Representation Matters

This is going to be another non-review post, but it’s been on my mind, so I’m afraid it’s what you get.

You see, I think that many of us (maybe like me up until recently) hear the words, “representation matters,” and get a little confused: well, of course it does, but… why do we even need to say that? So I’m going to tell you the truth: I didn’t really get it myself until fairly recently, but I think I get it better now, as a mother, and I want to tell you how and why.

This is a picture of the bottom of my beautiful ketubah (Jewish wedding contract). Here it is in the full context:

I feel terrible that my image quality is so bad, but I just snapped these from the wall. My husband and I designed this with our artist, Laya Crust, who perfectly understood our taste, and also the importance of music in our lives. Yes, the first image shows musical notation at the bottom: that’s the music of Salamone Rossi (sorry, that’s a wikipedia link, but if you have access you can find out more on the Grove), an Italian Jewish violinist and composer. He composed music to the psalms (tehilim, in Hebrew) and we chose a quote along with his music to put into our ketubah.

Why is this relevant? Well, this hangs prominently on the wall of our home. It’s one of the first things when you come in: a testament to our love of each other, of family– and of music and art. And my daughter has been growing up in a house where this is fundamentally what we care about. She knows music well. During quarantine, my husband has been teaching her to play the violin. The other day we put on La Fille du régiment and I mentioned that, “Hey, we’re watching an opera! It’s La Fille du régiment, by Donizetti!” She sighed in exasperation as only a nearly 7-year-old girl can and said, “I know that, Mummy!” She knows music, and we’re happy because we love music and want to share that with her.

The other day, in the car, we were listening to Classical New England and they put on some Aaron Copeland (I admit, not my favourite composer) and I was surprised to hear my Changeling chime in, delighted, “I love Aaron Copeland, he’s JEWISH!”

Folks– representation matters.

To me, I didn’t grow up with Aaron Copeland. Maybe, in fact, I don’t care for him since he wasn’t in my music books and we didn’t listen to him often. He was a later discovery, not part of my early music enjoyment. But Ludovic Halévy was. And I was very proud he was Jewish, though I can’t say I really thought about it as much as my daughter clearly has. So I started that conversation. When we got home I showed her the ketubah. I told her about Salamone Rossi. Then we cuddled and talked about all the music– so much music!– by composers of Jewish origins. I told her my sadness that so many converted.

Maybe you don’t know their names? Felix Mendelssohn was my first total shock as a young teenager, honestly. He was converted to Christianity at age (I think) six or seven. But he was the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn and I remember my bitterness when I learned who he was and that he’d been converted.

But there were so many! Meyerbeer, who was an early champion of Wagner (yes, Wagner) was Jewish. I mentioned Halévy. But there was Jacques Offenbach, whose music you’ve heard even if you don’t know his name: the can-can from Orphée aux enfers is now heard everywhere. He was born Jewish, and though he converted (why is slightly obscure) his entire background was imbued in a Jewish world– his father was a cantor. What about Mahler? Poor Mahler, an unbelievable, terrible genius. I could go on, and when talking to my daughter I did go on, and the words poured into her.

Today we were out walking and to my absolute astonishment (I thought I’d bored her to bits) she brought it up to me again. She ran through the composers she knew, the ones she didn’t know, the names familiar and unfamiliar. “I think Offenbach is my favourite because his music is so much fun and I like the stories.” (I have a feeling my partiality to Offenbach might have influenced that statement, sorry.)

And I felt, again, bitter. Really, really bitter.

I love music, passionately. But I’m going to criticize the classical music world for a moment– with love, all love, but I do have to say this.

I think that the classical music world closes its eyes and listens. Pretends to be neutral: “Yes, Wagner was… problematic… but such genius!” Look, he was a terrible, horrible human being on every level. I just listened to Jessye Norman (oh, what a voice!) singing Sieglinde and I felt fire and fury the whole time. What did she think as she sang that bigot’s music, I wondered? What I felt, listening, was a desperate hope that Wagner’s soul was in torment at the knowledge she had taken his music and elevated it to such heights.

The classical music world is not confronting its history. To be clear: I seek out music I love– including Wagner’s, even though he would love for me never to have been born. I have zero objection to listening to Handel’s Messiah even though his notion of the Messiah and mine are undoubtedly different. My favourite Requiem is by Verdi.

I’m Jewish. A lot of my favourite music is white and Christian.

But I am absolutely sick of the lack of knowledge and thought that goes into our cultural history, literary and musical.

I see people online right now objecting to recommendations of old books to new, young kids: “New books, fresh books!” they call out. I agree, I disagree.

My home library is, I think it’s fair to say, eclectic. I have a huge variety of new, fresh books and I like them there. I also have a wide variety of old, weird books and I like them there. We read new bright ideas, classics of enormous beauty, and weird stuff that, well. I have and many others don’t. Out of print books. I think they all belong.

But with reflection, please. Because if you don’t think about what you’re reading and listening to and looking at– frankly, WHAT’S THE POINT?

So, what does representation mean, and why does it matter?

Representation means that kids (and older folks!) see themselves and it’s a lightbulb: “If it’s been done, it can be done.”

Music is not and never has been pure and neutral (translation: “actually it’s white and Christian, but I don’t want to say that, so we’ll just tell you to close your eyes and listen, OK?”). It is fighting and fire and suppression and revolution, and in all of that there’s EVERYONE. To my daughter that meant the discovery of Jewishness.

I want the world today to open up and discover Blackness in music, too. I want to point you to the work of Dr. Kira Thurman, for example, who has pointed to many musicians and composers including George Bridgetower, a Black violinist of enormous skill for whom Beethoven composed a sonata so difficult few others could play it. I want a children’s picture book about him. I want it yesterday.

While we insist that music and literature and the arts are pure and neutral– they remain static. We need to dig. We need to break it open. We need to release the passions of the past so that we can disturb the serenity of the present.

And for that? Let’s get more representation. It matters.

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