Classically Black: Against the Grain

Draylen Mason.

One year ago, the city of Austin, Texas was terrorized by a bomber who, over the course of two weeks in March, murdered two people, and injured several more, with homemade bombs sent through the mail to residents of communities of color.

One of the dead was a 17-year-old classical musician, Draylen Mason, the only black member of the Austin Youth Symphony.

Dr. Kira Thurman, who has written extensively about black musicians working in the standard repertoires of western art music, uses this tragedy as the starting-off point for an exploration of what it means to be a black classical musician in the article “Singing Against the Grain: Playing Beethoven in the #BlackLivesMatter Era”:

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.

Read the whole thing.

Dr. Thurman imagines Draylen Mason performing this concerto for his Oberlin audition:


Here is the music Dr. Thurman played at her own conservatory audition.

A Bach prelude: she doesn’t specify which one, so here are a few.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F minor, op. 2, no. 1:

Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor:


Other pieces that Thurman says have moved her in particular:

You will notice that I was unable to find any videos of performances of the above pieces by black musicians. Why do you think this is? Is it important? How can this absence be addressed?

The composer Anthony R. Nelson speaks to some of the issues facing black composers of art music:

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.

Read the program for one of Brownlee’s performances of this piece, with the texts, here.

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? Do you think the western art music traditions offer meaningful opportunities for self-expression for black musicians and audiences?

APPENDIX:

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.

R.A.W. TUBA TRAILER from Early Light Media on Vimeo.

Sounding “White”

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Throughout 2018, the New York Times has been running a series of stories called “Overlooked,” which are the obituaries of notable women from the past who the paper declined to acknowledge at the time of their deaths. In August, the Times published an overdue obituary for Sissieretta Jones, the first black opera singer to appear at Carnegie Hall. Jones was marketed as “The Black Patti” — i.e., the black counterpart to the reigning opera diva of the day, Adelina Patti, below.

Adelina_Patti

Jones was the daughter of former slaves. The obituary notes that, while Jones performed opera excerpts in concert widely across the United States and Europe, as a black soprano she was prohibited from appearing in fully-staged opera productions with white singer colleagues. An interviewer at the time suggested that she “whiten up” with makeup, but Jones refused.

“Try to hide my race and deny my own people?” she responded in the interview, which was published by The San Francisco Call in 1896. “Oh, I would never do that.” She added: “I am proud of belonging to them and would not hide what I am even for an evening.”

elizabeth-taylor-greenfield

Jones was preceded in forging a new path for black classically-trained singers by Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was born a slave in Mississippi sometime around 1820, and later taken to Philadelphia and freed when her owners divorced. She toured the United States in 1851, singing programs of opera arias and art songs, and was managed  by a white man who was evidently a racist and a supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act, and who prohibited black audiences from attending her concerts.

As the music critic for the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser enthused after Greenfield’s debut concert in that city:

A Black Swan!

Among the musical novelties of the day, the public are soon to be astonished by the debut of a young lady of African extraction, by the name of Eliza[beth] Greenfield. We had the pleasure last evening in company with a party of Musical Amateurs, of listening to her performance and must confess we were completely surprised and delighted.

Miss Greenfield possesses a voice of great purity and flexibility, and of extraordinary compass; singing the notes in alto, with brilliancy and sweetness, and descending to the bass notes with a power and volume perfectly astonishing. She sang among other pieces “When the gloom if night retiring,” with a degree of artistic finish that many of our celebrated Prima Donnas might envy.

The critic undoubtedly meant Sir Henry Bishop’s “Like the Gloom of Night Retiring”; there is documentary evidence of Greenfield having sung the piece in Buffalo.

gloom

There is also evidence that a Buffalo police phalanx had to be called in to protect the singer, the audience, and the concert hall after threats of “dire disasters to the building if the dark lady were permitted to sing.”

Indeed, The Buffalo Daily Express was constrained to plead, in its review of her concert:

May we not hope that her music may tend to soften the hearts of the free and lighten the shackles of her race enslaved.

When Greenfield appeared in Cleveland, the music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted the astonishment of the audience as they heard “white” sounds emanating from a black body:

It was amusing to behold the utter surprise and intense pleasure which were depicted on the faces of her listeners; they seemed to express – ‘Why, we see the face of a black woman, but hear the voice of an angel, what does it mean?’

Sadly, there are no recordings of Sissieretta Jones or Elizabeth Greenfield; the latter died before the advent of recording, and the former, tragically, though she died as late as the 1930s, apparently chose not to record.

We have the examples, however, of many great black sopranos who have followed in the course laid down by these pioneering prima donnas.

Jessye Norman, for instance, is my absolute favorite singer in my aboslute favorite composer, Johannes Brahms — not to mention being unsurpassed in Wagner and other operatic repertoire.

Here she is singing “Divinités du Styx,” from the 1767 opera Alceste by Christoph Willibald Gluck:

In spite of the success of the success of black women singers, black men have traditionally fared less well in opera. A 1972 New York Times article, “When Will the Black Male Make It in Opera?”, describes the predicament of

Therman Bailey, a tall, good‐looking man in his early forties, [who] was signed by the Cologne Opera a few years ago. After he arrived there he was assigned a large number of roles to prepare in German. As the weeks went by, he was given more and more to learn but never a performance. He complained and finally worked up the long chain of bureaucracy to the artistic administrator, who said, “Really, we’re not sure how you’re going to look onstage.” Bailey said, “Then why the hell did you hire me? I haven’t suddenly changed color!” 

Inspired by his anger, Bailey reached over and pointed to a list of the company’s repertory. “Look at these operas! Almost every one is set in a Mediterranean country where blacks have always lived, Why can’t I do one?”

And George Shirley, the first black tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera, suggests that

white men erroneously see the black male “as a sort of superhuman sex machine. Maybe because of this, we’re a threat in all areas. No white man is threatened by a black woman, but when a black man is raised into a position of equal competition, the white man doesn’t like it. He says to himself, ‘Why should I open my world up to this guy when I al ready have to deal with so many white guys?”

This has been especially true for tenors, who sing the romantic male leads in opera, and thus are paired with (usually white) sopranos, which, in the United States especially, has been perceived as threatening and unsavory by (predominantly white) opera audiences.

Fortunately, things are changing, but opera is not only tradition-bound; it’s also not especially woke.

What does it mean to sound black? To sound white?

UPDATE, October 2019:

Opera has lost one of the greatest sopranos of the twentieth century, Jessye Norman. Read Kira Thurman’s appreciation of the diva here.

https://frieze.com/article/how-jessye-norman-1945-2019-broke-operas-rules-black-women?fbclid=IwAR0lBDGdf7k-0ejIHGRUObJ3usJOuOheGXr4Mb7noWyE1poggvK0BXX4tHU

Norman as Sieglinde in Wagner’s opera Die Walküre: