Nina Penner, Assistant Professor of Music at Brock University, and Caryl Clark, Professor of Musicology at University of Toronto, had a piece recently published in The Conversation about how performers and audiences of western classical music can engage in anti-colonial and anti-racist work.
“No work of western classical music is more closely associated with the Christmas season than German-born composer George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, which premiered in 1742.
In recent years, audiences have been able to choose between performances modelled on those of the composer’s time, performances following the 19th-century tradition of massive choirs and modern instruments and even staged and choreographed renditions of the work. When COVID-19 curtailed live performances, online video presentations emerged as a new medium.
This was in the wake of worldwide protests after George Floyd’s murder and a global invigoration of Black Lives Matter. Among artists in different industries, Black classical artists like baritone Andrew Adridge, in conversation with writer Michael Zarathus-Cook, called for classical music to address systemic issues. He noted: “There is a problem with race in … arts organization(s) because there is a problem in Canada” and “shying away from conversations” won’t help.
In a separate piece, Zarathus-Cook wrote about how “we do have to recognize that the protests we’ve been seeing are spurred both by the urgent need for a radical assessment of police forces and how they interact with [Black, Indigenous and people of colour], and the more subtle, culturally diffused, day-to-day racism that is discharged not by a trigger pulled prematurely, but through words and social indications that remind the racialized peoples of this country that they are irrevocably on the outside looking in.”
Even before the global Black Lives Matter protests, a 2018 report written for the non-profit 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 orchestras’ leadership and governance structures to their repertoire and working methods. Music scholars have also been grappling with the colonial legacy of classical music, including Handel’s investments in the slave trade.”