A scholar’s address about racism and music theory was met with a vituperative, personal response by a small journal. It faced calls to cease publishing.
A periodical devoted to the study of a long-dead European music theorist is an unlikely suspect to spark an explosive battle over race and free speech.
But the tiny Journal of Schenkerian Studies, with a paid circulation of about 30 copies an issue per year, has ignited a fiery reckoning over race and the limits of academic free speech, along with whiffs of a generational struggle. The battle threatens to consume the career of Timothy Jackson, a 62-year-old music theory professor at the University of North Texas, and led to calls to dissolve the journal.
It also prompted Professor Jackson to file an unusual lawsuit charging the university with violating his First Amendment rights — while accusing his critics of defamation.
This tale began in the autumn of 2019 when Philip Ewell, a Black music theory professor at Hunter College, addressed the Society for Music Theory in Columbus, Ohio. He described music theory as dominated by white males and beset by racism. He held up the theorist Heinrich Schenker, who died in Austria in 1935, as an exemplar of that flawed world, a “virulent racist” who wrote of “primitive” and “inferior” races — views, he argued, that suffused his theories of music.