Black classical composers finally recognized


In the world of classical music, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, among others, have long been recognized as the “crème de la crème” – brilliant and prolific composers considered icons within a canon dominated by white men. .

Today, after decades of languishing in relative obscurity, four African-American classical composers are earning the respect they deserve – and it was once denied to them due to pervasive racist and sexist ideologies.

William Grant Still, Jr. (1895-1978), George Theophilus Walker (1922-2018), Florence Beatrice (Smith) Price (1887-1953) and emerging artist Jessie Montgomery (born 1981) each had compositions performed by the New Orchestra of Washington (DC) during a concert on June 19.

Under the direction of conductor Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, who is also artistic director of the orchestra, the “Juneteenth Celebration: Lift Every Voice!” provided a unique way to observe the newest US federal holiday – Juneteenth.

The ethnically diverse musicians of the orchestra brought vitality and excitement to the festive event held at the Strathmore Performing Arts Hall in North Bethesda, Maryland.

The four composers

William Grant Still Jr. (public domain)

A native of Mississippi, William Grant Still Jr., who composed nearly 200 works including five symphonies, four ballets and nine operas, attended Wilberforce University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Often referred to as the “dean of African-American composers,” historians consider him a member of the Harlem Renaissance because of his connections to several black literary and cultural figures of that time. His friends included Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke and Arna Bontemps.

He represents the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera and is known for his first symphony, Afro-American Symphony (1930), which, until 1950, was the most performed symphony composed by a American.

Still composed “Song of a City” for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York – a song played continuously by the “Democracity” exhibit. According to her granddaughter, journalist Celeste Headlee, Still could only attend the fair on “Negro Day” without police protection.

George Theophilus Walker was the first black man to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, which he received for “Lilacs” in 1996. His introduction to music began at the age of 5 on the piano. At age 14, he was admitted to the Oberlin Conservatory and later to the Curtis Institute of Music to study piano, chamber music and composition. He received his doctorate from the Eastman School of Music and taught at Rutgers University for several years before retiring in 1992.

Walker’s most performed orchestral work remains “Lyric for Strings”, written for voice and orchestra. He is one of more than 90 works he has composed, many of which incorporate genres such as jazz, folk songs and religious hymns, as well as classical music. He sought to “create something he could call his own,” according to his biography, and refused to conform to a specific style.

Florence Béatrice Price. (Public domain)

Florence Beatrice Price (née Smith) was the first black woman recognized as a symphonic composer and the first to have a composition performed by a large orchestra. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887 and one of three Métis children, her father was the only black dentist in town, which allowed the family to live comfortably despite racism.

She studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and reportedly briefly attempted to “impersonate Mexican” in an attempt to escape racial discrimination. Her songwriting career took off while she was in Chicago, thanks in part to the help of Langston Hughes and Marian Anderson. After Smith’s death some of his work was lost, but as more black and female composers gained attention for their works, so did Price. Much of his music was later discovered in a dilapidated Illinois home.

Jessie montgomery received a degree in violin performance from the Julliard School and an MA from New York University. She has devoted much of her time to the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based nonprofit that supports young black and Latino string players. She often draws on American folk songs and hymns and protesters from around the world, including Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba, to create a musical melting pot. Listeners can expect to hear the multicultural sounds of his native New York City, from samba and mbira to swing, techno and jazz.

Working to eliminate racism from the arts

The Juneteenth celebration served as an introduction to the music and stories behind the four neglected African-American composers. Hernandez-Valdez shared his point of view on the significance of the works presented during the concert.

“Due to systemic discrimination and socio-economic dynamics, classical music has long remained beyond the reach of certain demographics,” he said. “But classical music is for everyone, and we should all have the right to enjoy one of the most satisfying, uplifting, moving and powerful means of expression in the human mind and spirit. By making the music as accessible as possible to as many demographics as possible, hopefully we can take steps to straighten the ship out.

Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, artistic director of the New Orchestra of Washington and conductor of the evening, leads the musicians in a performance of compositions written by four little-known African-American composers. (Courtesy of Strathmore)

“Unfortunately, classical music has been largely inaccessible to people of color like me. For children growing up in difficult or limited socio-economic conditions, a career in classical music is almost unthinkable. Becoming a professional classical musician requires an incredible amount of resources, determination and passion. I was born in Guadalajara, Mexico to a family of very modest means, and I realize that my career would not have been possible without the help of several angels along the way.

“But not everyone is so lucky, so many young people of color never get the chance to reach their potential. Over time, I hope that more and more young people of color will be able to devote their lives to music. Our ensembles need more diversity. Our audiences need to see themselves reflected in the music and the artists they see on stage, ”said Hernandez-Valdez.

Two friends and members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority who attended the concert – two women who live and work in the Greater Washington area – said they had never heard of the featured composers but promised to do so. to as many of their friends as possible.

Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority friends and sisters Pamela Christian-Wilson (left) and Sabrina Mays-Diagne, heard the works of four black classical composers at the Juneteenth concert. (Courtesy of Pamela Christian-Wilson)

“I have already contacted my colleagues and told them about the wonderful music that I enjoyed during the concert – music written by black composers that I knew nothing about before,” said Sabrina Mays-Diagne, a lawyer. who lives in the suburb of Herndon. , Virginia.

“It was my first time at a classical music concert, and it was a real treat,” she said. “Like most people, I know the works of the most famous composers like Bach and Beethoven, but their work has always struck me as a little cold and distant. But with these songs, I felt something different and the music touched me. I felt connected to the composers and I loved it, ”she said.

Pamela Christian-Wilson, a resident of Loudon County, Va., And a member of the management team at a law firm, called the music “superb.”

“The orchestra played the music to perfection,” she said. “I just wish more young people could be here to experience what I did tonight. It’s not that I have something against music that our young people tend to like, like hip-hop or rap. I just believe that black youth would gain so much from being exposed to classical music, especially to works written by black men and women.

“These composers overcame significant obstacles just to do what they felt in their minds, hearts and souls. Everyone needs to know them and their stories and hear the beautiful works they have created. I wanted more and could have listened to the orchestra for hours, ”she said.

(Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Judith Isacoff)

The article Canon Busters: Black Classical Composers Finally Recognized appeared first on Zenger News.


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