Exploring race and inclusion in classical music

The Music Department’s Celebration of African American Poets & Composers starts with a bang

Brooke Vick, Emanuela Kucik, Kassandra Hartford and Patricia Budlong discuss the erasure of Black artists in classical music during a panel discussion.

To kick off the Music Department’s Celebration of African American Poets & Composers, faculty members from across campus held a panel discussion called Race in Classical Music on Friday, Feb. 7. Organized and led by Patricia Budlong, lecturer of voice, the panel was filled out by Brooke Vick, Ph.D., associate provost for faculty and diversity initiatives, Emanuela Kucik, Ph.D., interim co-director of Africana studies and assistant professor of English and Kassandra Hartford, Ph.D., assistant professor of Music. 

Each panelist gave a statement at the start of the event detailing their own connection to the issue of the erasure of black artists in classical music. Vick, whose expertise is in the psychology of bias, discussed the effects that the historical exclusion of the art of marginalized groups from the mainstream has had on the people who belong to those groups. 

“What tends to happen psychologically is that our assumption is that those voices, those artists, those musicians, writers, scientists did not exist,” said Vick. “Our assumption is that they weren’t creating, that they weren’t expressing, that they weren’t contributing to the culture of their time in critical ways. If we don’t see it, we assume it’s because it’s not there, not because it’s been hidden, not because there’s something that we’ve lost. And when that erasure is happening, then those groups aren’t able to then look to say, ‘This wonderful music that we’re celebrating, this wonderful poetry — I did that, people I’m connected to did that, I can claim some source of pride from that work’… You’re not able to see yourself and to be acknowledged as part of a significant contribution to our culture.”

Budlong detailed how the history of classical vocal instruction has led to the exclusion of African American voices, discussing how most classical vocal pedagogy is centered on 18th and 19th-century Italian operatic techniques and how that has led to a largely white and male canon. She also added her hopes for what this series of events could achieve for Muhlenberg, saying, “Predominantly white institutions we would fall into that category here at Muhlenberg have done a historically woeful job of looking beyond the canon of European vocal instruction. Historically Black Colleges in the US have done a much better job of turning out well-rounded students in both the African American, US American folk song traditions and the European canon. And our hope here is that we can start to move that needle a little bit within our community.”

Hartford took a different tack than the others, and, rather than detailing this history of exclusion, focused on educating the audience on the lush variety of the African American composers that have been excluded from the canon. She tackled some of the myths that she has encountered in her study of African American composers with a few different strategies. 

Myth 1: There aren’t that many African American composers, which she debunked with a full double-sided handout and an effusive recap of both who was there and who she felt guilty about having left out. Myth 2: Works by African American composers will sound recognizably black, and therefore aren’t palatable to wider audiences. She asserted that these myths lead to a lot of tokenism in music programs, where any given performance might contain only one African American artist out of many. This myth she debunked by giving enthusiastic recommendations to the audience, saying, “If you like Copeland and Barber and early Elliott Carter, if you like lush, beautiful, tonal music with more interesting harmonies than Schubert or Schumann, your go-to men are H. Leslie Adams and Robert Owens and your go-to female composer is Margaret Bonds. All of them, they write in this absolutely lush style, it’s incredibly singable music. And I will say that I was told that I could not say that Robert Owens is empirically among the five greatest art song composers that ever lived. But I will tell you that he’s on my top five, and I think he should be on everybody’s top ten.” She also went on to play the audience a Robert Owens piece at the end of the talk to demonstrate its beauty.

Kucik finished out the opening statements, detailing the effect that black art has had on asserting black humanity and on combatting the effects that the erasure of that same art has had on our country.  “Blackness is writing poetry and it’s writing symphonies, and sometimes it’s writing about racism and sometimes it’s directly trying to engage with racist notions and dismantle them,” said Kucik. 

“And sometimes it’s just writing a poem about these rainbows because you like them and recognizing that that act, being able to say, ‘I just want to write a poem about puppies and rainbows,’ is very much a political act. That is saying this, too, is the African American experience. And that in itself is a massive claim to what it means to be Black,” Kucik continued. “That really challenges the notion of Blackness as monolithic, which is the idea that black, it’s all one thing, that there is an African American experience or a Black experience as opposed to it being experienced, comprised of millions and millions of various experiences.”

Kucik continued to emphasize the need for both inclusion of black artists in the mainstream canons of both literature and classical music, as well as specialized classes dedicated to the individual study of those cultures that have been swept under the rug for so long. In the move to a more discussion-style panel, the four together jumped on this point and used each of their own disciplines and experiences to discuss the merits of both broad and specific study of black art.

When Alice Banta ‘21 raised a question about what to do about racist compositions already in the widely accepted classical music canon, like the opera Carmen, a piece that presents problematic racialized stereotypes, but is often still performed, Hartford answered, saying, “[Carmen is] supposed to be a Roma. She’s supposed to be sort of sexually free. And then the idea is that she’s a bad woman. So at the end, she gets stabbed. And in the original, by the day, we’re supposed to think she deserves it… And in a new production made in Italy a few years ago, at the end, instead of having Don José stab Carmen, Carmen stabs Don José. It’s just like ‘You’ve been stalking me for the whole opera. This is, in fact, the appropriate outcome. This is the moment where you advance on me with a weapon and I turn it on you.’ I think that that gets to some of the things that you can do with things that are in the canon, that reimagine their meanings in very different ways.”

At the end of the panel, Budlong reiterated that this event was only the beginning of a series of events meant to take a look at how Muhlenberg’s music curriculum can and should change to include more African American artists.

Of the event, Emily Kirchner ‘22 said, “I’m excited to listen to some of the things that Kassie [Hartford] had on that list, I am definitely going to do that,” to which Banta added, “Like Robert Owens, we have to look him up!”

The music department faculty, Rejoice Gospel Choir and other choral ensembles will perform a concert as part of the Celebration of African American Poets & Composers in Empie Theatre this Friday, Feb. 14 at 7:30 p.m.

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Kat '22 is a Media & Communication major who finds joy in cooking and eating varied cuisine, reading feminist takes on Arthurian legend, and thinking about one day going on a sailing voyage and learning how to swashbuckle. Most days you can find her lying on the floor of her room pondering her various responsibilities.


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