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.