Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Black History Month: Classical Composers

Although black musicians have been associated with popular and folk idioms around the world, there have been many black musicians and composers of classical music.

Joseph Boulogne, chevalier de Saint-Georges (d. 1799), also known as Le Mozart Noir (The Black Mozart), is the earliest known classical composer of African descent.  He was born on the Caribbean island of Guadaloupe, but made his career in Paris.  There he conducted the premieres of Joseph Haydn's "Paris" Symphonies.  The title "chevalier" was due to his fencing ability, and he was also a military commander during the French Revolution.  His biography is shelved with books on French history (Call number DC 137.5 .S35 S56 1996).  His best-known works were composed for the violin.

Harry T Burleigh (1866 - 1949) is best known today for composing art song versions of classic spirituals, though during his life he was a well-respected vocalist.  He also influenced Dvorak's New World Symphony when, as a student, he sang spirituals for Dvorak.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 - 1912) was a native of England, though he composed music on American themes, most famously his Scenes from The Song of Hiawatha.  He was influenced by African-American musical pioneers such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Harry T. Burleigh, and by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.  His music on black themes includes a musical tribute to Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the 1971 Haitian slave revolt and revolution, The African Suite, and an orchstral suite on the black Shakespeare character, Othello.

Music and the Harlem Renaissance

In the 1920s, the Harlem neighborhood of New York City became a mecca for African-American artists and writers.  The "Harlem Renaissance" inspired artists to use themes from African-American life and history in their works rather than assimilate European styles.  This coincides with the "Jazz Age" but the two movements were separate.

Alain Locke, one of the founders of the movement, which focused on the visual and literary arts.  The movement sought to advance the cause of African-American artists without sacrificing their identity.  Members used African-American themes within European genres.  At first, Locke was disdainful of jazz, preferring spirituals as the musical expression of African-American identity and culture.  Eventually, jazz had become firmly established in American culture, opening the door for classically-trained artists to incorporate jazz themes.  The landmark book of the Harlem Renaissance is a collection of essays edited by Locke and titled The New Negro: An Interpretation.  In 1936 he set out his ideas on music in The New Negro and His Music.

Even if not directly influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, the music of the following composers embodies its spirit:

R. Nathaniel Dett (1882 - 1943) was born in Canada and grew up in New York.  While a student at Oberlin Conservatory, he was inspired by the music of Dvorak to incorporate the music of slavery into his compositions.  His most popular piano piece, In the Bottoms, includes a much-performed dance movement titled "Juba."

Florence Price (1887 - 1953) composed three symphonies, a violin concerto, and many other smaller works piano and voice.  Some of her songs are settings of poems by Harlem Renaissance poets such as Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar.  She also composed settings of spirituals.

William Grant Still (1895 - 1978) composed some music with African-American themes, such as his "Afro-American Symphony," but his output was diverse and includes instrumental and vocal music.

William Dawson (1899 - 1990) is best known for his "Negro Folk Symphony."

Duke Ellington (1899 - 1974) was a jazz bandleader and pianist who composed some long-form pieces that have been orchestrated.  Four Symphonic Works is a CD with arrangements that blend orchestral and jazz elements.  These works have African-American themes.

For more information, check out these books:
Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought
ML 3556 .A53 2001

The New Negroes and Their Music: The Success of the Harlem Renaissance
ML 3556 .S77 1997

Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays
ML 3556.8 .N5 B6 1993

After the Harlem Renaissance

Later composers continued the tradition of incorporating black elements into classical music, but they didn't limit themselves to African-American or black themes.

Margaret Bonds (1913 - 1972) studied composition with Florence Price and William Dawson while still in high school.  She went to study at Northwestern and Juilliard.  Some of her most well-known works are settings of poems by her friend, Langston Hughes
Ulysses Kay (1917 - 1995) composed symphonic, choral, chamber, and operatic music.  Two of his operas, Jubilee and Frederick Douglass, portray African-American themes.

George Walker, born in 1922, has composed in all classical genres, including orchestral, vocal, and band music. 

Hale Smith (1925 - 2009) was adept in both jazz and classical techniques and composed in both.

There are many more Classical musicians of African descent, and the best place to read up on them is in the two-volume International Dictionary of Black Composers, found in the Music Collection Reference area (ML 105 .I5 1999).

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