, progressive music patron Jeannette Thurber brought Dvorak to teach at her National Conservatory of Music in America, where one of his students was black musician Harry Burleigh. Music by both these men will be on Sunday’s program, as well as pieces by Amy Beach, William Grant Still, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor—with a Brahms sonata tossed in. We chatted about the how and why of playing music by anyone other than dead white guys.

GB: So what do you want to talk about first?
Schenkman: The dismantling of the patriarchy and the end of white supremacy. [laughs] That’s what I want to talk about first and last. Honestly, at this point in my life, I feel that everything I do needs to in some way be working toward the dissolution of the patriarchy, and I realize that what I can do may be very subtle, and, you know, tiny little taps at a great big behemoth, but I think we each have to do what we can from where we are.

From chamber music concerts to…
Being attorney general. [laughs]

It seems like you’ve done a lot of research on women composers. 
Yeah, I’ve been including women for a long time. I’m doing that more now—almost every concert I do now has something by a woman composer. I mean if somebody hires me to play [Bach’s] Brandenburg 5, then it’s Brandenburg 5, but when Seattle Baroque Orchestra hired me to do a concerto program, I said “How about we do a concerto by Haydn and a concerto by Julie Candeille?” Or when NOCCO [North Corner Chamber Orchestra] asked me to do a harpsichord concerto, I said, “How about one by Wilhelmine von Bayreuth?” If I have a choice, I try to do that, just to make that more normal. 

Now I’m trying to start tackling the whiteness of classical music and of chamber music. I feel really behind the game on this, but I’m starting to try to include musicians and composers who are not white. When it comes to composers, it’s more of a challenge, because my specialty is music from the 17th to mid-19th centuries—but I don’t think I can use this as an excuse anymore. I have to stretch myself.

This program is really exciting to me, because I love the fact that some of the most dominant and influential figures in the development of classical music in America were not male, and some of them were not white. Dvorak came to America because Jeannette Thurber brought him here, and Thurber brought him here because she was a champion of American music, of women being musicians, people of color being musicians, people with disabilities being musicians. She founded her conservatory with those as core values and brought Dvorak because he was someone who would get behind that agenda.

Harry Burleigh had a huge impact, not just as one of Dvorak’s students, but ultimately as a student who was also a teacher.  Dvorak may have been teaching him 19th-century European orchestration and harmony, but Burleigh was teaching Dvorak the music of African-Americans, which Dvorak came to believe would be [foundational to] an American national classical music. It seems like that [idea] lasted for a little while, then [African-American musical ideas] kind of moved into Hollywood and Broadway and [Europe-based] classical music became very cerebral and kind of anti-music of the people.

There was a fork in the road. 
William Grant Still is one of the 20th-century composers who kind of brought [the idea] back, and one of the things I love about both Dvorak and Still is that they were universalists. Dvorak didn’t just write Czech music, he wrote music of the people, whoever the people were. Similarly, Still wrote a whole bunch of these sets of Folk Song Suites, for various combinations of instruments, and there again some of the folk songs are African American, some are South American, some of them are Jewish—he was drawing on all kinds of music for his work.

What [these composers] did was internalize the language of a folk music, and then write original music in that language. I bring that up because I realized that’s what Harry Burleigh was doing in his art music, that’s what Still was doing: Sometimes they’re taking an actual [folk] tune, but often they know what those tunes sound like, and they write things that sound like that. And Dvorak as well—there’s some famous spiritual that Dvorak wrote, and then someone wrote words to it and passed it off as a spiritual?

The slow movement of his “New World” Symphony.
And it’s great that that can happen, because Dvorak could have put a spiritual there, it would have sounded like that, [but] he wrote his own.

People today might say those are examples of cultural appropriation—all the various streams that Still drew from. If that charge were leveled at these composers, drawing on these vernacular traditions, what defense would you make? 
One is that 19th-century Europe was all about nationalism, and 19th-century music was [as well], starting with German nationalism. What was empowering about the composers on this program was saying that we can have an American national music—and saying that American means black people, it means Native American people, and immigrants. Those are the three things that you can be if you’re American, right? Or some combination thereof.

Until then, nationalism was defined by ethnicity rather than by political divisions. But now suddenly you’re talking about “America” as a political idea. We share a country but not a racial background. 
America is not a tribe. That’s a good point. Now, as a white queer Jewish person in Seattle in 2019, there are two issues that I’m trying to do. One is representation: I want, if there’s a 10-year-old black violin student who shows up at a concert at Benaroya Hall, I want them to see that, oh, they can be a violinist, they can be a composer. Anybody can be these things—the people whose music we play are not all white cisgender heterosexual male Christian Europeans.

What worries me about appropriation is if I put on a series where I have 15 white men occasionally play a piece by a black composer here or a woman there, unless we’re commissioning the women and the black composers. Because I think the issue about appropriation is, is somebody getting paid for it? If I buy a T-shirt with a Coast Salish image on it that was designed and manufactured by non-indigenous people, then that’s appropriation. If I go down to Eighth Generation [in Pike Place Market] and buy a blanket there, I know that it not only has the cool Native design in it, but it’s Native people who are making money from it.

So it’s an economic consideration as well.
It’s hard for me to talk about that now, because I haven’t hired a lot of musicians of color, so it’s something that I’m working hard to change. I’m putting together next season, and I think it’ll look a little different in that regard. I’m making what I feel like are small steps.

I grew up with the idea that there just wasn’t any music by women. Or if there was, it was not gonna be as good, and why would you want to do music that’s not as good just because it’s by women? I was a little music nerd and I spent my childhood reading biographies of composers and buying records and reading the liner notes. There weren’t any biographies of women composers at that point, I didn’t read about them, I didn’t hear their music; none of the other students in my piano teachers’ studios was coming to the student recital and playing a piece by Clara Schumann or Marianna Martines. 

The first few seasons of BS&F I think I only had one piece by women per season. Now I have one on almost every concert. Partly more research has been done, plus there’s the Internet. My programs are all thematically based, and for most themes it’s possible to find a piece by a woman that fits that theme. Now I feel like where I am with racial diversity is where I was 20 years ago with gender diversity.

7 p.m. Sun., Oct. 27. $10–$48. Benaroya Hall, downtown,

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