Artists respond to Handel’s investment in the transatlantic slave trade

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s annual performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is a cherished tradition for many performers and audience members but is complicated by unsettling research that surfaced about the composer’s financial investment in the transatlantic slave trade. In preparation for this year’s rebroadcast of our 2018 performance of the famous oratorio, Artistic Director and Principal Violin Kyu-Young Kim moderated a virtual panel discussion on what it means to perform Handel’s work with this newfound information.

We invite you to view the full pre-concert discussion on December 19 at 7:30 pm CST or December 20 at 1:30 pm CST. An archived version will be made available on demand in early 2021. Below, you can find some of the main takeaways from this conversation.

Although David Hunter, a musicologist and music librarian at University of Texas, uncovered research about Handel’s investment in 2015, “we only recently came across this and we felt that this was important information to share with our audience — to discuss it and to talk about how it affects our relationship with [Messiah],” said Kim.

“I think one of the tragedies of how we are taught music history and history in general, is that the Americas are pretty much erased from the teaching of music history,” said Ahmed Anzaldúa, founder and artistic director of Minnesota-based choral organization Border CrosSing. “[Handel’s investment] is not surprising; it’s very likely that almost every wealthy historical family in Britain had investments in the slave trade. That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about systemic racism.”

For Ahmed Anzaldúa, artists and presenters must acknowledge challenging truths while also stepping beyond binary “good versus bad” thinking. “The real question should be ‘What is the impact of what I’m doing and what are the relationships and power dynamics that are being furthered by this?’ When performing historical pieces without any contextual framing, [what] … we’re buying into is the context that people have assigned to it historically, which is that this is a “master” work of Western European society. This comes with all sorts of baggage – racist baggage, classist baggage. By being deliberate about a contextual focus, we can stop buying into that.”

By the time Handel became involved in the 1700s, the tragic business of slavery was nothing new. “The key feature of the transatlantic slave trade was not the invention of slavery; it was the imputation of race and skin color on top of an already existing institution. So that is part of the culture that we have to wrestle with,” said Steve Swayne, musicologist at Dartmouth College and president of the American Musicological Society. “I want to believe that Handel knew the horrors of this, but it was already embedded in so much of the culture … the racialization of different types of people. Let’s hope that he was welcoming of people with darker skin than he, but that would probably make him more unusual than most people in the world at that point in time.”

“I try to see what can I learn from Handel and how can I try to make a difference here and now. Because we can’t change the past,” said Jeannette Sorrell, artistic director of period-instrument ensemble Apollo’s Fire and conductor for the SPCO’s 2018 Messiah. “We can take this news about Handel’s investments and look into our own 401(k)s or whatever we each have. Many people are not paying that much attention to how their investments are specifically allocated, and if we find some of it is supporting fossil fuels, for example, that will affect the lives of billions of people in the next generation. So maybe this can inspire all of us to do something now, today, to make the planet a better place.”

“It’s been very hard to get rid of this ingrained idea of separating the art from the artist, of these 19th-century concepts of the ‘great masterwork.’ For me, what’s helped me reconcile all these things is to do the opposite: to really focus on the idea that music is people. That Messiah is not only Handel, it’s also me. It’s every person that has listened to that piece through history. And all the relationships those people had with it, and the people that haven’t listened to it that might create a relationship to it,” said Anzaldúa. “The focus becomes on relationship. And when we start thinking in those terms we can acknowledge that it is very likely that Handel was fully aware of the horrors of the slave trade … as most people in society back then were, and turned a blind eye to.”

“The fact that we can engage in this kind of conversation, which is really as much about our world that we’re in right now, as it is about Handel’s world, and try to re-contextualize this piece for our audience today is so important,” said Kim. “And really letting go of this idea that these were these perfect creations or masterworks by geniuses, but these are people making a living through something that they love clearly, something that we love, too, but they’re not to be held up on some sort of pedestal. They’re not unimpeachable. … But that doesn’t make it less relevant or less worthy of hearing. The humanity is what’s so important.”

For further reading:

Transatlantic Slave Trade Key Facts 

The Power and Complicity of Classical Music 

Handel and the Royal African Company 

In Search of the Black Mozart: A revealing look at Handel’s investment in the slave trade 

Black scholars confront white supremacy in classical music