Saturday, February 27, 2016

Classical Music and Social Justice

While researching composers of color to add to my listening assignments for students, in observance of Black History Month, I came across across an interesting article about the Dallas Bach Society's observance of BHM with a concert of music by black composer, Joseph Bologne, better known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges. While I was already familiar with this composer, and had included him in my students' listening assignments, it was certainly a surprise to find a fairly mainstream historically informed ensemble dedicating a concert to his music. I found this to not only be exciting, but also significant for two reasons:

The first is that we often think of pre-20th century classical music as a white art-form. This is partly because, by and large, it is primarily white dominated. As a result, we often relegate "black music" to the fields of jazz, blues, and other styles of music that developed out of these. While it is certainly important to acknowledge the relevance and importance of such styles as jazz and blues, limiting our scope of the contribution of people of color to these areas of music still serves to perpetuate segregation in the arts community. Whether or not it's intentional, the statement we make is basically that classical music is for white, affluent people, but we will allow the black community to participate in serious music by giving them jazz. Dallas Bach Society's concert dedicated to Saint-Georges' music is a step in the direction of acknowledging that there are contributions by people of color in classical music, and they should be celebrated.

The second reason is that this sort of programming allows for the classical music world to find a new level of relevancy. Our class has discussed the decline of classical music, citing accessibility and relevancy as possible factors. Perhaps one way of regaining relevance is by taking strides to make contributions to the realm of social justice. Classical music is no longer a source of entertainment for mainstream America, and it is doubtful that it will ever again compete with current pop moguls. Maybe it's time for classical music to stop seeking to regain this lost ground, and, instead of vying for attention by attempting to entertain, demand attention by using programs such as Dallas Bach Society's to make statements in favor of important, and socially relevant issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

Whole programs could be created for the purpose of driving social justice. Concerts could explore issues of gender and sexuality through historically informed performance of cross-gender roles in 17th and 18th century Italian opera; a concert focusing on the music of female composers could be used to draw attention to the ways in which misogyny has shaped modern society; and a plethora of examples can be found of contributions by Latin American, Jewish, Middle Eastern, and Black composers to classical music to show that this is not an art-form solely for the white and affluent. The possibilities for taking classical music in this direction are endless.