Nina Penner, Assistant Professor of Music at Brock University, and Caryl Clark, Professor of Musicology at the University of Toronto, recently published an article in The conversation on how Western classical music performers and audiences can engage in anti-colonial and anti-racist work.
“No work of Western classical music is more closely associated with the Christmas season than the Messiah by German-born composer George Frideric Handel, premiered in 1742.
In recent years, audiences have been able to choose between performances modeled on those of the composer’s era, performances following the 19th century tradition of massive choirs and modern instruments, and even staged and choreographed interpretations of the work. When COVID-19 reduced live performance, online video presentations became a new medium.
This was following global protests over the murder of George Floyd and a global revitalization of Black Lives Matter. Among artists from different industries, black classical artists like baritone Andrew Adridge, in conversation with writer Michael Zarathus-Cook, called for classical music to solve systemic problems. He noted, “There is a problem with race in… arts organizations because there is a problem in Canada” and “avoiding conversations” will not help.
In a separate article, Zarathus-Cook wrote of how “we need to recognize that the protests we have seen are being spurred both by the urgent need for a radical assessment of police forces and of how they interact with [Black, Indigenous and people of colour], and the more subtle, culturally diffused everyday racism that is not triggered by a prematurely triggered trigger, but by words and social cues that remind racialized people in this country that they are irrevocably looking from the outside. “
Even before the global Black Lives Matter protests, a 2018 report prepared for the nonprofit Orchestras Canada by writer and arts consultant Soraya Peerbaye and violinist and ethnomusicologist Parmela Attariwala documents “systemic inequity and coloniality in Canadian orchestras ”, ranging from orchestral leadership and governance structures to their repertoire and working methods. Music scholars also grappled with the colonial legacy of classical music, including Handel’s investments in the slave trade.