In 1893, Dvorak and his family traveled from New York to Chicago by train to visit the World’s Fair. From Chicago, they went to Spillville, Iowa, a farming community of Czech immigrants. While in Spillville, Dvorak met and heard the music of Native Americans for the first time. As his son described it, they were:
The songs the Iroquois sang for the composer may have sounded like this.
And, as you know, Dvorak was deeply influenced by Black American folk spirituals. If you listen carefully, you will hear this one in the first movement of the Symphony no. 9, played at a brisk tempo on the flute (Beyoncé in a scene from the movie The Fighting Temptations). Dvorak’s assistant Harry T. Burleigh had introduced him to the tune.
A beautiful analysis of the extra-musical program of Dvorak’s Symphony no. 9 by writer Joseph Horowitz.
Some of the sources Horowitz references:
Paintings of the American West
2. The Song of Hiawatha, a book-length poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, based on Ojibway legend. The full text can be found here.
British music educator Jonathan James makes the case for the Symphony no. 9 as a conflict between the old and new worlds — the old world of Dvorak’s longing for his Bohemian home is the world of nostalgia, that Romantic yearning for a home which was never the way memory pictures it.
Jay-Z, “Blue Magic,” 2007: he takes up Kanye’s theme, above.
Ka, “Up Against Goliath,” 2012
Killer Mike, “Reagan,” 2012: Killer Mike charges that Reaganomics is the basis of the destructive whirlwind unleashed by crack, and that Reagan’s illegal Iran-Contra exchange brought crack into the black community.
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?
[This post was written by student Zerin Jamal as her final project for this class in Spring 2020. All text (c) Zerin Jamal.]
William (referred to as Billy) Thomas Strayhorn was best recognized for being Duke Ellington’s collaborator and for working with Ellington to produce many classics, such as “Take The ‘A’ Train,” “Chelsea Bridge” and “Isfahan.” Although he had an aptitude for penning timeless pieces, by which he set some of the world’s most distinct jazz standards, and was a musical genius, Strayhorn spent most of his career in the shadow of Ellington. Ellington even encapsulated Strayhorn’s genius with, “Billy Strayhorn successfully married melody, words and harmony, equating the fitting with happiness.” Albeit primarily being recognized on pieces he collaborated with Ellington on, Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” was possibly his most soul-stirring and famous independent song. The song was impressibly composed by Strayhorn while he was in his teens. When he released it to the public, the song was instantaneously a hit as critics marveled at his capacity to compose a song of such caliber, one that also demonstrates maturity and a complex range of emotions that was explored by many after its release, at such a young age.
“Lush Life” was widely acclaimed for good reason as it had numerous valuable qualities. The song illustrates Strayhorn’s ability to interlink the elegant harmonies of classical music into the vibrant and strong swing of jazz. It also demonstrates his musical inclination as the lyrics and the melody of the song both simultaneously work together to evoke great emotional responses from the audience. The song ‘moves’ and amazes the listeners by communicating the level of depth and maturity Strayhorn possessed as a teenager. Strayhorn’s composition of this piece was also groundbreaking due to the time it was written in.
“Lush Life” was written during the Harlem Renaissance but was released after the renaissance began to fade away. The Harlem Renaissance was a critical period in black history; it was a time in which African Americans obtained jurisdiction over the depiction of black culture and experience, all while bestowing them a position in Western high culture. During this time, Harlem flourished with cultural and artistic expression; artists and writers strengthened the African American spirit by developing phenomenal literature and works of art that showcased the resilience, intelligence, and fortitude of their people. One of the defining arts of the Harlem Renaissance was jazz as it dominated the musical genre, enabling African Americans to communicate their difficulties, frustrations, pleasure, and pride — all of which came with being black in America. “Lush Life” was particularly valuable since Harlem provided a haven for gay African-Americans despite it being frowned upon. Although homophobia was prevalent, artists, such as Billy Strayhorn, were inspirational since they were uncloseted and extremely successful. Harlem as a community granted refuge for gay African Americans due to artists like Strayhorn having a massive influence; hence, their successes created a safe space for other gay African Americans.
The song opens with “I used to visit all the very gay places.” Although the word “gay” was commonly used to refer to “happy” during this period and did not signify homosexuality, jazz music, and especially the Harlem Renaissance, largely consisted of maintaining a sense of individuality and granted sexual freedom. Seeing as Strayhorn was publicly out-closeted and was in a long-term relationship with Aaron Bridgers, it is plausible that Strayhorn was aware of the both meanings of the term and intentionally incorporated it. Most likely, however, Strayhorn utilized the word to note places in which he felt cheerful, relaxed, carefree, and especially gay as well. “Lush Life” reflects Strayhorn’s ability to freely and openly be gay as a result of Harlem acting as a sanctuary for homosexuals.At this time, it would have been difficult to have sexual freedom and to openly display one’s sexual orientation if they were not straight. However, due to some blues singers already implying their homosexuality and his off-stage part in Ellington’s orchestra, it was possible for Strayhorn to openly display their sexual orientation due to both his absence in the limelight and Harlem’s tight-knit community looking out for one another.
Upon further analysis of the lyrics, Strayhorn describes night life as enervating after being unsuccessful at romance. He refers to a bar as a place, “where one relaxes… to get the feel of life from jazz and cocktails,” and narrates that he was familiar with dispirited women who had “been washed away by too many through the day twelve o’clock tales.” He details finding a lover that he believed was going to be a “great love” for him before unfolding,
The piece reflects how night life was and still is part of American culture. Strayhorn describes women feeling dejected as a result of their failed romances which led them to indulge in alcohol, just as the Strayhorn, for relief. The song describes how many live luxurious and lavish lives to mask their true loneliness. Oftentimes, many turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their feelings of grief and sorrow. These social values still hold for our time seeing as many turn to substances as they believe it will help them better cope; however, they, ultimately, suffer more as a result of substance abuse. This song also highlights the dangers of the overly glorified nightlife scene as it can lead to individuals falling subject to peer pressure, resulting in many drinking and trying drugs they initially were against.
“Lush Life” reflects the contributions of Black Americans to national culture since jazz was heavily influenced by several African American musical forms. Jazz evolved from slave work songs, African American spirituals, blues, and also ragtime. When listened to carefully, one can hear the mixed influences of ragtime, blues, and the piano which was part of band music. People should listen to this piece of music as Billy Strayhorn was also responsible for making great contributions to jazz, alongside Ellington, with pieces of such caliber. When listening to “Lush Life,” people should attempt to hear the syncopated rhythm (influenced by ragtime), Strayhorn’s distinct musical structure, and his moving lyrics.
The coast of South Carolina was the port of entry for more than two-thirds of the Africans brought to America as slaves. The wealth of the state, and of its capitol city, Charleston, was built on slavery. Charleston was known as the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” and the first shots in the Civil War were fired there, at Fort Sumter.
The Sea Islands bordering the coast became a place of refuge for former slaves, and were able to maintain a unique culture. A brief history:
Current cultural conflicts and land disputes in the Sea Islands:
A ring shout:
The trailer for the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, about Gullah culture:
Read this long article about black land loss in the Mississippi Delta (the problem of black land loss in the Sea Islands and throughout the South stems from many of the same causes).
Alan Lomax’s sister, Bess Lomax Hawes, made these films of the Georgia Sea Island Singers in the 1960s. You’ll notice elements of west African music and dance that you’ve seen in other contexts and cultures.
George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess is set in a Gullah neighborhood in Charleston called Catfish Row. To research the music and customs of the Gullah people, Gershwin, a Russian Jewish immigrant, traveled to the Sea Islands to observe the traditions of ring shouting and polyrhythmic clapping (legend has it that he was the only white man ever seen in a Gullah church who was able to duplicate Gullah clapping and stomping rhythms).
A scene from a rehearsal for the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Porgy:
The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals is a group of white amateur folklorists who have tried to keep the traditions of the ring shout and other Gullah musical forms alive.
Here, Brown rehearses the chorus and dancers of Porgy. Are the movements expressive of blood memory?
Do you think blood memory is a real phenomenon? or is Brown using the term as a metaphor for something else? What?
If blood memory is a real phenomenon, to what extent does it govern the choices we make and the actions we take? Are our “blood memories” mutable? Can they be changed? Or are they permanent and inexorable, something to which we must submit?
Brown suggests that blood memory is dormant in all people of African heritage, and can help them to access traditional ways of movement. Are there other blood memories particular to other groups of people? Give an example.
Is soprano Latonia Moore drawing on blood memory here, in her performance of Serena’s Act I aria “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy?
What about here, singing “Un bel dì,” Cio-Cio-San’s Act II aria from Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San is a Japanese woman)?
The Gershwins’ estate stipulates that only singers of African heritage can perform the Porgy and Bess, but that hasn’t stopped the melanin-challenged from singing excerpts for years:
The opera begins with the aria “Summertime,” the most covered piece of music of all time. Here it is sung by South African soprano Golda Schultz.
These charges complicate the notion of “blood memory.” Could there be a kind of American “blood memory,” the product and the basis of our mixed cultural origins as a nation — a memory that made it possible for a Russian-Jewish immigrant and a white Southern aristocrat to write a great American opera on one aspect of the black experience?
Read more about the historic controversies surrounding the opera here:
The folk/bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens hosts a Metropolitan Opera podcast called “Aria Code,” designed to introduce opera to new audiences. Here, she looks at Porgy and Bess from multiple perspectives, including roots both in minstrelsy and Charleston’s Gullah Geechee culture.
Video of a symposium on the opera at the University of Michigan, including a diversity of viewpoints.
“The Happy Heaven of Harlem” (Cole Porter), a place where “all lovin’ is free.”
“Lush Life,” perhaps Billy Strayhorn’s most famous song, with its clever and beautiful lyrics that are so expressive of what the Harlem nightclub scene might have been like; here it is inimitably performed by Johnny Hartman with the John Coltrane Quartet.
“Lotus Blossom,” performed by Duke Ellington and his orchestra.
Ethel Waters, in a show-within-a-show in the 1929 movie musical On With the Show. Note that she is gotten up in stereotypical Southern black field-hand garb, which she slyly dismisses in the number below, “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”
Underneath the Harlem moon, picking cotton may be taboo, but not, apparently, “the kind of love that satisfies.”
“Dinah,” which Blier calls “a love song to a woman”:
“Witness,” one of the many spirituals Hall Johnson arranged, sung by Marti Newland:
Alberta Hunter singing “My Castle’s Rockin’,” which Blier notes “sounds like a lesbian anthem.”
The great Bessie Smith, singing some rather racy lyrics:
“In Harlem’s Araby” by Bessie Smith’s pianist, Porter Grainger:
“Worried Blues,” sung by Gladys Bentley, cross-dressing lesbian and Harlem Renaissance royalty.
What historical, social, and cultural factors led to the Harlem Renaissance?
Describe the music of the Harlem Renaissance. What did it sound like? Did it draw strictly from African-American musical traditions, or from diverse traditions? Give an example to back up your answer.
Why do you think Harlem provided a refuge for gay African-Americans?
The D.C.-based arts organization Black Girls Handgames Project is dedicated to remixing and repurposing classic (pre-electronics) children’s games, many of which originated in communities of color. Cofounder OnRae LaTeal explains:
The children’s handgame “Miss Mary Mack,” for instance, played here by the great folksinger Ella Jenkins (with some assistance from . . . Barney), dates back to the 1800s.
In the book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop, Kyra D. Gaunt suggests:
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.