Classical music and the roots of slavery

Over the years I have played a modest role in promoting the causes of musicians of colour and women musicians, and I believe the UK should remain in the EU. However today I am less sure where I stand on these issues: because I have been alienated by the single issue fanatics on both sides of all three debates. The latest example is a petition to drop Rule, Britannia from the Last Night of the Proms as "it is offensive in today's society". Chi-chi Nwanoku is a prominent signatory of the petition, explaining her reason for signing as "This offensive song is no longer relevant of our times. It's presence serves to hold us back". Chi-chi Nwanoku is founder of Europe's first majority-BME classical ensemble the Chineke! Orchestra and has done much invaluable work advocating the cause of musicians of colour. Now regular readers will know I am not exactly a fan of the Last Night of the Proms. But.....

It is not often I agree with Norman Lebrecht. However I would take much further Norman's sarcastic suggestion that Jerusalem and Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs should also be banned for political reasons. (Let's overlook for the moment that Jerusalem started life as a rallying cry for a culturally diverse spiritual movement.) Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, 'From the New World', is the Chineke! Orchestra's calling card, because of its incorporation of the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". But Dvořák was a Catholic: he is lauded by the Catholic Ireland website as "One of the few practising Catholics among the great composers". Recent research highlights the vital role played by the Catholic Church in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, with one report stating "In fact, the Church was the backbone of the slave trade; in other words, most of the slave traders and slave ship captains were very ‘good’ Christians". So let's ban Dvořák's 'New World Symphony' as well as Rule, Britannia.

However we shouldn't stop there. Chi-chi Nwanoku's profile was raised beneficially by her work as a BBC Radio 3 presenter. As reported here, there is compelling anecdotal evidence that institutionalised racism in the 1980s BBC effectively ended the career of the talented black conductor Rudolph Dunbar. Let's also not forget that the BBC's founder Lord Reith publicly admired Hitler. A Nazi ruling subsequent to the 1935 Nuremberg Laws ruled that black people were, like gypsies, beings 'of alien blood' and subject to the Nuremberg principles. While, of course, the Nazis used slave labour of varying ethnicity to build its war machines. So it has to be goodbye to the BBC as well.

Now while we are following this path let's look further afield. Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a regular and distinguished soloist with the Chineke! Orchestra. Sheku Kanneh-Mason's big break was performing at the 2018 royal wedding of the then Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. An article in the Jamaica Observer sets out in forensic detail how "For over 150 years the British Royal Family not only owned but monopolised the slave trade", and explains that Queen Elizabeth I sponsored the notorious slave trafficer John Hawkins. So we must ban all musicians who have played or whose music has been performed at royal weddings. Which means the Chineke! Orchestra's star soloist, together with Felix Mendelssohn, William Walton, Sir Adrian Boult, George Frideric Handel, join Rule, Britannia in the sin bin. We must also remember that Elton John should be banned for performing at a royal funeral.

And there is yet more which should come under scrutiny. Sheku Kanneh-Mason has a lucrative contract with Decca's Universal Classics, and the label has made a huge bundle of cash from his royal wedding exposure. Universal Classics is part of Universal Music which is owned by French mass media conglomerate Vivendi. In 1853 Compagnie Générale des Eaux (CGE) was created by an imperial decree of Napoleon III, and that company eventually became Vivendi. Napoleon III made a major contribution to building the French colonial empire in Africa and Asia, and tacitly, if not publicly, supported the pro-slavery Confederacy in the American Civil War. Elgar's Cello Concerto is Sheku Kanneh-Mason calling card, and the composer of 'Land of Hope and Glory' comes with a controversial back story. For instance Elgar's ballad “The Banner of St George”, proudly lauded the “Great race, whose empire of splendour/Has dazzled a wondering world” while his masque 'The Crown of India' glorifies colonialism. So Decca, DG et al should be banned, and Elgar's music also becomes a victim of cancel culture.

I'll stop at this point as my counter-argument is becoming even more ridiculous than that of the single issue fanatics. A more balanced view comes in Jordi Savall's typically momentous project The Routes of Slavery which explores in music the trade in African slaves and their exploitation in the New World. The Routes of Slavery is a truly remarkable testament to the healing power of music, and in the sleeve note Jordi Savall writes that "We firmly believe that the advantage of being aware of the past enables us to be more responsible and therefore morally obliges us to take a stand against these inhuman practices". But even the great humanitarian Jordi is not above criticism, and I called him out in 2014 for taking sponsorship from the ethically-tainted United Emirates regime. But I'm not going to demand that he is banned for this. Because I know that there is varying degrees of wrong in everyone. This wrong needs to be recognised and corrected if at all possible. But single issue fanaticism is not the right tool do that.

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Pliable said…
It seems the petition was dropped shortly after this post was published; which I am sure was a coincidence. This particularly stupid petition may have gone, but sadly the mindset behind it remains.
Chos said…
I can't tell if you missed the point or if the point missed you, but your "gotcha" examples are extremely unbalanced. Decreeing a song unsuitable for what it celebrates like Rule Brittania celebrates colonialism is completely different than cancelling musicians for playing for a royal audience. I mean really.
Usually, you manage to keep your head about certain topics but it does seem that you'd benefit from a read of Ijeoma Oluo's So You Want to Talk About Race before you go down this road again.
Pliable said…
Christina, it seems an awful lot of other people also missed the point: because that wrong-headed petition was quietly dropped after attracting less than two hundred supporters. Your reading suggestion is appreciated. However I also base my point of view on what I have learned from being married for more than forty productive years to someone whose family was brought from India to colonial British Guyana as indentured labour – legalised slavery – in the 19th century.

The Jamaica Observer article cited in my post, which you gloss over, reveals startling links between the Royal Family and slavery which have a lot more relevance in the 21st century than the lyrics of Rule, Britannia. But then I'm missing the point that there are certain groups whose motives must not be questioned: notably the Monarchy and Britain's classical music royal family.

Now that the petition is off the table please can we move on to more productive matters.

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