CultureEducationHigher Education

Who is this music for, anyway?

Not long ago I was talking to a colleague of mine who was teaching an undergraduate course on early music, which is the term academics generally use to refer to Western European art music from before 1750. Some time previous to our conversation one of the music majors in his class, who was black and had more academic interests in popular and non-Western musics, mentioned to my colleague that the course was not “speaking” to him, because it focused almost exclusively on dead white men. My colleague rightly took this as an opportunity to think about ways in which the early music curriculum could be diversified to accommodate a broader spectrum of voices.

Thanks mainly to the efforts of feminist music scholars over the last few decades, we now have a fairly substantial roster of women who were composers, performers, or patrons of music in the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, and more are being identified all the time. Several of the most prolific and influential of these women now frequently make their way into the early music curriculum for undergraduates, especially Hildegard of Bingen, Maddalena Casulana, Barbara Strozzi, Francesca Caccini, and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre.

But, of course, these women were all white. Indeed, to my knowledge, we simply don’t have any examples of non-white composers working in the European tradition prior to 1750, and this is so for what should be fairly obvious structural reasons. The earliest composer of colour I have ever heard of is “le Mozart noir” Joseph Bologne, who was born on Guadaloupe in 1745, just a bit too late for the period under discussion.

I freely admit, of course, that my knowledge is limited–indeed, there are many thousands of documents out there in the archives that no one has even looked at in several hundred years, not to mention all the material that has been lost over the same amount of time. It is certainly possible that there is an example out there and I don’t know it. That said, I’m a Venetianist, and it seems to me that if we can’t find an example of a composer of colour in what was for many years one of the most cosmopolitan and tolerant cities in the world (not to mention the centre of the music printing industry for much of the early modern era), chances are we’ll be looking for a long time.

It’s hard to deny that our personal histories can have a huge impact on the topics that interest us as scholars and musicians. I took Italian in school largely because of my own Italian ancestry (and the related desire to be able to speak with my still-living family in Italy). My scholarly work on musical depictions of Greeks in Venice was also no doubt inspired by my own experience as an immigrant and many years living as part of a linguistic minority in my new home. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that people can and should devote themselves to  scholarly and artistic pursuits that resonate with them on a personal level.

At the same time, I now live in what is routinely lauded as the most ethnically diverse city in the world, yet the Renaissance choir I sing with is overwhelmingly white. This is a problem with “Classical” music generally, and much of it can be attributed to structural inequalities in the availability of music education and economic inequalities that reduce the ability of visible minorities to participate in the arts more broadly. Many of these factors are in play long before students get to university, and of course many of these same factors keep students from making it to university in the first place.

So what can university music educators and early music performers do to make this repertoire “speak” to a broader cross-section of society?

In terms of curriculum, while it may not always be possible to include works by members of certain underrepresented communities, it is often much easier to find works that depict members of those communities. Including such depictions can, at the very least, prompt class discussions of those (often very problematic) depictions and the cultural environments in which they were generated. There is also, of course, the role music played in early modern European projects of colonisation and conversion in the Americas, India, and East Asia.

We can also work to make students more aware of the contributions of scholars from underrepresented communities to our field. The process of scholarship and the creation of knowledge is often opaque to students at the undergraduate level. This is especially true of historically oriented disciplines, in which survey texts can seem to students like a string of dates and facts handed down from nowhere in particular. Even in more advanced courses, the authors of articles and other course materials can seem more like abstractions than real, living people with their own ideas, personal histories, and world views.

When I was in graduate school I was very fortunate to have the opportunity (and funding) to attend a lot of academic conferences, and in so doing I was able to meet and develop personal relationships with many of the leading scholars in my field. This experience is absolutely invaluable. Even at the very basic level of being able to link a name with a face, this kind of familiarity not only changes how you read, but also makes it that much easier to understand and keep track of where certain knowledge has come from. I think we can do more to provide students with this kind of familiarity. While it might be impractical to send a whole class to a far-off conference somewhere, we can certainly try to do more to humanise the sources of our class materials, whether with invited talks, Skype guests, recorded lectures, or even just personal anecdotes about the people whose work they are reading. Like most other academic disciplines, music scholarship has its own diversity problems, but at the same time many of our field’s greatest luminaries have been queer, women, and people of colour, and it certainly couldn’t hurt to make students more aware of this fact.

Lastly, early music performers of all stripes could always do more outreach with underserved communities. My own interest in early music was awakened by seeing a single performance of Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea. Early music is also uniquely accessible in the sense that there is an enormous amount of repertoire intended for unaccompanied singers. Anyone who can read music can perform early music, and in fact I make considerable use of early repertoire when I teach basic musicianship and music literacy skills to non-musicians. In an era where music education seems to be facing ever-increasing budget cuts and many public schools can’t afford expensive instruments or other specialised equipment, it may well be that all this music from hundreds of years ago could be more relevant than ever.


Featured image: Etching of Joseph Bologne (1745-1799) by William Ward (1766-1826) after a painting by Mather Brown (1761–1831)

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal ( if you like his work!

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