Decolonize your ears because Mozart’s works can be an instrument of Empire, students say

Cambridge music students are instructed to “decolonize the ear” and view the classical canon as “an imperial phenomenon”.

Works by composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Giuseppe Verdi are taught in relation to topics such as European imperialism and Orientalism, while the Faculty of Music continues its work on the ‘decolonization of curricula’.

Undergraduates studying for the course, titled Decolonizing the Ear, learn to think about listening to sound in a “postcolonial” way, while a “music, power, empire” module explores how the classical repertoire is a bourgeois and imperial phenomenon.

The music faculty agreed to offer content warnings before teaching “potentially disturbing” musical topics, according to internal documents, after they were requested by students.

According to a course guide for Decolonizing the Ear, undergraduates will examine topics such as how musical repertoires might be “complicit…to Empire projects and neoliberal systems of power.”

Students also learn how “the Empire…has affected our understanding of what constitutes ‘music’” and how “genres like opera seem particularly susceptible to racialized representations”.

The imperial leitmotiv appears in a Western music history course devoted to the studies of “music, power, empire”, which invites students to consider the classical canon as an “imperial phenomenon”.

Untangling “musical exoticism”

A 2021-22 undergraduate textbook said students learn how “nineteenth-century middle-class concepts of musical value resulted in the creation of a canon of European masterpieces.”

The course outline added that this canon was played, enjoyed, and patronized by a “musical establishment harnessed in the service of patriarchy, class aspiration, and imperial expansion.”

Suggested readings cite Verdi’s Aida as a starting point for exploring these issues, and the Decolonizing the Ear course uses Mozart’s output as an example of “musical exoticism”, with course information adding that ‘Igor Stravinksy and John Cage can be studied with regard to “musical appropriation”.

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