Poster Garrett McQueen
Garrett McQueen is a producer and host of American Public Media's classical program Music Through the Night.
Nate Ryan/MPR

The power (and complicity) of classical music

As the world begins to heal following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, people are taking another look at the ways in which racism has impacted institutions beyond law enforcement — including classical music.

The conversation of diversity in classical music is still relatively new, but it's one in which more organizations have been engaging for the past several years. The conversation of racism in classical music is a little different, though. Not only does it require us to take a second look at ourselves, but also so much of the music that's become ubiquitous to the genre.

Before racism in classical music can be explored, it's important to understand the implications of the phrase "classical music."

Every world culture has a musical tradition that can be considered "classical," whether it's the centuries-old styles of music from China and India, or the relatively younger, but equally classical, tradition of America's negro spirituals. Despite this, the only musical tradition to be called "classical" has been that of western Europe. This has proven to be a driving force in the way classical music is taught, the way it's programmed, and the way its audiences look.

This lack of diverse perspective has resulted in the "white-washing" of many dark corners of classical music history, including George Frideric Handel's fiscal investments in the slave trade (which allowed him to write the famous Messiah) and Frederick Delius' time managing a plantation being remembered as a job on an American "farm." Does programming and listening to these composers make one complicit, or should a composer's (and a piece of music's) lived reality remain in the past?

Apply that same question to the composer, and the piece of music, that's been making the rounds everywhere in light of recent police killings.

In 2016, Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson premiered his Seven Last Words of the Unarmed (loosely based on Franz Joseph Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ). In it, Thompson honors the final words of Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford and Eric Garner. The power of this piece of music is fueled by the very thing that so many people have tried to separate from classical music in the past — identity, lived experience and race. That, coupled with Thompson's lived experience as a black man, makes this not only a poignant piece of music for the moment, but one that will go on to define a turning point in the way we look at the intersection of race and classical music.

So why is this important? Does listening to Handel or Delius make a person complicit in systemic racism? Does programming a work like Seven Last Words of the Unarmed absolve an organization of its responsibility of digging deeper into the conversation of race?

The answers to those questions aren't exactly "black and white." But if classical music is going to thrive in our ever-changing world, so must the conversations surrounding it.

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