Classically Black, part III: Nationalism and Internationalism

As we’ve discussed in class, some black composers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries 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.

We’ve talked a little about the second Mrs. W.E.B. DuBois, Shirley Graham.

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

A page from the manuscript score of her 1932 opera Tom-Tom:

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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.

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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? 

Pierrot

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Pierrot and Harlequin (Pablo Picasso, 1920).

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Pierrot is one of the stock characters of commedia dell’arte, an improvised form of theater that was performed by traveling players throughout Italy and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He is a sad clown, in love with the stock heroine of commedia, Colombina (Columbine), who in turn is in love with the more virile and aggressive Arlecchino (Harlequin).

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Pierrot and Harlequin (Paul Cézanne, 1888).

While Harlequin is identifiable by his trademark checked leotards, Pierrot usually appears in a loose white suit, as shown here by the French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721).

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By the nineteenth century, whiteface makeup would become a trademark of the character as well, an innovation of the famous mime Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796-1846), who added depth and nuance to the stock figure of Pierrot. Debureau’s portrayal of Pierrot even earned him comparisons to Shakespeare. The classic 1945 French film Les enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise) is a fictionalized account of Deburau’s life.

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Claude Debussy wrote a song called “Pierrot” in 1881, a setting of a poem by Theodore de Banville which references the great Deburau:

The text, in translation:

The good Pierrot, whom the crowd watches,
Having finished at Harlequin’s wedding,
Wanders as in a dream along the Boulevard du Temple.
A young girl in a flimsy blouse
In vain entices him with her scamp’s eye;
And meanwhile, mysterious and shiny
Making him its dearest delight,
The white moon with horns of a bull
Casts a glance offstage
At his friend Jean Gaspard Deburau.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Pierrot became the idealized image of the suffering, alienated, and melancholy artist. His white costume suggested innocence; his white face, with its corpse-like pallor, suggested death. He became a favorite subject of modernist painting.

Georges Seurat

By Georges Seurat.

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By Georges Rouault.

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By Pablo Picasso (who painted many images of Pierrot).

Elaine Haxton

By Elaine Haxton.

A very early animated French film of Pierrot.

In 1912, the German actress Albertine Zehme commissioned Arnold Schoenberg to write a song-cycle for her, based on German translations of the poem-cycle Pierrot Lunaire (Moonstruck Pierrot) by the Belgian poet Albert Giraud. Giraud’s poems begin in a dreamlike, surrealistic manner, and gradually become more and more nightmarish.

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Albertine Zehm.

Schoenberg pioneered the extended vocal technique of sprechstimme (speech-song), and used an ensemble consisting of flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet in A (doubling on clarinet in B-flat and bass clarinet), violin (doubling on viola), cello, and piano. This particular amalgamation of forces — flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano — is still known as a “pierrot ensemble.” The piece was first performed on October 16, 1912, with Zehme dressed as Columbine.

The German critic Theodor Adorno said that Pierrot Lunaire is about “the homelessness of our souls.”

Langston Hughes wrote a poem called “Black Pierrot,”
which was set music by William Grant Still, 1895-1978):

I am a black Pierrot:
She did not love me, 
So I crept away into the night 
And the night was black, too. 
I am a black Pierrot:
She did not love me, 
So I wept until the red dawn
Dripped blood over the eastern hills 
And my heart was bleeding, too. 
I am a black Pierrot:
She did not love me, 
So with my once gay-colored soul
Shrunken like a balloon without air, 
I went forth in the morning
To seek a new brown love.

Pierrot has continued to haunt the music of our own time. David Bowie told an interviewer in the 1970s:

I’m Pierrot. I’m Everyman. What I’m doing is theatre, and only theatre. . . . It’s pure clown. I’m using myself as a canvas and trying to paint the truth of our time on it. The white face, the baggy pants – they’re Pierrot, the eternal clown putting over the great sadness of 1976.

Later, Bowie appeared as Pierrot in the video for his 1980 song “Ashes to Ashes.”

In 1996 and again in 2015, Björk sang Pierrot Lunaire in live performance.

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