Canceling Verdi

Should classical music be ‘decolonized’?

“Cancel culture” is real. Important figures of history—Theodore Roosevelt, Queen Victoria and even Gandhi—have either had their statues pulled down or called to be pulled down. One would think one realm of Western historical heritage would be safer: classical music, which has for hundreds of years enriched the lives of people in cultures around the world. But even classical music isn’t immune.

The University of Cambridge is offering a class on classical music history: Decolonizing the Ear. The course teaches how to listen to music in a “postcolonial” way. Its premise is that classical music could be “complicit … in projects of empire and neoliberal systems of power” (Telegraph, May 7). Course material includes teaching on how “genres like opera seem particularly susceptible to racialized representations.” The class material suggests Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida as a “starting point.” Aida, which premiered in 1871, is a romantic opera set in ancient Egypt.

In the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter (blm) riots, the British classical music establishment has sought ways to become more “inclusive.” The Royal College of Music announced it would “diversify” its classical curriculum. In March 2021, the Telegraph accessed documents from Oxford University that called for changes to the school’s music curriculum. “Professors said the classical repertoire taught at Oxford, which spans works by Mozart and Beethoven, focuses too much on ‘white European music from the slave period,’” the Telegraph wrote. One Oxford faculty member even said the musical notation system represents “white hegemony.”

One of blm’s main focuses is to bring “justice” to people of African descent. Its main targets are the trans-Atlantic slave trade and European colonial empires. Part of blm’s idea of “justice” is to attack Western historical heritage and memory. First, blm activists targeted figures like Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, then branched out to American presidents associated with slavery. And the scope has widened. Now, anything linked with Western cultural heritage is considered fair game.

But consider: Many of the most celebrated composers had nothing to do with the trans-Atlantic slave trade or colonization of Africa. Neither did their home countries. Austria—home of Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert and others—never once had a colony in Africa. Neither (aside from a weird episode in 1889) did Russia—the land of Sergei Prokofiev and Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky. George Gershwin, Felix Mendelssohn and others were Jews—a race facing persecution far longer than colonial Africans.

“Artistic output, which survives multiple decades and even centuries, is passing judgment on those of today,” commented Ryan Malone, composer and program director of the Armstrong International Cultural Foundation. “As I teach my students, we are not judging this music; it is judging us. It has been around much longer than we have, and it is reckless arrogance to think we can dismiss its impact on human civilization with our extremely short-lived blip on the human timeline.”

Aida, the opera that Decolonizing the Ear uses as its “starting point,” is an excellent case study. Aida did not premiere in Milan or Vienna or Paris, but Cairo. Cairo’s Khedivial Opera House was commissioned by Egypt’s ruler, Ismai’il Pasha. Verdi was reportedly furious that more of the general public—the Egyptian public—weren’t invited. The plot itself involves an Egyptian warrior fighting to free Ethiopian slaves. At its premiere, a critic wrote: “Aida [an Ethiopian slave] and Radames’s [the Egyptian warrior] love for one another becomes a shining example of true devotion that ultimately transcends the vast cultural differences between their warring nations.” Does that sound like a racist production?

Verdi, like today’s activists, had strong political convictions. Another celebrated opera of his, Nabucco (set in ancient Iraq), symbolized Italy’s political struggles. Malone said that Verdi’s “name became an acronym for his people’s struggle for freedom from oppression and nationhood.” These are universal themes one would think anybody could appreciate.

Anything man touches generally reflects prejudices and biases. But the arts are intended to be enjoyed by anyone of any race, religion or economic background. Music is one of the great unifiers of mankind. It should unite, not divide.

“Sound is sound,” Malone said. “The vibrations of molecules—that make up what our naked ears hear as pitch and timbre—are scientifically measurable, and they supersede any culture. For instance, the ‘major triad’ [one of the most common chords in music] is found in the largely inaudible overtones of every pitch. That’s not cultural. Sure, every culture harnesses musical elements differently, and the sharing of such manifestations of the ‘physics of music’ is one of the joys of the human experience—not some ‘appropriation’ to be shied away from. …

“Great art should ‘colonize’ and ‘imperialize’ our lives in the sense that it is fundamentally human. Music especially is a universal language in many respects—meaning that it rises above our cultures and ethnic backgrounds and enriches our lives. Just as a pillar holds up a structure—no matter what artistic, political, cultural connections are associated with that pillar.”

Classical music is an art form worth preserving, protecting and enjoying, no matter who you are or where you come from.

How does one start learning and appreciating it? For those who haven’t grown up with classical music, it can take time to develop a taste for it. The Trumpet website sponsors a podcast hosted by Ryan Malone called Music for Life. The program features musical programs organized by the Armstrong International Cultural Foundation. These include such renowned performers over the years as Joshua Bell, the Russian National Ballet and the Vienna Boys Choir. Music for Life is a good starting point for acquiring your own classical music taste. Start listening today!