I was having a conversation last week with a small group of people who are quite knowledgeable about classical music. For some reason, they started to talk about “gypsies,” which of course is another name for Roma people. The people I was talking with talked about the dishonesty of Roma people, about their purported kidnapping of children, about their presence in major European cities as beggars and pickpockets. The conversation then moved on to other topics.
But the hypocrisy stuck in my mind. These people would happily listen to music by Liszt, Brahms, Bartok, Dvorak, Kodaly and other composers who claimed to write compositions that resembled gypsy music. (I could research and write several blog posts exploring the accuracies and inaccuracies of those claims, but not today.) They are the same people who might kick back and enjoy a performance of an operetta like Strauss’s Zigeunerbaron (“The Gypsy Baron”) or a performance of Carmen, with its Gypsy title character. But did they want to meet any Roma people or learn about their lives? Oh no, that would be too risky.

Double, Triple, and Quadruple Racial Standards in Classical Music
That conversation got me thinking about how differently members of so-called “minorities” (a stupid term) are portrayed in classical music. There seems to be no neat or uniform way to address this issue, so let me jump in anywhere . . .

Roma – The portrayal of Roma “gypsies” in instrumental Western classical music runs the gamut from romanticized “covers” of Roma music (Liszt, Brahms, Dvorak) to respectful, pseudo-ethnomusicological adaptations (Bartok, Kodaly). In the world of operetta, we have operettas like Zigeunerbaronand others. In opera, we have most famously Carmen, which tells the story of a nice bumpkin soldier kind of guy (Don José) who has the misfortune of falling in love with a deceitful Roma maiden, Carmen, who ruins his life. She is the complete stereotype – swarthy, dishonest, promiscuous, shoulder-rolling, violent. Why this opera is not seen as a piece of racist politics is beyond me. Maybe people think that it is a time capsule, and that we are more enlightened now. In ballet, we also have stereotyped Roma people making appearances, like the Gypsy dancers in The Nutcracker.
Here are some mental experiments to try. If you replaced the character of Carmen with a Jewish woman, a Black woman, or an Arabic woman, what would you think about the result? If you took all the African-American characters in Porgy and Bess and made them Jews or Muslims or Inuits, would you take offense? We are clearly dealing with double standards here. The stereotyping of some people is okay, of others abhorrent.
Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Portrayal of the Gypsy Carmen at the Royal Opera House, London

Why are Roma people so consistently stereotyped in classical music – presented as sexy, one-size-fits-all “exotics”? Maybe it is because there have been no famous, top-tier Roma classical composers. The Roma have produced extraordinary performers, like many who appeared in popular Austrian dance halls in the 19th century, where they influenced composers like Brahms. Perhaps the only way an ethnic group can escape stereotyping is to produce notable composers of its own?
And here’s something a little bit closer to the “real thing”

  . . .

Turks and Arabs – The portrayal of these people as “exotics” in classical music is again shameful. Most notably, we have comic operas like Mozart’s Entführing aus dem Serail(“The Abduction from the Seraglio”) and Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri (“The Italian Girl in Algiers”) that use harems, presided over by bumbling Turks and Arabs and the odd eunuch or two, as the backdrop for funny stories. Harems, we must remember, are places were women are kept in sexual slavery. There’s nothing funny about them. Fortunately, a well-respected body of classical music has been created in Arabic countries; its presence runs as a healthy counterpoint to the demeaning way that Arabic, Muslim and Turkish people have generally been portrayed in Western works.

Chinese, Japanese and other Asians – Again, portrayals in older Western classical music are often stereotyped and unenlightened. Puccini’s Turandot,set in ancient China, shows an aloof, murderous, “ice princess” who executes unsuccessful suitors who cannot answer three riddles. (Oy, vey.) That same composer’s Madama Butterfly might be a bit more enlightened, since it shows an innocent-if-stereotyped coy Japanese maiden being victimized by a caddish American sailor. Other Western works, like Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”) seem to be respectful attempts to pay homage to Chinese music. Thankfully, music by a number of Asian composers has recently begun to be programmed by American and European orchestras. That could begin to undo the damage of more than 100 years of racial stereotyping at the hands of Western composers. And then we have a more modern work, like John Adam’s Nixon in China, which presents Asian people in more nuanced and interesting ways.

Black people and African-Americans – This is really a complex area, more complex than I can cover adequately in one post. But let me mention a few troubling appearances of Black people in the western canon of classical music. We have Monastatos, an evil promiscuous Moor, in Mozart’s die Zauberflöte. Fortunately in recent productions of that opera, he is often stripped of any racial identity and presented as just some odd, lecherous man. We have Verdi’s masterpiece Otello, which like the Shakespeare play upon which it is based, delves into the human issues of race, jealousy and rage with profound and troubling insight. But then we also have operas like Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which sets out a ridiculous, but oddly beloved, smorgasbord of racial stereotypes. As an antidote to these works, we can listen to fine compositions by important African-American composers like William Grant Still and Ulysses Kay.

Spaniards – They are portrayed by non-Spanish composers in a wide variety of ways.  Sometimes as stereotypes (again, in Bizet’s Carmen) and sometimes respectfully (Chabrier’s Espana). And the body of extraordinary music composed by Spanish composers, from Soler to deFalla and beyond, allows Spanish music to argue its own case.

French, Italians, Germans, Americans – Well, what can you say? The volume and variety of works from and about these people makes the issue of prejudice against them difficult to dissect in any intelligent way.

Music Is Not Alone in Its Prejudice
Painters, writers, and artists of all kinds have presented unenlightened stereotypes – by the tens of thousands – over the centuries. Hopefully we have arrived at a point in history when we can recognize the double standards of racism and call them out for what they are.