Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Meditation on the Yoga Scandal

I've been out of the North American university system for three-and-a-half years now yet news of the shenanigans within student politics seems to follow me wherever I go. This week it was an article on the Student's Federation of the University of Ottawa's decision to cancel free yoga classes after a complaint from the Center for Students with Disabilities was brought forward over comments that "there [were] cultural issues of implication involved in the practice." Since the news broke a few days ago, coverage of the debacle - as well as numerous opinions on cultural appropriation - has gone global, with articles in the Telegraph, the Guardian, as well as the Wall Street Journal.

As a musician who focuses on European art music from the 17th and 18th centuries I find, rather surprisingly, that the dissemination of my work shares a similar dilemma which faces those debating the merits of the free yoga classes.
Today, we tacitly acknowledge the fact that much of the music which we perform, patronize, and promote from this period was funded to uphold political establishments guilty of numerous unsavory acts by modern standards. It's an inconvenient truth that some of the great works of the baroque period glorified imperialist aspirations, celebrated religious persecution, or portrayed non-western cultures with barbarous depictions. However, we acknowledge that the performance of those very works today - even devoid of their context - have great value as communal activities.

Aristocratic courts in the 17th and 18th centuries were important centers for cultural output. Numerous musicians, artists, and writers were appointed to produce works glorifying their patron, no matter the cost. Manfred Bukofzer, in his Music in the Baroque Era, paints a gloomy picture about the lengths one ruler would go to finance his cultural institutions:
"The extravagant expenses of the court opera could only be covered if the patron received a steady revenue. In the budgets of German sovereigns who ruled a small country opera and ballet formed the largest single item of the expense account. The Duke of Brunswick, for one, relied not only on the most ingenious forms of direct and indirect taxation but resorted even to slave trade. He financed his operatic amusements by selling his subjects as soldiers so that his flourishing opera depended literally on the blood of the lower classes."
George Frederick Handel's Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate of 1713 celebrated the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht - a document leading to the Peace of Utrecht, acknowledging the victory of Great Britain and her allies over France and Spain in the war of the Spanish Succession. A moving work in itself, the Te Deum and Jubilate however celebrated the first victory of a united crown - worn by the very woman who was to become sainted as the matriarchal figure Britannia. When I was performing this work in a program commemorating the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of the First World War, the orchestra management had been having difficulty securing a performance at a particular venue because the program was presented cleansed of context, a programming decision I contested at the time. In the end our program wasn't accepted and we performed somewhere else instead.

In October 1685, the Edict of Fontainbleau was signed following one of France's most brutal periods of religious persecution. Since 1681, the dragonnades conducted across the south of the kingdom had caused countless acts of torture, forfeiture, and forced displacement. By the time of the signing of the edict up to 300,000 Huguenots had fled the country and the rest were forced, under the terms of the document, to convert or face the forfeiture of their property. Naturally, the signing of the edict was a cause for the Catholic king to celebrate, and Jean-Baptiste Lully's Ballet de la temple de la paix show us just how that took place. The ballet is an interesting example of 17th century propaganda: a lavish spectacle with orchestra and chorus and full of entrances from subjects of the crown - des Basques, des Bretons et Bretonnes, Un Bicayen et des Biscayennes, and even des Sauvages de L'Amerique(!) - all basking in the glory of the king and commending him for bringing such a great peace to the land. (What an interesting performance it would have been to watch first-hand: were those attending aware of the effects of Louis XIV's campaign against the Huguenots?) 

There is no doubt in my mind that there have been modern performances of works created for the Brunswick court; Handel's Te Deum and Jubilate have been recorded on numerous occasions and are performed often enough across the western world; Lully's work, too, has at least been partially recorded, though I don't know if there has been a full re-staging. However, it does not discourage me knowing that the majority of the performances of the above works do not receive the "contextualization" which I advocate for. If our primary goal as early musicians was to contextualize a work with the caveat that if not enough effort was shown to that effect then the performance should not take place then we would be in a sorry state indeed.

Music, like yoga, offers a shared experience, an opportunity to build relationships through means not normally accessible in daily life. The possible benefits of these activities I would argue can't be duplicated and it does a disservice to the community to withhold them if they seem to be lacking an information component or if there were "cultural issues of implication involved". Today, it would be unheard of for a student union to withdraw a free performance of one of the works above for the reasons I've cited, so why punish those students who can't afford to pay for a yoga class?

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