Disembodying our musical past will fracture our present | Lola Salem
If it is time to talk about decolonising music in Britain, then it is perhaps time to restate the painfully obvious: the United-Kingdom, across millenia, has imported the quasi totality of its classical repertoire. Most of its greatest figures debarked from the Continent, bringing with them not only their scores but also their performers and instruments, their best practices and legal framework. Haendel? A foreigner from Prussia naturalised English surrounded by Italian castrats and divas. Purcell’s baroque? Borrowed. After Henry’s VIII’s break with Rome in 1534, where did the newly created Anglican church look for guidance in terms of liturgical and musical direction? You’ve guessed it: the Roman catholic church. The ‘Short Service’ is akin to the missa brevis, the anthem a rough equivalent of the continental motet. And although Thomas Tompkins (1573-1656), Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) affirmed not to be concerned with the Latin rite, it is difficult to not appreciate the impact that the latter has had on their music.
When the Royal Academy of Music announces its will to dispose of ‘problematic’ musical artefact and ‘decolonise’ its 200-year-old collection, one could expect a discussion covering the historical processes through which music and its agents have exchanged, traded, and transformed a common set of repertoires and techniques. This would perhaps be the case if the historical lense used in mainstream cultural discourse was not so short-sighted. Nowadays, gestures of erasure relentlessly target one same idée fixe: the past empire, its colonies, and history tied with slave trade. It follows that instruments, whose value goes well past beyond mere numbers, might end up behind closed curtains forever.
The importance of such artefacts is crucial for historians and musicologists who are preoccupied with material culture and seek to embody the process of creation and musical consumption. Indeed, music is not only an idea, floating around in the ethereal mind of the author. It is also a result of what is technically feasible at a given place and period in time. Keyboards are famously representative of that vital dimension, since the consecutive changes from the harpsichord and other plucked polyphonic instruments towards the fortepiano and, later, the modern piano, had a gargantuan consequences on the writing of instrumental music and in particular sonatas, which became one of the most central genre of Western music from the C18th onwards.
Embodying the musical is by essence ‘inclusive’. It aims at putting ourselves closer to the past, observing the shadows of those who came before us from a better angle, and hoping to decipher more of the evanescent secrets surrounding past musical composition. It is a great way to introduce very diverse audiences to music, a domain that seems sometimes unattainable for many as it requires to learn a different language, yet offers an easier way in through the mechanics and sensitivities of the body. An instrument is as much a window towards the past as it is towards ourselves.
Instead of treading this path, the latest announcement made by the Royal Academy of Music expresses a wish to close it. Although it is said that some specific nuggets of information will still be introduced ‘with sensitivity to context’, the disparition of the artefact per se directly contributes to make the past always more immaterial and, therefore, even more prone to misreadings and misunderstandings. This erasure, when prolonged enough, becomes irremediable. It leaves no scar tissues but rather an oddly white canvas on which people paint ad libitum their greatest fears and obsessions, unrestrained by the concrete reality of the object.
Why is it that we should suddenly feel outraged by the use of ivory in keyboards? Why is it that the vision of such an object doesn’t call for reflection and dialogue but needs to be channelled into one only form of discourse, and leads to one only extreme solution? Why isn’t there any other alternative? Cultural institutions seem to have naturally embraced shame and ablation whilst conflict can, in fact, be managed and solved through culture itself. Museums do not only show things that people use and agree with or else there would be little to show and preserve. It is precisely because past collections show us where we come from that we can assess who we are now.
It is concerning that such a major institution like the Royal Academy of Music embraces culture via negativa when so much needs to be urgently preserved in nowadays time, not the least of which is the venerable tradition of chapel choirs that is progressively crumbling. If there is any bit of British musical history that needs to raise immediate concerns, it should be this one. Under the pretext that religious institutions lack funds, what lies at the core of its tradition (and, let’s be honest, what attracts most people, religious and atheists alike) is tossed aside. The in-depth changes that have happened in the last decades with regard to choirs, including the progressive diminution of the staff members, the general cuts in the budgets, and the abandonment of traditional settings of boys only ensembles, is purely and simply an act of cultural vandalism. The trend is likely to be reinforced as all sorts of musical ensembles have terribly suffered from Covid legislation: music as a shared experience, an inclusive medium, is undergoing irremediable fractures.
It is unfortunate that this disappearance is not deemed ‘problematic’ enough to deserve more attention from those who hold cultural power and responsibilities. It will always be easier to cover the past under more or less opaque veils rather than standing up for it, which might entail difficult discussions, but ultimately show people how is the best way to build on the shoulders of those that preceded them. If our national institutions systematically deflect from the conservation of what makes our cultural backcloth and, ultimately, our identity, we are now in a legitimate position to wonder why we should preserve them in return.