The DNA of American 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 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 — Price’s, as it turns out, in the Chicago suburbs — 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.

http://www.jordanrsmith.com/blog/2018/5/25/the-price-is-right

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:

And William Grant Still, whose opening theme echoes Dawson’s:

And white composers jumped on the bandwagon too:

Including John Powell, an avowed white supremacist (for more on Powell and his music, go here):

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.

Classically Black, part III: Nationalism and Internationalism

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some African-American composers working in classical music chose to compose in the standard forms of the European classical music traditions. William Grant Still, for instance, known as the “Dean of African-American Composers,” could be considered an “internationalist.” Among many other works, Still wrote five symphonies — the large-scale, multi-movement orchestral form that dominated eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European musical output. Nevertheless, Still infused much of his formal orchestral writing with what we might call “nationalist” feeling.

His 1937 Symphony no. 2 in G minor, for instance, is subtitled “Song of a New Race,” and uses black folk themes as melodic and rhythmic material. The second movement is marked “Slowly and deeply expressive.”

Does it remind you in any way of the second movement of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor, “From the New World”?

Still’s 1956 concerto for harp and piano is called Ennanga, which is the name of a small Ugandan harp. Again, the piece combines internationalist form and nationalist themes.

W.E.B. DuBois’s second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, was also a composer.

dubois_courtesyschlesingerlibrary_0

Sadly, little of her music has been published or recorded. Here is a short piano piece. Does it sound nationalist or internationalist to you?

She was the first black woman composer to have an opera performed, Tom-Tom, which was staged at the Cleveland Stadium before an audience of 25,000 in 1932. Tom-Tom’s subject matter is the history of the black experience in America from enslavement onwards. The score was thought to be lost, but in 2018 the unpublished manuscript was found in Ms. Du Bois’s papers by a Harvard undergraduate.

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Read more here.

A great deal of belated attention has been given lately to the heretofore almost forgotten composer Florence Price (1887-1953), the first African-American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra. In 2009 a collection of scores by Price was found in a dilapidated old house in St. Anne, Illinois that was undergoing renovation, and the music world responded with overdue excitement.

Price’s Symphony no. 1 in E minor:

An art song by Price, “At the Feet o’ Jesus.” Note that Price is using the internationalist form of the art song/lied, and, like the great nineteenth-century lieder composers, set an existing poem by a great poet, in this case Langston Hughes. Again, she negotiates the boundary between nationalist and internationalist forms, and between high art and folk art: the song sounds like a folk spiritual, after all, and yet it’s a new composition to a poem by a major poet — a poem that Hughes wrote in African-American Vernacular English, no doubt in the same spirit as Florence Price’s composition.

At the feet o’ Jesus,
Sorrow like a sea.
Lordy, let yo’ mercy
Come driftin’ down on me.

At the feet o’ Jesus
At yo’ feet I stand.
O, ma little Jesus,
Please reach out yo’ hand.

Another Price/Hughes collaboration, “Song to the Dark Virgin”:

Would 
That I were a jewel, 
A shattered jewel, 
That all my shining brilliants 
Might fall at thy feet, 
Thou dark one. 

II 

Would 
That I were a garment, 
A shimmering, silken garment, 
That all my folds 
Might wrap about thy body, 
Absorb thy body, 
Hold and hide thy body, 
Thou dark one. 

III 

Would 
That I were a flame, 
But one sharp, leaping flame 
To annihilate thy body, 
Thou dark one.

Read British pianist and scholar Samantha Ege’s account of her (complicated) experience giving the Australian premiere of Price’s Piano Sonata in E minor in 2018.

Samantha Ege

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In 1933, pianist and composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), above, was the first black woman to perform with the Chicago Symphony, in the same concert at which Price became the first black woman to have a work performed by a major orchestra.

Bonds was also a composer; one of her best-known works is “Troubled Water,” a piano piece that draws on the spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

Bonds also collaborated with Langston Hughes on many art songs.

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?

Because my mouth 
Is wide with laughter, 
You do not hear
My inner cry? 
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing, 
You do not know 
I die?