A Deserted Plantation – On African American classical composers (1/3)

When you think of African-American or Black American music, many people spontaneously think of jazz, blues, hip-hop, rap, and gospel, but very few people think of Black American classical music, and on this day, when many gatherings are planned in tribute to George Floyd, a black American man killed by white policemen two weeks ago, I woke up thinking that I had to write and publish a text devoted to African-American classical music, a subject I had been thinking about for several months but had always put off.

I can already imagine that some readers will probably wonder what is the connexion between classical music and the fight against racism and discrimination, and they will probably think that music won’t put an end to racism. Historian Pap Ndiaye wrote in 2006 in « Questions of Color. History, ideology and practices of colourism », « Being black is neither an essence nor a culture, but the product of a social relationship: there are blacks because we consider them as such. It is a specific social experience of the black minority: « Being black is a concern, a worry, in contrast to being white, which (except for whites living in predominantly black societies) is an obvious fact that one never thinks about. Privilege of the majority group to be blind to one’s own color, since it is thought to be universal… » Being black is also the experience of an assignment, as the writer Tania de Montaigne so aptly described in her book L’Assignation: les Noirs n’existent: « With Race, the color takes a capital letter, we no longer say a black person but a Black person. The idea then arises that for each colour there is a psychology. … With race, everything is simple, we are what we are born, only blood and DNA are the law. We no longer need to relate to others, to listen, to think, we only need to look: seeing is knowing. I know what you think because you’re black, I know what you say because you’re yellow, I know what you do because you’re red. »

Unfortunately in classical music, it works the same way. The classical music world, which is a reflection of society like any other art form, is no stranger to racism and discrimination, and indeed if you look closely at concerts in France, you will see that it is a very white world, both among musicians, among the leaders of musical institutions and among the audience. Racism involves the invisibilisation of minorities, especially in the world of art. In this world the racial question is also a social question. Art is socially assigned, and I would even say monopolized by the bourgeoisie, and in our country as in the United States, the bourgeoisie is overwhelmingly white. It is the bourgeoisie that practices music, runs cultural institutions, recruits musicians, provides material support through patronage and attends shows. The programmes of concert halls and opera houses are therefore primarily built and designed for this white bourgeoisie. The result for me as a spectator and music lover is that I have never heard a single work by a black American composer in concert in France.

The history of African-American classical music is the history of a struggle for recognition, reflecting the tensions in the American society around the issue of race. As journalist Tom Huizenga pointed out last September, even though the richness of African-American music from the arrival of the first African slaves to the present day is now recognised not only in the United States but throughout the world, « more difficult to decode is the relationship African American music has had — or should have had — with America’s classical music tradition ».

One might say that in some ways the history of American classical music is the story of a failed encounter, for as Joseph Horowitz explains in The American Scholar, the history of American classical music might have been different, less influenced by European composers, more rooted in a truly American sound, if only the musical contribution of African-American composers had been embraced by white American composers. But history so far has shown that the prophecy of Czech composer Antonín Dvořák that American classical music would be rooted in African-American music has never really come true. Indeed, while Dvořák stated in 1893, « I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them« , more than a century later we can only note that the meeting occurred on the margins, that the doors of concert halls were only slightly open to African-American composers, and that white composers drew little inspiration from the extraordinary melodic richness of the African-American folk tradition. It is all the more puzzling when one considers that on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, many European composers, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, dived with eagerness into the popular traditions of their countries in order to renew their musical writing and emancipate themselves from the influence of German music. It should be noted that the conductors at the head of the great American orchestras who have taken an interest in, played or recorded the music of African-American composers and conductors were first Europeans, such as Leopold Stokowski, Pierre Monteux, Otto Klemperer, Artur Rodziński, or more recently Neeme Järvi.

There is a large pool of American composers to listen to, but I have chosen three whose works I particularly like, and which I will briefly present on my blog over the next few days, starting today with William Grant Still. For those who would like to explore African-American music, and black classical music in general, I recommend Africlassical, which is quite comprehensive.

William Grant Still (1895-1978) was born in Mississippi during the segregation. After his father’s death, his mother took him to Arkansas, where she taught high school English for over 30 years and soon remarried Charles B. Shepperson, a postman who was keen on opera and listened to many recordings at home. Still began learning the violin at the age of 14, and then taught himself to play other instruments such as clarinet, oboe, cello and viola. It was his grandmother who introduced him to spirituals by singing him these religious songs throughout his childhood. He first followed his mother’s wish to become a doctor by studying medicine at Willberforce University, which he soon abandoned to follow his calling as a musician and therefore he enrolled at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. This was the beginning of a long career as a musician, during which he composed numerous works in various genres (symphonies, operas, instrumental pieces for the piano, chamber music, choral music, film music), and also worked as a conductor, most notably in 1936 when he was the first African-American to conduct a « white » orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

William Grant Still, photo by Carl van Vetchen (1949)

Composed in 1936-37, the Symphony No. 2 in G minor, entitled « Song of a New Race », belongs to the composer’s third stylistic period, a period he described himself as « universal », during which he sought to broaden his musical writing to other musical horizons without abandoning his Afro-American inspiration. Still considered this symphony to represent « the American colored man of today, in so many instances a totally new individual produced through the fusion of White, Indian and Negro bloods« . Catherine Parsons Smith, who has devoted several books to William Grant Still, thus describes this symphony as symphony No. 2:

Still’s second symphony was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski on December 10, 1937. Its characteristically expansive, lyrical string writing seems specifically intended to exploit that orchestra’s famously silky string sound. Near the climax of the first movement, and at key moments elsewhere, the brasses-trumpets and trombones especially, punctuate the texture with gestures suggesting call and response, elements of the African American essence that persistently asserts itself even as blacks were more fully integrated into the wider, more diverse American culture.

Still claimed his right of access to the world of concert music and his unique voice at the moment jazz was emerging as the quintessentially Black artistic expression, just one of the several anomalies in his long and productive career. He took for himself the expressive liberties claimed by (white) modernists but flatly rejected their elitism. The implicit postmodernism of Still’s aesthetic position-diversity of means, more open perspective on distinctions of genre-makes a reconsideration of his achievement especially timely today.« 

Symphonie n°2 « Song of a New Race », Neeme Järvi, Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Spiritual, from »A Deserted Plantation », by William Grant Still

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