Monday, February 11, 2013

Black History Month: Classical Music and the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and beyond was known primarily as a literary movement, but also encompassed the visual arts and music.  The goal of the movement was to venerate Afro-centric themes and artistic styles within art forms developed in Western Europe.  In the visual arts, African design was a main element, but African-American scenes were also depicted.  (Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence exemplify the movement in painting)  The most famous poet of the movement was Langston Hughes.

In 1918, R. Nathaniel Dett, composer and vocal music director at the historically black college, The Hampton Institute, published an article titled The Emancipation of Negro Music, in which he expressed the mixed feelings of a black classical composer attempting to incorporate African-American music within European art forms.  Although he was not part of the Harlem Renaissance per se, his work embodied its goals.



His generation was far enough removed from slavery to have been impacted more by the Reconstruction and other post-war influences.   There were two competing visions of the music of black Americans.  One, embodied by minstrelsy, consisted of white people with black make-up ("blackface")


The second, exemplified by The Fisk Jubilee Singers, an accomplished choir that sang spirituals on concert tours to the Northern United States and Europe, promoted the spiritual as a true art form, and sought to elevate the position of black artists in general.  Singer and arranger Harry T. Burleigh  (1866 - 1949) published art song versions of many spirituals, and he helped spread their popularity indirectly, by singing them for composer Antonin Dvorak.

Alain Locke (1885 - 1954) was the primary philosopher of the Harlem Renaissance (he called it "The Negro Renaissance).  A Rhodes Scholar who earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard, he encouraged writers and artists of African descent to embrace African and African-American themes in their art.  To that end he edited an athology of poetry, fiction, and essays titled The New Negro: An Interpretation, published in 1925. 

Locke contributed an essay about spirituals, and there are references to music throughout the book. Locke cites American Negro Songs and Spirituals, a collection compiled by John Work, and discusses the work of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and other choirs from black colleges to dignify the genre.  Although jazz is today the musical style associated with Harlem of the 1920s, Locke encouraged composers to use spirituals as their inspiration.  He would later write a whole book on The New Negro and His Music.


The New Negro includes a poem by Langston Hughes, titled "Minstrel Man."  It echoes Dett's feelings about minstrely with the beginning stanza:

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
So long.
p. 144
An example of blacks as portrayed in blackface minstrelsy


Florence Price (1887 - 1953) lived in Little Rock and then Chicago.  Despite never living in Harlem, her works embody the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance.  She drew on themes from African-American life, and especially religious music.  She was the first black female classical composer of the United States.  Her works were performed by many revered musicians, including The Chicago Symphony and Marian Anderson.


William Grant Still, (1898 - 1975) belonged to a later generation, and he was not part of the circle of artists and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance despite living in New York.  After graduation from Oberlin College, he performed in the popular music styles of the day.  Later he achieved success with his classical compositions, including his best-known work, the Afro-American Symphony, which incorporates both spirituals and popular music idioms.  He composed in every classical form, and although he frequently referenced African-American or African themes, they were only some of the many inspirations that influenced his works.

Cardcat links:
Music of Harry T. Burleigh
Music of R. Nathaniel Dett
Music of Florence Price
Writings and Music of William Grant Still






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