Report: Royal Academy to decolonise Handel

Report: Royal Academy to decolonise Handel


norman lebrecht

May 23, 2021

The Sunday Telegraph reports today that the Royal Academy of Music in London is reviewing its collection with the intention of removing items that might be linked to Britain’s colonial past.

Pianos made with colonial ivory and artefacts linked to Messiah composer George Frideric Handel, who invested in the slave trade, could potentially be problematic.

To whom, exactly, we wonder.

Please think carefully before consigning historic objects to such intellectually compromised institutions.

UPDATE: Royal Academy denies all


  • J Barcelo says:

    I’m sick and tired of this. Who said “The past is a foreign land; they do things different there”. It happened, it’s over…move on!

    • Dragonetti says:

      Well said! How true indeed.
      When I come to look back on even my ordinary childhood in the 50s I sometimes shudder when I remember the casual racism ( and that’s toward anybody non English of whatever colour or creed).
      Then there was the more or less total disregard for any environmental issues caused by our lifestyles, to say nothing of the profligate waste of resources. Add in a lack of animal welfare and you’ve got a pretty sorry state of affairs.
      Yet somehow most of us have moved on from this “other country” and perhaps tried to do whatever we can to stop such things happening again.
      Handel, or any other composer and all instrument makers lived within the attitudes and parameters of their day. That should go without saying.
      Now we live in a world that was considerably improved by great composers, instrument makers, scientists and any number of others.
      Rejoice in their positives, be aware of the negatives but accept them for what they were-ordinary people with ordinary, contemporary world views who did extraordinary things to our lasting benefit.

    • Stirling says:

      L. P. Hartley

    • M. Thandabantu Iverson, Ph.D. says:

      With due consideration for your humanity, it is important for you to recognize the humanity of millions whose lives are still oppressed by the continuing consequences of colonization, racial and patriarchal capitalism, and imperial power.

      You fail to carefully and critically confront the fact that the power relations set in motion over 500 years ago still remain—albeit in updated and mystified forms. There has been no transformative reckoning of what you now consider “the past.” Those transgressions still impact our thinking and actions; our institutional structures; our policies and practices of policing; our fields of intellectual endeavor; and our understandings of faith and morality. You can ask yourself honestly whether or not you have earnestly faced the truths reflected in the lived experiences of those who are still the most affected by the unequal relations of power—and the unequal outcomes you are choosing to ignore and underestimate. The time for reckoning and justice is always now.

    • Emil says:

      Sooo…in that case, teaching past composers in their context, as the Academy wants to do, is…good? What exactly are you objecting to?

  • Paul Dawson says:

    I have no horse in this race, because I hold (and shall continue to hold) both composers in the highest esteem.

    I’d value opinions on whether Handel’s investment in slave trading deserves more or less opprobrium that Wagner’s antisemitism.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Being a creative genius isn’t a get-out-clause for bad behaviour. Never was, never will be. We are interested in their cultural artifacts, not their philosophies, politics or investment strategies.

      But, if we’re going to talk about hypocrisy that subject is ripe with possibilities right in the here and now. And it may have zero to do with culture.

  • Peter says:

    Can anyone explain what they hope to achieve by such “historical cleansing” ? Obviously they cannot change the past. Is the aim to remove the evidence so that it can be forgotten or denied ? How does this benefit anyone ?

    • V.Lind says:

      This is absolutely the nub of the issue. How indeed? If the dimmer-witted clowns of today want to point at a nation’s past history and say”look what they did,” if they want to add labels to portraits and galleries identifying previously-lauded figures as slave-owners, and it was a fact, and make a noise whenever something antithetical to their view is praised, that is their right in a free society.

      But pretend culture — some sort of erasure of what is behind us so that the histories of the UK and America and Europe somehow look simon-pure — and they shut down all debate so that everyone agrees their party line — what (aside from the Orwellian social nightmare they create) will they have to rail against then? Do these fools really think they are working to some sort of new utopia?

      Do they really know NOTHING? Nothing of Nazism, Stalinism, Year Zero? Obviously they have never read and probably have never heard of Orwell, let alone Voltaire, whose thought was crystallised by a biographer as “I disagree with everything you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

      The truly frightening thing, in the face of this alarming mass of ignorami, is that universities and major institutions also made up of knowledgeable people are kow-towing to them, appeasing their every demand, even anticipating them.

      I occasionally watch Sky Australia and at least see there a resistance to this sort of claptrap that I am not seeing on British Sky or on the BBC, let alone in North America except on the occasional talk show or on Fox.

      Where are the Royal Societies and other august historical bodies? Of course they cannot influence the masses — but it is not the masses who are angling for this sort of destruction. They are fewer than their noise suggests, and the few if they would take a stand could resist them. Of course nobody wants to knock back advances in race relations, immigration and the like, but there is one simple message: LEAVE THE PAST ALONE. Face it, analyse it, re-evaluate it, determine change from it, criticise it, even disown it (in terms of disassociation). But for God’s sake, do not erase it.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I think it’s aim is to really ensure that a Labour government isn’t going to be elected in the UK any time soon. It might be a price worth paying, after all!!!

    • PaulD says:

      They are hoping to make Handel and others non-persons, eliminated from our lives. This is straight out of the Soviet Union.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Rather a purist position from an outfit with the word “Royal” in its name, isn’t it? Sometimes Handel and Royalty are what give an institution its only excuse to carry on.

    Ivory has however become problematic due to concerns other than colonisation ones, but instead animal protection. Many rather ordinary violin bows have small portions of ivory, almost always decorative and in theory easily replaced with other materials, such as gold (which now has colonisation issues!) but still part of the original artistic creation of the maker (now and then ivory was used on the instrument itself, but that is far more rare). International travel with an ordinary violin bow has issues because they look for such things at borders. Whether the ivory comes from elephants or walrus tusks is of course unknown and perhaps irrelevant.

    • V.Lind says:

      Yes — I remember when a violist told me that when his orchestra toured to china a number had to leave bows behind because of ivory and/or some protected woods. An endangered species law, as you said.

  • christopher storey says:

    I wish I could say this was beyond belief, but…….

  • M McAlpine says:

    So if we destroy all the instruments made with ivory we shall bring the slaughtered elephants back to life? And if we stop playing Handel – not to mention knocking down all the historic buildings that were built with the proceeds of the slave trade – we shall make amends? Or shall we continue to insult the intelligence of those who consider history – and the mistakes thereof – in the past?

  • PB says:

    Surely the best place for all these things is a museum, with an explanation of the understanding of their past. We don’t need to hide these things away – we just need to acknowledge them.

  • Dave says:

    The world has gone mad. Death cannot come too soon.

  • More woke nonsense that benefits nobody.

  • Simon Scott says:

    Bloody fools. When will these idiots grow up?

  • Duncan says:

    Without knowing the full story (and the Telegraph link requires an account to read it) we should not jump to conclusions. If the RAM intend to move their problem items into either one of their own collections or to a collection/museum elsewhere then I see little problem. If the items are to be destroyed that is a different matter. The past should not be just erased – it needs to be put into a historical context. Should we knock down the pyramids because they were built with slave labour…? Or our ancient cathedrals?

    • Saxon says:

      The pyramids weren’t built with slave labour. The workers were paid in beer (they hadn’t invented money yet) and built the pyramids while singing drinking songs.

  • A bassist says:

    I have heard on the grape vine that right wing journalists dishonestly approach ‘traditional’ institutions, such at the Royal Academy of Music, Oxford University, The Globe Theatre etc on a regular basis to ask how they plan to tackle colonial heritage, institutionalised racism etc. The desired outcome is this sort of ‘outrage’ reporting, clickbait with cries of ‘go woke, go broke’ etc.

    The journalist will ask the institution, ‘how do you address your colonial heritage?’ The institution, not wanting to be accused of racism, has to then give some sort of answer. I really doubt that RAM is going to chuck out Handel’s piano…

    By the looks of things, Craig Simpson of the telegraph seems to be the king of this sort of reporting. I really don’t see why readers keep falling for it.

    The Daily Telegraph (or perhaps, more correctly, some of its readership) is a far more intellectually compromised than the Royal Academy of Music.

  • Goodbye to any respect for the Royal Academy of Music; at least it was still a worthy institution when my mother graduated from it in the 1950s.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    “Pianos made with colonial ivory and artefacts linked to Messiah composer George Frideric Handel, who invested in the slave trade, could potentially be problematic.”
    This is just too much. When will this absurd whitewashing of history come to an end?
    I own (and love) a beautiful and sonorous mint-condition New York Steinway “upright grand” piano made in the 1880s. It has ivory keys. They have been on this piano since the instrument was made. Wherever that ivory came from, it is at least 130 years old. Nobody had better try to take that piano away from me.
    Although of course I deplore the ivory trade that slaughtered so many ivory-bearing animals back in the bad old days, and I vigorously applaud every effort to stop that kind of thing from ever happening again, there is nothing to be done about the old ivory that is already out there.
    Handel “invested in the slave trade”. So? Many people did in his day. Better to tell the truth about him and get over it than proscribe these lovely and valuable old musical instruments.
    Get a grip, Royal Academy!

  • E Smith says:

    A very cheap way of signalling to the world they they are doing their part to combat slavery. In the mean time I’m sure that all the students and staff continue to use their mobile devices and wear branded apparel without giving a second thought to where it comes from or under which conditions it was manufactured.

  • marcus says:

    I have a plan. What it lacks in finesse is more than made up for by it’s directness. Why don’t we just tell these people to fuck off?

  • Marfisa says:

    Scaremongering. Read past the sensationalist Sunday Telegraph headline to the end: “The reason we are undertaking the review of the collection is to maximise space for teaching and learning at our central London premises. As part of this we will be reviewing the collection through a decolonisation lens, but our primary aim is to free up space.”
    As for Handel’s investment in the Royal African Company, he may never have given a thought to the realities of the slave trade – just as nowadays most people give very little thought to the hard realities behind the consumer goods they enjoy and the dividends their savings earn. History can’t be changed, but it can be studied, thought about, and learned from. Music did not and does not exist in a vacuum.

  • Shalom Rackovsky says:

    There is a Polish/Ukrainian proverb: “The future is fixed; the past keeps changing.”

  • John Borstlap says:

    “Pianos made with colonial ivory and artefacts linked to Messiah composer George Frideric Handel, who invested in the slave trade, could potentially be problematic.”

    “To whom, exactly, we wonder.”

    But that is clear: to the elephant tribe whose ancestors provided the teeth. They may embark on a revenge trip to London and stamp the RA to smithereens.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Take care, though; the Sunday Telegraph could just be making mischief or exaggerating, based on some anecdote. Let’s hope it isn’t true, is what I’m saying.

    That means Vienna must come under the pump too because of the Habsburg Empire; oh, wait… they weren’t black people, but mostly white. Phew; it was a close run thing, all the same!!

  • Tom Clowes says:

    I’m a professional cellist, and fully believe that if European classical music is to continue to be relevant it must come to terms with its embedded racism.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Thank you for revealing the problem. European classical music has nothing to do with embedded racism. The problem is mindless wokism, which begins to border on thought fascism.

    • ESmith says:

      Tom, could you please elaborate?
      What in your opinion is embedded racism?

  • David says:

    I assume that they will also be changing their name and removing all artifacts connected with the royal family, since some of the latter actually ran the slave trade, not just invested in it.

  • Monty Earleman says:

    The BRITISH ROYAL Academy is concerned with Handel’s links to colonialism and slave trade? HAAAAAAAHAHAHA!!!!!

  • Peter San Diego says:

    (a) If we only read, view or listen to works by people of utterly unimpeachable character, we will have precious little to read, view or listen to.

    (b) It is proper to ban the use of ivory, and by extension to ban the use of implements made with banned ivory. But to ban the use of implements (or the view of artifacts) made when use of ivory was legal serves no purpose. It’s not like stolen pieces of ivory can be returned to their elephant owners.

    • John Borstlap says:

      According to recent information, there is still an old elephant in the South-African Kruger Park sitting depressed and disgruntled under a tree, with an empty mouth, waiting for his ivory to be returned. Every time safari visitors come near, his hope flares-up, but is – up till now – extinguished time and again.

  • Stephen Burchell says:

    Unbelievable nonsense

  • Emil says:

    Once again, much ado about nothing.

    “It is understood that no composers with connection to slavery or colonialism, such as Handel, have been removed from the syllabus and that all historical figures studied by students will “continue to be taught with sensitivity to context”.”
    So what exactly is the fuss? Isn’t understanding works and artists *in context*…good? Who would teach Wagner without a wider look at German romanticism and German sociopolitics of the 19th century?

    Besides, nothing at all suggests “historical cleansing”, as another commenter has suggested.
    “As part of this we will be reviewing the collection through a decolonisation lens, but our primary aim is to free up space.”
    Breaking news, a teaching institution needs space for…teaching.

    These panics are tiring. Not only because they’re old and tired, but because often, they’re simply not grounded in fact.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The piano ivory is not the only problem:

  • Couperin says:

    All of these comments crying and whining about this supposed outrage… Did the university actually say anything about anything being “potentially problematic”? Is that conjecture from the reporter? Who cares? The university won’t do anything. They need to make more room, it seems. This sounds like Fox-style fake news. Just like the thing about “cancelling sheet music”… It was complete B.S. but provided a good outlet for the crying boomers of Slipped Disc to rage once more into the empty void of anonymous internet comments. Don’t worry, this one random-ass college of the UK won’t, in fact, have a negative impact on your life in any way. But maybe next week we can cry about a new click-bait that some school or another will ban brass instruments or whatever. I can’t wait for the definite end of the boomer generation. Everything is such a “threat” to their “way of life.”

    • Emil says:

      I, for the life of me, cannot understand the insane fascination of newspapers and society at large for the space organization of teaching rooms at the Royal Academy of Music, or the reading list for week 3 of a first year module at a random uni, or the fourth invited speaker of minor student societies. So much outrage over literally nothing.

      • John Borstlap says:

        But the reason is clear: it’s not about the RA but about the opportunity to feel good about oneself, so: the more theatrical the protests are, the more moral satisfaction.

        • Emil says:

          I’m talking about you, John, among others, and your fascination for space management at the RA.
          And how it suits some to make space allocation suddenly into a values clash through sheer fiction-making, where suddenly how reaching rooms are arranged becomes the lynchpin of civilization.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Yes, Western civilization stands or falls with the threat of elephants destroying the RA building.

  • SimonT says:

    Please think carefully before believing a word printed in the Torygraphy

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    If this is the case, and the RAM are denying it, then the Lunatics (oops, sorry, can we use that word anymore?) have taken over the Asylum (historical context, not present, of course) and I’m sick and tired of this whole woke situation. The past is indeed a ‘foreign country’ (and I mean that in an anti-racist way) and we cannot solve any part of it by such ridiculous efforts to provide a solution. For years, as is well known, Ivory was used for the white keys of keyboard instruments, ebony for the black keys and, for the record, ivory is a much-preferred surface for the fingers to play on as opposed to the ghastly plastic keys on today’s pianos that gleam at you like a newly cleaned set of teeth. Ebony and Ivory, black and white, sitting together on a musical instrument capable of providing great pleasure; but, before I run the risk of quoting from an over-sentimental pop song, I’ll move on. What next, are we to see the Colonial Ivory Police raiding homes and institutions up and down the land for anyone who possesses an old joanna, to see them forcefully removed? I guess the old Pub Piano-smashing pastimes would make a comeback, if there are any left – Pianos I mean, not Pubs. We should learn from history and ensure that the awful mistakes of the past are never repeated. Pulling down statues, altering literature and removing instruments doesn’t help anything. It only eases some people’s conscience. Denouncing violence with violence or thuggery with thuggery achieves nothing. I wonder what the colonial elephants thought of it all? I’m off to play some Handel….. on a plastic piano!