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Is classical music colonialist?

Gaby Reucher
May 5, 2021

Yes, say professors at the University of Oxford, where they want to change the curriculum. German institutions are lagging behind, but change is in the air.

Close-up of man playing sitar.
Traditional or classical? The view toward music tends to be eurocentric and at times colonialistImage: picture-alliance/John Wilson

Music students to Germany from abroad should be familiar with composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Stockhausen. However, knowing modern Nigerian composers like Joshua Uzoigwe and Fela Sowande or the 16th-century Indian court musician Tansen is neither expected nor is their music taught in German music colleges.

"For the entrance exams, you have to be familiar with Western European music; you can't apply as a specialist in African drum rhythms," Julia Gerlach from Berlin's Akademie der Künste cultural institute told Deutsche Welle.

Berlin, city of music, goes online

Oxford plans to change curriculum 

The University of Oxford has recognized the lack of diversity in its curriculum. Recently, Britain's The Sunday Telegraph wrote that editors had seen proposals for changes to undergraduate courses at the elite university to include "more diverse" forms of music in its curriculum.

Professors and students had criticized that there were too many works by "white European composers" from the time of slavery, including music by Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn. According to The Sunday Telegraph, some professors view the Western grading system as a "colonialist system of oppression." 

Future curricula will include a selection of non-Western music and popular music from around the world. The plans are to be officially published in the summer once approved by the university. According to the radio network Classic FM, the university does not plan to pare down the existing classical music classes.

Musical influence begins at an young age 

"In Germany, we still don't deal enough with the topic of decolonization in music," Christian Höppner, secretary general of the German Music Council, told DW, adding that the focus with regard to the diversity of cultures should be broadened. However, he was adamant "it's out of the question to use past music eras and say that this is colonial heritage, so we have to cut that back."

British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason holding up his award.
British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason won a major German classical music prize in 2018 Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

Classical music is not colonialist or racist, said Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a British cellist. However, in a YouTube video on ITV Good Morning Britain, he criticized the lack of appreciation of music lessons in the UK's state schools. Blacks and other multiethnic pupils often aren't even trusted to play a classical instrument. "Very few Black people have the opportunity to experience [classical music]."

Musical diversity 

As the umbrella organization for musical life in Germany, the German Music Council represents the interests of around 14 million musicians. Its Secretary General Christian Höppner is committed to ensuring that refugee children from Syria, for example, have access to the Western musical tradition as well as being able to practice the music of their homeland.

Christian Höppner wearing a red bow-tie and smiling at the camera.
Christian Höppner wants people to be more curious about the music of other cultures. Image: DW/Jan Röhl

"There is a tremendous wealth of knowledge that we are missing out on; ultimately it doesn't correspond to the sociodemographic makeup of our population," Höppner said.

Getting music schools and institutions interested in the music of other cultures is not easy. For instance, Höppner spent around 10 years trying to convince people to accept the Turkish baglama lute as a category in the "Jugend musiziert" competition (musical competition for young people) and then to introduce it as an instrumental subject in colleges and music schools.

The music of other cultures

People who are particularly interested in the music of other cultures have the opportunity to study ethnomusicology at some universities in Germany. There is also the specialized Pop Academy in Mannheim and almost every university with a music branch offers jazz and pop as a subject.

"To separate ethnomusicology and European music so strongly is a kind of colonial practice," said music expert Julia Gerlach, who has been studying diversity in contemporary music for years. A lot has changed over the years, she noted, but it is still always presented from the perspective of the European who looks at a musical tradition, transcribes its music and then stores it in archives.

This type of preservation would perhaps not even be practiced at all in the original culture itself, as it may rely on oral traditions instead. "Some people are also demanding that the recordings may no longer be kept in ethnomusicological collections as that is considered a form of robbery."

Berlin's Academy of the Arts with people on square in front.
Berlin's Academy of the Arts promotes international cultural exchangeImage: Imago

Exiting the 'niche' zone

In a symposium held in the fall of 2020, Berlin's Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) explored the decolonization of contemporary European music.

Why is classical music even today perceived as more "cultivated" than, for instance, Indian art music? "It starts with the fact that the music of composers from India or South America is not seen as contemporary music at all, but as traditional music," said Gerlach.

The second part of the symposium that the Academy of Arts is organizing from May 6 to 9 will look for practical solutions. "It's all participatory and we don't know what will happen. The agenda will be worked out collectively during sessions to discuss listening habits," said Gerlach.

In addition, the international participants want to break free from their "niche" relegation at festivals and make it into concert halls. Some progress has been made, said Gerlach: "The academy has now also addressed colonization and opened its archives to discover what musical works from colonial times still exists there. There is already a rethinking taking place on many levels."

This article has been translated from German.

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