TW/CW: disturbing imagery of Transatlantic slave trade and police brutality.
After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Anthony McGill, the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic (and the only African-American principal in that illustrious orchestra), recorded himself in his living room playing a mournful, mixed-tonality version of “America the Beautiful,” and posted the video on YouTube.
In the last 15 seconds of the video, McGill knelt down with his head bent, holding his clarinet behind his back. His posture evokes many conflicting images: not only prayer, but also bondage:
The great tenor Lawrence Brownlee responded by singing the spiritual “There’s a Man Going Round Taking Names” on both knees, both the song and his posture an allusion to the death of George Floyd.
Other classical musicians across race and ethnicity took up the hashtag #TakeTwoKnees in support of black lives and against police brutality.
Do you think classical music is an effective tool for protesting against injustice? Why or why not?
Season 3 of the Amazon Prime series Mozart in the Jungle featured an episode called “Not Yet Titled,” in which the fictional orchestra, based on the New York Philharmonic, plays a concert at Rikers Island under the direction of their charismatic Mexican conductor Rodrigo De Souza (Gael Bernal). The episode was filmed live at Rikers, and the audience was made up of real inmates. Watch it here. Do you agree with the inmates interviewed about the power of classical music?
While driving to Target to buy a new vacuum on Black Friday (oh, the glamorous life of an adjunct!), I turned on the radio to the classical station, which was in the middle of this piece, in a new arrangement for piano quintet (piano, two violins, viola, and cello).
At first I thought it was a chamber piece by Antonin Dvorak. In fact, especially arranged as a piano quintet, it was chock-full of Dvorakian devices: long-breathed modal melodic themes that sounded as if they were derived from American folk spirituals; a slow, wide-open kind of harmonic progression; the chiming, bell-like sound of the piano being played in octaves. By the time the one-movement piece evolved into a cakewalk, though, I knew it was by Florence Price.
Florence Price was one of the greatest composers of her generation, but was neglected in her own lifetime, and essentially forgotten until ten years ago, when a couple renovating an old house in the Chicago suburbs — Price’s, as it turns out — found boxes of her compositions in manuscript.
As Price herself wrote in a letter to conductor Serge Koussevitsky:
Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility. Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.
Conductor Jordan Randall Smith has collected many sources for research on Florence Price on a wonderful web page called “The Price is Right” (get it?). The site includes an excerpt from a recent documentary about her life, The Caged Bird, as well as a Spotify list and many links. It should be your first stop for any project on Florence Price’s life or work.
So why did I think, at first, that I was hearing Dvorak?
In 1891, Dvorak was invited to travel from his native Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) to lead the new (and short-lived) National Conservatory of Music in New York. The conservatory, it was hoped, would train American-born musicians and composers to create a national style of American classical music. Shortly after arriving in New York, Dvorak gave a famous interview to the New York Herald, in which he asserted that all that American musicians and composers needed to create an American style of classical music was to look to African-American folk music:
In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathétic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him.
This statement caused controversy on both sides of the Atlantic (read more about the controversy here). Dvorak wrote his 9th symphony in America, subtitled “From the New World,” and the second movement was explicitly influenced by African-American folk spirituals:
So much so that, in a reverse process, it became a kind of spiritual itself:
And it wasn’t long before other composers, inspired by Dvorak, who was inspired by African-American folk music, began writing their own folk-spiritual-inspired concert music, including great African-American composers like William Dawson:
Note that, in the concert program for the premiere of Florence Price’s Symphony no. 1 by the Chicago Symphony (at the top of this post), a piece by John Powell opens the show.
The piece’s title, “In Old Virginia,” certainly evokes the idea of the antebellum South under slavery. But starting around 4:00, you can hear a deliberate evocation of African-American folk spirituals in the clarinet solo.
In spite of Powell’s noxious racial views, we can assume that the entire program was meant to reflect black contributions to the American classical sound, either through the work of black composers or through the implicit inspiration of black American sounds. Roland Hayes, the program’s tenor soloist, was a famous concert singer who had great success in Europe:
In the United States, however, he was the victim of an incident of racial violence that inspired Langston Hughes’s poem “Warning” (originally titled “Roland Hayes Beaten”):
Negroes, Sweet and docile, Meek, humble and kind: Beware the day They change their mind! Wind In the cotton fields, Gentle Breeze: Beware the hour It uproots trees!
And Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer of African ancestry, who nevertheless drew on Native American legend for his overture Hiawatha — an opera about the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy, who lived in the 16th century — from which Hayes performed the tenor aria “On-away, Awake, Beloved”:
So it seems, in a sense, that the American classical sound is like the serpent biting its own tail, moving in an endless loop from African-American folk spirituals, to Dvorak, and back again to America.
American music is so largely African-American music, and this is true also of American classical music.
Read Kira Thurman’s article “Playing Beethoven in the #BlackLivesMatter Era” here (also in your course reading packet).
Below you will find videos of the pieces Dr. Thurman references in her essay.
Johann Baptist Vanhal’s Concerto in D Major, which Kira Thurman imagines Draylen Mason playing:
Two of the pieces Kira Thurman played for her music school audition:
The piece that Thurman says she is “obsessed with playing and listening to”:
An excerpt from Cycles of My Being by Tyshawn Sorey:
The Spark Catchers, by British composer of African descent, Hannah Kendall:
This is the essay Thurman cites by artist and critic Coco Fusco: “Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till”:
Dana Schutz, “Open Casket” (2016), in the 2017 Whitney Biennial (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)
In Langston Hughes’s short story “Home,” Roy Williams plays the following pieces in his mother’s house when he returns from Europe:
The most famous of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms (called “The Gypsy Dances” by Hughes):
Roland Hayes singing “The Crucifixion” (for more on Hayes, including the poem Langston Hughes wrote on the assault on the great tenor in Georgia, see here):
The “Meditation” from the opera Thaïs by Jules Massenet:
It’s worth noting in the context of the Hughes story that, in the 2018 film Green Book, composer and pianist Don Shirley does not play classical music for white audiences, but rather his own jazz-classical hybrid form, a choice that makes white listeners more comfortable with the separation between him and themselves; in a sense, Hughes tells us, it’s the blurring of race and musical genre that leads to Roy’s death. For Don Shirley in the film, it’s only in a black bar that he’s finally allowed to play the music that he loves the most.
For more about the real Don Shirley, the subject of the film, read this.
Thurman observes that:
Sometimes . . . orchestras and schools of music suddenly “discover” people of color in nearby neighborhoods. In rhetoric that smacks of a civilizing mission, they declare their intention to bring classical music to “the urban youth,” hoping to save black teenagers from themselves, as if, to paraphrase Alain Locke [an important black writer in the early twentieth century, called the “Dean of the Harlem Renaissance”], they were a problem in need of solving. Classical-music institutions have been seized by this tantalizing thought of mass conversion since at least the 1970s. When their initiatives fail—and they inevitably do—the musical missionaries routinely blame the ignorant for rejecting their gifts. They use essentialist notions of race and culture to explain away their failures instead of recognizing the agency and the desires of their potential converts. It is as though they cannot comprehend that someone might listen to a symphony, understand its merits, and choose a different musical preference.
Thurman does not provide any examples of this phenomenon. Your task is to find one and be ready to discuss it in our next class meeting.
P.S. Art imitating life, or life imitating art?
The Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle, about a fictional New York City orchestra, set an episode during its 3rd season (S3E7) in the notorious jail complex on Rikers Island, in which the orchestra engages in one of the outreach programs Thurman describes above. The episode was filmed on location, and the inmates were real inmates in the jail, not actors. You can read more about it here:
Classical music cannot save anyone. But I still find our discussions of its role in black lives too one-note, tone-deaf and flat. What is absent from conversations on black experiences in classical music and what is grossly underestimated in our debates is classical music’s shocking power . . . Black popular music is not the only thing capable of moving the body irrespective of what the mind wants.
. . . I do not believe that the answer to critics’ questioning of blackness and classical music is for black people to stop playing it. Such an argument allows only white people the freedom to enjoy a musical work for its own sake, and it dictates to black people not only what their social responsibilities are as artists, but the terms by which they are to fight against their own oppression.
. . . Held up as symbols of racial advancement, used to denigrate others who cannot or will not make the same aesthetic choices, or denounced as Uncle Toms, black classical musicians inhabit a liminal space. But it is a space that encourages us to consider the full range of experiences that should be available to people of color, including the pleasure of abstract, even Western, art music. It is a space in which Draylen Mason chose to thrive. And because of him and others, it is a space in which I choose to remain.
As a frequent attendee of new [classical] music events around the world, I often feel as though the presence of people who look like me is not wanted or is merely tolerated . . .this feeling arises mainly from observations of concert programming [whose absence of works by black composers sends] the message “black composers have not composed music good enough for us to play or for this stage” . . . Classical music did not escape the greater social construct of racism and patriarchy, which is why composers such as Ignatius Sancho, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Blind Tom, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still, and plenty more are usually only studied in non-required specialized classes. . . There is also a trend that places the music of black composers mostly in themed concerts, more often than not related to social justice or for Black History Month. While this is not necessarily negative, the injustice arises when absolute music or music with non-social themes by black composers is overlooked. In sum, we are not one-trick ponies.
Some examples of new classical music by black composers referenced by Kira Thurman:
Cycles of My Being, a song cycle composed by Tyshawn Sorey, with texts by Terrance Hayes, performed by Lawrence Brownlee.
The Spark Catchers, by black British composer Hannah Kendall:
Anthony R. Nelson is himself one of the founders of a classical music ensemble with the beautiful name Castles of Our Skins, which is dedicated to fostering and performing works by composers of color. Here is video from some of their concerts:
Why do you think black composers are so rare in the worlds of classical music? (Or are they?)
Do you think the western art music traditions offer meaningful opportunities for self-expression for black musicians and audiences? Explain.
The trailer for a forthcoming documentary about tuba virtuoso Dr. Richard Antoine White, who was a homeless child in West Baltimore (Freddy Gray’s neighborhood), and later became the first African-American to earn a doctorate in tuba performance. I will get hold of the documentary for class as soon as it’s available.
W.E.B. Du Bois (above), who spent several years studying in Germany in the 1890s, greatly admired German classical music, and considered it a repertoire full of freedom and possibility for black performers. He especially loved the operas of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), and in 1936 he made a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, the opera house in Bavaria where a festival of Wagner’s operas is put on every year. By this time, it was widely known that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer: here is Hitler at the 1934 Bayreuth festival.
Inspired by Du Bois, and by the remarks made by historian Kira Thurman (above) in the “Studying the Lied” colloquy in the Summer 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Musicological Society, here is a playlist of most of the singers mentioned by Thurman, singing German repertoire. Read a transcription of the colloquy here.
A live recording of the African-American baritone Aubrey Pankey from 1941 (starts at around 15:00; I couldn’t figure out how to cue the audio, so you may need to listen to a violin sonata by Paul Hindemith first).
Back in the United States on tour, however, Hayes was brutally beaten by a white shoe store clerk in Atlanta when his wife and daughter sat in the “whites only” area of the store. Langston Hughes wrote a poem about the incident, which he later re-titled “A Warning”:
Roland Hayes Beaten (Georgia, 1942)
Negroes, Sweet and docile, Meek, humble, and kind: Beware the day They change their minds!
In the cotton fields, Gentle breeze: Beware the hour It uproots trees!
The late, great Jessye Norman, who, in the tradition of Roland Hayes, devoted her artistic life to German music:
Why do you think Black American singers would have found a particular kind of artistic and personal freedom in German classical music?
Young Black singers of our own time: here, South African soprano Pretty Yende improvises in Zulu, her native language, in a spoken monologue in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment at the Metropolitan Opera: