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:
Essay by artist and critic “Coco Fusco, Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till,” which Thurman cites on p. 244:
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.
What do Kira Thurman’s essay and Langston Hughes’s story tell us about the experiences of black classical musicians?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Would That I were a flame, But one sharp, leaping flame To annihilate thy body, Thou dark one.
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?
As we’ve discussed in class, 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 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).
Tenor Roland Hayes, a native of Georgia and the son of former slaves, was brutally beaten by a white shoe store clerk while on tour, when his wife and daughter sat in the “whites only” area of the store. Langston Hughes wrote a poem about the incident:
Roland Hayes Beaten (Georgia, 1942)
Negroes, Sweet and docile, Meek, humble, and kind: Beware the day They change their minds!
Wind In the cotton fields, Gentle breeze: Beware the hour It uproots trees!Marian Anderson:
South African soprano Pretty Yende improvises some Zulu in a spoken monologue in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment at the Metropolitan Opera: