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Photo: Classical Voice America.
The composers represented in the African Diaspora Music Project include (top row, left to right) Nathaniel Dett, Donal Fox, Anthony Green, and Jacqueline B. Hairston, and (bottom row, left to right) Robert A. Harris, Roland Hayes, Lori Hicks, and Moses Hogan.

During lockdown, I read an excellent biography of Black classical singer Marian Anderson and learned a lot I didn’t know about Black musicians and composers of the early 20th century. To America’s shame, most of these musicians had to seek training and experience in Europe, which was more open to giving their talents space to grow.

There are still challenges for Black musicians, especially in the classical arena, which is why Louise Toppin has created the African Diaspora Music Project.

Xenia Hanusiak at Classical Voice America has the story.

“ ‘How do you move something from being token to intentional?’ asks musical polymath Louise Toppin. This provocation is just one of the many questions that occupy the mind of the international scholar, opera singer, and activist. As a musical avatar who has performed at Carnegie Hall and Elbphilharmonie, Toppin is on a mission to recalibrate who, what, and how we program our concert seasons to enable a more equitable representation of music from composers of African descent. She is seeking a sustained and systemic cultural shift.

“Toppin’s solution? Her recently launched African Diaspora Music Project, a database that houses nearly 4,000 songs and 1,200 symphonies by composers of African descent. …

‘We need to stop presenting one movement of Florence Price for Black History Month and giving no time to rehearse it,’ she says, ‘and then spend two weeks on the Beethoven Ninth Symphony that everyone has played for the last 30 years.’ … 

“The spotlight programming on African American composers during this year’s post-COVID season openers points to recent mea culpa moments. The staging of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night represented the first production of an opera by a Black composer in the company’s 138-year-old history. Riccardo Muti conducted a work by Florence Price for his opener with the Chicago Symphony. The question arises about what happens next.

“ ‘Before the pandemic, I was talking to programmers about their programming in Black History Month,’ says Toppin. ‘You are bringing in singers of color to sing Mozart? What does this have to do with Black History Month?’

“You might think Toppin is angry or frustrated with the historical lack of representation of African American composers in programming. But in our recent Zoom conversation from her office at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, where she is professor of music and voice, Toppin presented her case with high-octane optimism and boundless passion.

“Her life’s work is genetically pre-determined to advocacy and pushing boundaries. Toppin’s commitment continues the legacy of her father, Edgar Allan Toppin (1928-2004), an author and professor of history specializing in Civil War, Reconstruction, and African American history. His accomplishments were many. But perhaps his most enduring legacies eventuated as board president of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. In this role, he was instrumental in turning Black History Week into Black History Month in 1976. …

“Toppin’s database is built on her lifelong commitment to her cause. She has been researching, recording, editing, and performing African American music across the globe. In October, Toppin gave a recital dedicated to the songs of Harry T. Burleigh — one of the most influential figures in the history of American song — at London’s Oxford Lieder Festival. The impetus for her database is further inspired by the vocal competition on African American art song and opera that she co-founded with tenor George Shirley. Toppin realized pretty quickly that the same repertoire kept resurfacing in the competition. So, the idea of a database to expand knowledge of the repertoire for the young singers began to take shape.

“ ‘My father’s passion for history as a public historian — not someone who spent his time just writing works for an academic audience, but hosting television and radio shows, writing for newspapers, finding ways to reach a wide audience — has deeply informed my approach and scope for this project.’ …

“Toppin’s father devoted his life to academia, but in equal parts he shared his work with his children. For the Toppin household, the line between his work and their play entwined with daily life.

“ ‘When I was a little girl, my father would take me to the library, and I would do the microfiche with him,’ says Toppin. ‘He would also take me to the stacks. He would teach me to look things up for him. He would give me a date. I could barely read, but I could manage January 1865.’ …

“Toppin began her African American Music Diaspora project in earnest during the 1990s as a way to catalog the music she had been collecting. She became a doctoral research student of Willis Patterson, bass-baritone and professor emeritus associate dean at the University of Michigan, who edited what the New York Times described as a ‘ground-breaking anthology of black art songs’ in 1977. ‘It made an international splash, and it is still selling,’ says Toppin.

“ ‘While I was organizing his music, I made sure that I made extras copies. It was part of what inspired me to start collecting. I had the foresight to see and record everything you see on the data base today: Dedications, dates, performances, biographical information, and recordings are all part of the catalog.’ ”

More at Classical Voice America, here.

You might also be interested a New York Times article on the importance of Europe for Black composers neglected at home. It begins, “In early September 1945, amid the rubble of a bombed-out Berlin, the Afro-Caribbean conductor Rudolph Dunbar stepped onto a podium and bowed to an enthusiastic audience of German citizens and American military personnel.

“The orchestra had gathered in an old movie theater functioning as a makeshift concert hall in the newly designated American zone of the city. First on the program was ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Then came a fairly standard set of orchestral pieces, with Carl Maria von Weber’s ‘Oberon’ Overture followed by Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony. But one piece stood out from the rest: William Grant Still’s ‘Afro-American Symphony.’ When it premiered in 1931 in Rochester, N.Y., it was the first symphony by a Black American to be performed by a major orchestra.” Europe helped that happen. Continue here.

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portrait_of_shirley_graham
Photo: Carl Van Vechten
Portrait of composer Shirley Graham (1896-1977), later Shirley Graham Du Bois, taken July 18, 1946.

One of my favorite places to walk — because it’s lovely and because it’s easy to move away from maskless people — is the shady local cemetery. Naturally, I have read a lot of tombstone inscriptions on my walks, and one thing I’ve noticed is how often a woman’s marker says “his wife” or identifies the deceased as “wife of.” I have never seen a stone that describes a man as “husband of.” This hierarchy seems to apply to all races in our country.

So when I share today’s story about Black opera composer Shirley Graham, I’ll just say her husband was known as W.E.B. Du Bois and had a career in his own right.

David Patrick Stearns reported recently at WQXR radio that one Africana studies professor wants everyone to know Graham’s story.

“ ‘This is the time to unleash my voice again.’ Such is the message that Oberlin College’s Africana studies professor Caroline Jackson Smith is hearing, beyond the grave, from the late activist / composer / writer Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896–1977). … Smith moderated a panel following the Caramoor Festival’s recently streamed excerpts from Tom-Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, Du Bois’ 1932 opera that is said to be the first by an African American women composer. A full production is hoped for in 2021.

“From the outset, few listeners could’ve known what to expect, because — unfairly — Du Bois’ name has faded in history. … Born in Indianapolis, this daughter of a preacher lived all around the country during her childhood. As an adult, she was often on the move, most significantly with educational pursuits at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she studied composing and began writing Tom-Tom in 1926.

“The opera, however, predates most of what she was known for: Her joining the American Communist Party in the late 1940s, her 1951 marriage to the famous sociologist / activist W.E.B. Du Bois, their back-to-Africa immigration to Ghana in 1961, her later move to Cairo, and her many, many writings along the way.

“In fact, she seemed to write constantly, whether comedies and tragedies for the stage, biographies of fellow radical Paul Robeson (as well as Booker T. Washington and Gamal Abdul Nasser) as well as novels, almost right up to her death from breast cancer. Given her global existence, it’s fitting that she died in China but was a citizen of Tanzania.

In 1932, Tom-Tom was the kind of hit that composers dream about at its Cleveland Opera premiere. Reviews were excellent and two performances reportedly drew stadium-size audiences of 25,000.

“Descriptions suggest it was more than an opera — it was more like a pageant with dancers, singers, musicians, and even elephants. … Tom-Tom disappeared until a score was found among Du Bois’ papers in 2018 at Harvard by Lucy Caplan, then a Yale University doctoral candidate in American and African American studies. The six excerpts presented on the July 9 livestream from Caramoor revealed a convincing synthesis of spirituals and West African folk music applied to a Wagnerian template. …

“This is not a fragile but endearing ballad opera like Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha. … Tom-Tom is an opera with a mission: to connect the African American community with something beyond its history of American slavery. The only apt comparison that I can come up is Kurt Weill’s the Eternal Road, a 1937 pageant whose mission was to call attention to the plight of European Jews in Nazi Germany. …

“In writing Tom-Tom, Du Bois had plenty of education to draw on, and during her period in Paris at the Sorbonne, she discovered that the music that her missionary brother brought back from Liberia (as well as the spirituals she grew up with as the daughter of a minister) stuck in her head much more readily than the conventional chord progressions of western music, according to the 2000 biography by Gerald Horne, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois. Later, she would translate those impulses directly into Tom-Tom, whose prelude was played by three timpani that were translated into what she considered an accurate rendering of African drumming. …

“Act I takes place in 1619 Africa, when a tribal human sacrifice is interrupted by the invasion of slave traders. Act II is set in mid-19th-century America, progressing on to then-contemporary 1930s Harlem in Act III. … How this epic-sized production was financed and mounted remains to be revealed.

“For all of the success of the opening (Horne quotes critic John Gruesser as describing the piece as having ‘the length, complexity and power to be called major’), the opera’s moment in the sun was brief.

“As Horne put it, ‘She quickly discovered that writing operas during the Great Depression was not the soundest method by which an African American woman could escape privation.’ Du Bois went on to the Federal Theater Project doing just about everything, including composing a number of works, including a musical. But after the early 1940s, she seems not to have pursued the kind of composing career that would prompt her — or those impressed with Tom-Tom — to return to the opera in later years.

“Being female and African American in a white, male-dominated world couldn’t have been encouraging. But looking at Du Bois’ biography in the long term, she was about spreading her message — whether as a civil rights activist, advocate of Socialism in various guises, and much else — in whatever form was most effective. Almost anything is more agile than the high-overhead medium of grand opera.” More at WQXR, here.

Photo: Lotte Jacobi, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Composer Shirley Graham Du Bois with her husband on his 87th birthday, 1955.

shirley_graham_du_bois_and_w_e_b_du_bois_on_his_87th_birthday_1955

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