USA

Stop Calling Famous Composers by Their Last Names

Music

It’s time to “fullname” all composers in classical music.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Joseph Willibrord Mähler/Wikipedia.

There will be a time when we’ll go to concerts again. We will buy our tickets, shuffle shoulder to shoulder down the aisle, and find our seats. The lights will dim, and the conductor will walk onto the stage to introduce the program. They might talk about Beethoven, Schumann, and Bartók. And they might talk about Alma Mahler, Florence Price, Henry Burleigh, and Caroline Shaw. Many of us, used to the conventions of classical performance, will hardly notice the difference: “traditional” white male composers being introduced with only surnames, full names for everyone else, especially women and composers of color.

The habitual, two-tiered way we talk about classical composers is ubiquitous. For instance, coverage of an early October livestream by the Louisville Orchestra praised the ensemble’s performance of a “Beethoven” symphony, and the debut of a composition memorializing Breonna Taylor by “Davóne Tines” and “Igee Dieudonné.” But ubiquity doesn’t make something right. It’s time we paid attention to the inequity inherent in how we talk about composers, and it’s time for the divided naming convention to change.

The past several decades have seen the world of American classical music reckoning with its racist and sexist history; as it has with many other areas of culture, that process has greatly accelerated over the past year. In my own corner of academia, the previous several months have seen an explosive focus on the inherent white supremacy and male-centrism within academic music research. This explosion was sparked by a lecture and an ensuing article by Philip Ewell, published in September, in which he calls out mainstream American music theory for its institutional racism. This flashpoint was preceded by work in similar veins by scholars like Ellie Hisama and Robin Attas, and subsequently brought into mainstream musical conservations by YouTuber Adam Neely and New Yorker writer Alex Ross.

College-level music pedagogy has responded by dramatically reconsidering which composers and musical traditions we do and don’t discuss in the classroom. The world of music theory has seen working groups designed to analyze and advocate for the music of composers with marginalized identities, accompanied by online resources of musical examples by these composers. If you’re a music teacher who’s been demonstrating some concept with a piece by Ludwig van Beethoven or Wolfgang Mozart, these resources will guide you to an alternative piece of music by, say, Elizabeth Cotten (the guitarist responsible for the “Cotten picking” performance style). Similar dynamics are increasingly evident within other musical fields, including music performance. The Metropolitan Opera, upon canceling its 2020–21 season, also announced that it would begin its next season with Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the first opera by a Black composer to appear on the Met’s stage.

Encouraging as it is, this trend is butting headlong into the Western European musical canon. For a lot of intersecting reasons, music critics, academics, consumers, and performers in the mid-19th through early 20th centuries thought about music history as the story of a few great men producing great works of art. (Of course, this tactic is very common in how we tell our histories in many domains.) Tied up in the respect and ubiquity afforded to these men is the mononym, or a single word sufficing for a person’s whole name. These canonized demigods became so ensconced in elite musical society’s collective consciousness that only one word was needed to evoke their awesome specter. Mouthfuls of full names became truncated to terse sets of universally recognized syllables: Mozart. Beethoven. Bach.

On the one hand, then, initiatives toward diversity and inclusion are placing new names on concert programs, syllabi, and research papers, names that might not have been there 10 or 20 years ago—or even last year. But these names are appearing next to those that have been drilled deep into our brains by the forces of the inherited canon. This collision between increasing diversity and the mononyms of music history has created a hierarchical system that, whether or not you find it useful, can now only be seen as outdated and harmful.

As we usher wider arrays of composers into our concerts and classrooms, this dual approach only exacerbates the exclusionary practices that suppressed nonwhite and nonmale composers in the first place. When we say, “Tonight, you’ll be hearing symphonies by Brahms and Edmond Dédé,” we’re linguistically treating the former as being on a different plane than the latter, a difference originally created by centuries of systematic prejudice, exclusion, sexism, and racism. (Dédé was a freeborn Creole composer whose music packed concert halls in Europe and America in the mid-19th century.)

Going forward, we need to “fullname” all composers when we write, talk, and teach about music. If mononyms linguistically place composers in a canonical pantheon, fullnaming never places them there to begin with. When we say, “Tonight, you’ll be hearing symphonies by Johannes Brahms and Edmond Dédé,” we’re linguistically treating both composers as being equally worthy of attention. And while fullnaming might seem like a small act in the face of centuries of harm and injustice, by adopting a stance of referential egalitarianism, fullnaming at least does no more harm.

To be sure, the idea of fullnaming is not entirely new. Scholarship and pedagogy concerning women composers, especially those married to other composers (Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, for instance), have called out the unsavory practice of reserving the mononymic surname for the husband while referring to the equally-if-not-more-accomplished wife by her full name. And it’s also important to remind ourselves that fullnaming a composer does not mean we’re respecting their compositions any less. Canonic composers made great music. But by using everyone’s full names, we can focus more on their music rather than on the past cultural practices that elevated straight white men at the expense of everyone else.

Musicians, academics, and teachers have a lot of work ahead to confront the racist and sexist history of classical music. Fullnaming composers, especially those who have been elevated to mononymic status by this complicated history, will challenge us to at the very least afford the same respect to all of the individuals whose music we talk and write about. When we do return to the concert halls, let’s return to concerts that play Ludwig Beethoven alongside Florence Price, and Edmond Dédé alongside Johannes Brahms.

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