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Is classical colonial?

Naive proposals to “decolonise” Western classical music risk losing the richness of its history


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The movement to “decolonise the curriculum” has recently been prominent in music, in particular music education in the Western classical tradition. It came to public attention last year after documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests revealed proposals by a small number of academics at Oxford University to present “white European music from the slave period” as a “colonialist representational system”. Some even questioned the teaching of western notation. 

A statement on the faculty’s website tried to downplay historical and analytical study in favour of music ethnography and popular music. But this year there have been reports of similar moves at Cambridge, though focused on a specific module entitled “Decolonising the Ear” rather than the curriculum as a whole. 

The major examples come from the eighteenth century onward

In truth, this critique of classical music has been going on for some time. In 2016, a conference in Puerto Rico organised by the Music Forum of the Americas took place under the title “Decolonizing Music”. One of its spin-offs was an article by Gary Ingle in New Music Box, “Decolonizing Our Music”, which appeared to view “us” as Americans; claimed “classical” and “indigenous” music were competitors; and viewed forms of patronage (whether government-based or private) that have supported classical music as a type of colonialism.

In the UK, the Musicians’ Union published an article in 2019 by David Duncan, noting among other things the lack of non-white representation in the curricula of examination bodies. A 2021 issue of Ethnomusicology Forum, edited by Shzr Ee Tan, was devoted to “Decolonising music and music studies”. 

Tan also organised a roundtable in 2021 on “Decolonizing Music Studies” and she with other ethnomusicologists based at Royal Holloway, University of London produced a statement on behalf of their department on “Inclusion, participation and decolonisation in music”. Various other journals and institutions have produced their own statements. 

The issue surfaced again last year when the musicologist J.P.E. Harper-Scott resigned from his chair at Royal Holloway, claiming universities had become dogmatic rather than critical environments and citing rhetoric on decolonisation “which admits of no doubt, no criticism, no challenge”. 

I limit my discussion here to the debate in Europe, especially Britain, as the history and demographics of the Americas, South Africa and the Antipodes create distinct issues. The most frequent target of decolonisers here is the central Western classical tradition, which developed primarily during periods when minority populations in Europe were considerably smaller than today.

In terms of the demographics in France and Britain at the time, it should come as no surprise that black composers such as Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges or Samuel Coleridge-Taylor are exceptional cases. Similarly, it is not unnatural that European music traditions continue to be studied widely in countries where 85-90 per cent of the population is of European ethnic origin.

It is already the case that Western classical music has an ever-decreasing role in British degree courses. Figures from 2020, excluding conservatoires, show fewer than 20 per cent of music students are enrolled on degree courses in which academic study of the classical tradition plays a significant role — the majority of whom now take more vocationally-oriented courses, such as music technology, musical theatre or popular music, equally important but of a different nature. 

The virulence of the decolonisers’ rhetoric, however, demonstrates that some in universities still think this is too much, and will be satisfied only when such a huge and heterogeneous tradition becomes a wholly marginal force. 

That connections exist between aspects of European musical traditions and wider history and ideology, including colonisation, is hard to deny. Scholars of musical “exoticism” (often drawing extensively upon the contested views of Edward Said) have examined a handful of little-known operatic and other stage works from the Renaissance onwards which feature representations of non-European peoples of Asia and the Americas, sometimes involving demeaning stereotypes. 

But the major examples come from the eighteenth century onwards. Much has been written on the so-called alla turca style, found in the music of Mozart, Beethoven and others, which imitates the military Janissary bands of the Ottoman empire. The style has been construed as evoking the seventeenth-century battles between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottomans around Vienna. They are equally conceivable as defensive actions in the context of inter-imperial disputes. 

After the conquest of Algiers in 1830, a range of French composers began using a mixture of static harmonies and non-standard chromatic progressions to represent North Africa in ways that imply the “dangerous” sensuality of an exotic but threatening world. Camille Saint-Saëns’s Africa fantasy for piano and orchestra, with its cheerful but patronising portrayal of a whole continent as innocent and smiling, is difficult to listen to in this way today. Similarly, a range of Russian composers (for example, Alexander Borodin in his In the Steppes of Central Asia) used chromatic devices to portray the “mysterious and foreign” peoples of Central Asia in comparison to a more upright (and often militaristic) Russian style. 

Yet presenting colonialism as a central determinant upon classical music implies an insufficiently nuanced view of European history. Much historiography of music from the late seventeenth until the early twentieth century affords great prominence to Austro-German compositional traditions, as well as Italian ones, especially for opera. Prior to 1806, most of what is now Germany and Austria was part of the Holy Roman Empire, while modern Italy was a range of feudal states, principalities and areas of Germanic control. Prior to the “new imperialism” from the 1880s, neither played a significant role in the imperial conquests in Asia, Africa and the Americas, at least in comparison to Spain, Portugal, England, France and the Netherlands. Yet there are few Spanish composers regularly studied and played between the death of Tomás Luis de Victoria in 1611 and the first major works of Isaac Albéniz in the 1880s. 

Anglo-American pop has the backing of major forces of capital

There are even fewer from Portugal and the Netherlands, while England’s compositional tradition between the death of Henry Purcell in 1695 and the first significant works of Edward Elgar is commonly judged to be minor. France is somewhat different, but even the music of baroque composers such as Jean-Philippe Rameau or Marc-Antoine Charpentier occupies a peripheral position compared to that of their German and Italian counterparts. Hector Berlioz is the only subsequent French composer whose work remains prominent today, until those who developed new idioms in the period after the end of the Franco-Prussian War, including Gabriel Fauré, Emmanuel Chabrier, Erik Satie and Claude Debussy. 

The relationship of Bach’s Cantatas, the late string quartets of Beethoven, or the operas of Bellini (except Zaira) to colonialism is far from clear-cut and often highly speculative. To understand such music historically only in such terms requires dismissal of many of its most fundamental aspects. Connections can be made between individuals and institutions involved in production of classical music and wider processes and economics of imperialism, but such “guilt by association” can be used to summarily dismiss most of the world’s culture. 

For sure, the Holy Roman and later Habsburg empires controlled major areas within Europe, and minority populations (including Jews, Roma and various Slavic groups) suffered discrimination, as did others under the Ottomans and Russians. Allusions to forms of music associated with these groups make occasional appearances in works in the classical tradition (for example the style hongroise of the nineteenth century, or Mikhail Glinka’s evocation of the Poles in his opera A Life for the Tsar). These are used to evoke some power relations, but this context is not the principal concern of the decolonisers. 

Primary study of non-Western musical traditions is found in a tiny number of very small British degree courses in ethnomusicology. To study, say, multiple Indian musical traditions with the same sustained attention as might be spent on European traditions is in every sense as important a venture, but no UK music department could sustain itself on such a basis. 

It also needs to ask what colonisation means today

There is valuable scholarship on musical life in colonised areas, but it is hard to imagine such a specialised niche forming the basis of an undergraduate curriculum. The more likely outcome of decolonisation, whether intended or not, is a curriculum centred primarily around contemporary Anglo-American pop (presented primarily as of African-American origin but also drawing upon European, Latin American and other traditions), with a certain amount of “global pop” rooted in the same tradition (music which is not is often classified instead as “folk”).

This mixture of populism and a cultural logic rooted in market forces with appeals to short-term student satisfaction constitutes a major narrowing of musical education and marks a retreat from a more inclusive and critical agenda. Furthermore, it should raise questions about today’s cultural colonising forces. Anglo-American pop has the backing of major forces of capital with which neither classical nor most other non-Western music (except Bollywood) can be compared. It is relentlessly promoted and marketed all over the world. 

A proper approach to the study of the links between music and colonialism would engage with global and comparative studies of empire (as can be found in the work of Herfried Münkler, or Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper). But it also needs to ask what colonisation means today. 

The major Western empires may now consist of just a few small holdings, but the hegemonic force of the United States is all-encompassing in the popular cultural realm. A movement to resist colonisation in music needs to consider how education can entertain alternatives to this type of domination.

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