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University of Portsmouth Choir

Choral ballads and difficult discussions: Approaching anti-racism in choral culture

30/07/2020

In January 2020, I started preparing the University of Portsmouth’s choirs for a concert called Songs of Pride, Freedom and Resistance: Decolonising Choral Culture but I was not at all prepared for the protracted and important debate about racism and white privilege that it would ignite amongst our choir.

Coronavirus and the lockdown of the university put paid to the concert but, to my mind, the discussion provoked by the programming is one that everyone involved in choral music should be having and one that has become all the more urgent with the death of George Floyd and the emergence of antiracist campaigns like Black Lives Matter. I want to share some of that debate with you in the spirit of encouraging an anti-racist choral culture in Portsmouth and beyond. First, I should set the scene.

I am a 44-year-old white-European male conductor and academic who became interested in connections between music and concepts of race during my postgraduate studies at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the early 2000s. My PhD (2010) was about figures in jazz culture, like Duke Ellington, who led famous bands and wrote music for those ensembles that represented black history and experience as an act of race pride.

I went on to write a book, The Recordings of Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy (2019), which aimed to show how Kirk’s band defied expectations of what an all-black ensemble should sound like and thereby challenged the racism that prevailed in recording and dance-hall cultures of the interwar period. So, it was perhaps inevitable that I would bring such academic interests into my choral direction work but, as we will see, my own identity makes such an enterprise problematic in itself.

The programme I devised for the aborted concert was founded on the Choral Ballads by the black-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), who is best known in choral circles for his trilogy of works that includes Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898). Coleridge-Taylor composed a set of three Choral Ballads for his 1904 trip to the US to conduct the Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society of Washington DC. Later, he expanded that set to five for the 1905 Norwich Festival and also reworked one of the original movements for female voices and baritone soloist.

All of this music is very well written for choir, with orchestra and soloist. Unlike much of Coleridge Taylor’s other choral writing, which tends to be mostly homophonic, it makes really good use of counterpoint but is nonetheless tuneful and accessible. In many ways, it is a fantastic choice for any mixed-ability choir like ours and a great opportunity to introduce them and an audience to a great black-British composer.

The Choral Ballads are all settings of anti-slavery poetry written 1842 by the white-American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). Despite their noble intentions, however, the ballads are not without their problems: the lyrics include words used to describe black figures that are now considered highly problematic, albeit archaic, and the exoticism in the musical language is as much rooted in the colonial past. However, it was the words of the Choral Ballads that sparked the debate about whether and how we should perform these works and others in the programme. Here, for reasons of clarity, is a quotation of Longfellow’s text from the opening bars of the third ballad:

Loud he sang the Psalm of David!
He, a Negro, and enslavèd,
Sang of Israel’s victory,
Sang of Zion, bright and free.

To some extent, I had anticipated the debate about the text as I had prepared a presentation about the Choral Ballads which put the language issues in the context of their time and I offered a number of options for the choir to consider. These included, not performing the work at all, acknowledging the historical context and keeping the language as it is, or changing the language as a political act of decolonisation. What I hadn’t anticipated was the way that these options split the choir into factions that each felt very strongly that we should or should not change the language or else not perform the pieces at all.

I tried, as best I could, to please everyone by suggesting in a follow-up presentation that we could overlay words in a glorious and performative cacophony so that singers could make their own decisions but, in retrospect, I can see why that proved unacceptable for some, especially coming from me. On hearing my suggestion, one of our black students stated that if we used the problematic words at all she would leave the rehearsal in offense.

Another was clearly tearful as she explained that she felt she was being told what to do by yet another white figure of power, when her life was full of that sort of experience. That depth of feeling shocked me and I suddenly became aware of my own white privilege and the impossibility of me, in my situation of power, leading us to an agreeable solution on my own. I needed help to get a decision and that lay in much better dialogue both with and between our singers about these issues.

As I realised that I could and should not just impose my will over the choir, we had several meetings in which we discussed the programme and the issues of racial representation that were bound up with its performance. Several of our white singers were of the view that we, as a majority white choir, had no business in performing this repertoire but our black students spoke very passionately about the importance of engaging with such music and pointed to the prevailing problem of white fragility (DiAngelo, 2018) when it comes to addressing such issues.

I also felt that not to perform the work would make us complicit in a long history of effectively, if unconsciously, whitewashing the choral repertoire. There were those that argued that history, however distasteful, cannot be changed and thus the original words of the Choral Ballads should remain but, in the end, we agreed that changing the text marked an important act of de-colonialism and anti-racism. Thus, the passage above became:

Loud he sang the Psalm of David!
He, a brother but enslavèd,
Sang of Israel’s victory,
Sang of Zion, bright and free.

It was an often-difficult and time-consuming discussion but it was one of paramount importance because it caused us all to reflect on how choral-society culture is essentially racist in the way it tends to avoid such matters by effectively excluding black repertoire (apart from the odd token such as Hiawatha) and those who would identify with it. There were some within our choir who despaired that we ‘wasted’ time on this discussion, when there was music to learn, and they urged me to use my power put a stop to it.

That conception of white privilege is, however, a part of the problem and if we are to embrace the challenges set by the Black Lives Matter campaign and dismantle racist structures in choirs as much as in every other part of society, then we need to be brave and have these difficult conversations around such problematic repertoire as a matter of course.

Embracing works like the Choral Ballads and the sorts of discussions about racism that they motivate is but the beginning of a much longer and more difficult journey that will surely challenge many of the established basic principles of ‘good’ choral practice. Such principles include treating the conductor (as much as the composer) as some sort of power-wielding white male god, considering musical rehearsal as more valuable than the discussion of deep ethical issues, and valuing history and traditions of practice and rigour as more important than the rights and feelings of those who are negatively affected by the exercising of white privilege and power. If choirs everywhere took time to reflect on such things and took steps to address them, we would quickly establish a much more inclusive and anti-racist culture.

Dr George Burrows is Reader in Performing Arts and Faculty Research Degrees Coordinator at the University of Portsmouth.

Author: George Burrows

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