Last Wednesday, just as the nation was building toward its boiling point, Anthony McGill took out his clarinet and MacBook Pro and recorded himself playing “America the Beautiful.” He posted the video on Facebook and challenged others to do the same to put a spotlight on the struggle for justice and decency. Others did — many others.
Clarinetists, violinists, violists, trumpeters, cellists, and other artists crafted their own responses to McGill, who is principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, a Curtis Institute of Music professor and graduate, and a frequent guest with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. He caught the national spotlight in 2009 when he played for President Obama’s inauguration along with pianist Gabriela Montero, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The total views of his video and all of the responses filmed and posted in the past week have topped 120,000 — a virtual social media tsunami in the classical world.
McGill, the Philharmonic’s first-ever African American principal player, says that since the COVID-19 crisis silenced performances, he’s “had a lot of time to ponder lots of things.” First, he thought about expressing himself in words, but soon realized: “I had to do it with the clarinet.”
McGill’s video is striking for a number of reasons. For the first couple of phases, McGill starts out the piece as we’re used to hearing it. Then he abruptly shifts the key to minor, turning the melody toward tragedy. On the second to last note, the music is suddenly hushed.
He never plays the final note. Instead, he goes down on two knees with his hands and clarinet behind his back.
“I didn’t plan for it, I didn’t plan any of this out,” said McGill. “But as I was playing and singing the words along in my head, I realized I didn’t need to play the final note because we haven’t resolved all of these issues, the terrible plague of violence and injustice and prejudice. For our country to shine from sea to sea, we need to figure this out and confront it and solve this problem.”
Going down on two knees, he said, was a way of upping the ante — hashtag #TakeTwoKnees — since previous protests of going down on one knee drew objections from some.
“I’m saying, let’s continue to do it, and take two knees. Because it’s a sign of prayer, of vulnerability, of peaceful protest. In a way it’s a sign of surrender to this situation we are in, that we are on our knees and praying people pay attention to this.”
To some, It might seem doubtful that a video could do much to create change, says violinist Rachel Barton Pine. But music in fact can be experienced as a powerful call to action, says Pine, who responded with a video of her playing "Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.”
“What Anthony has done is so important for everyone to make their voices heard so we are all in this together on behalf of those who have been not treated as full members of society for so long.”
“This ‘normal’ isn’t new,” wrote McGill in text attached to his Facebook video. “It’s just easier to see what’s going on now that some of the horrific hate crimes that happen every day make the national news. Complacency is rampant, and hiding behind privilege is obviously just as bad. If there were hashtag movements in the last century during America’s ‘good old days,’ one could have easily been #BlackLivesDefinitelyDontMatter. Few would have batted an eye.”
McGill says that in making his statement, he thought a lot about a musician’s own development and journey. “With our individual pursuit we think of coming close to some sort of perfection, and we have to be silent in so much of doing that art form. But at some point you start to think about what is going on around you. You start to think maybe someone will listen if I start to communicate in some other way.”
While the musical genre most people associate with social protest might be pop music, classical music and musicians have long spoken out against injustice and tyranny. Philadelphia contralto Marian Anderson made a highly visible statement in 1939 when, denied a chance to sing at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall, sang instead at the Lincoln Memorial for a crowd of 75,000.
“One of the most notable for his involvement in social causes was Leonard Bernstein,” says Jonathan Rosenberg, Hunter College history professor and author of Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War through the Cold War. “He was very much a voice on the left and arguably the most famous classical musician in the U.S.” during his lifetime.
Composer Aaron Copland spoke out against America’s Cold War policies, and conductor Arturo Toscanini spoke out fervently against fascism, Rosenberg points out.
But classical music cut a larger profile in America then. Now, not so much. That McGill’s video has had impact within classical music is clear. What about beyond?
“If the ripple effect extends beyond the world of classical music, all the better,” says Rosenberg. “Classical music can only benefit from trying to connect itself to the great questions of the day, which I think it doesn’t often do. It kind of exists in this rarefied atmosphere. If his action can connect it to what’s going on, I think it’s a noble action. I hope it does resonate.”
Is McGill surprised that his post struck a chord?
“Yes, I’m very surprised. I’ve never done anything like this before,” he said. “But it’s great to see there are people feeling the same way. They need to express their pain, their support, their solidarity, because sometimes people feel voiceless. We all need inspiration at times like this.”