Posts Tagged ‘black composer’

Illustration by Cristiana Couceiro at the New York Times. Photo: Getty Images.

A black musician who composed sacred and secular vocal music more than 400 years ago is getting attention at last, thanks to the internet. Garrett Schumann recently wrote for the New York Times about composer Vicente Lusitano.

“On a day in June 2020, Alice Jones was in her Brooklyn apartment getting ready to attend a Black Lives Matter rally. Dr. Jones, a flutist and composer who serves as an assistant dean and faculty member at the Juilliard School, was adamant about expressing herself as a Black classical musician. …

“Dr. Jones designed a sign that listed Black composers throughout history. After adding Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the 18th-century subject of the upcoming film ‘Chevalier, she faintly remembered another, older name: Vicente Lusitano.

“Lusitano was an African-Portuguese composer and music theorist who was most likely born between 1520 and 1522, and who died sometime after 1562. Probably the child of an enslaved African woman and a Portuguese noble, Lusitano traversed Europe in a career that saw him depart the Iberian Peninsula for Rome as a Catholic priest in 1550 and, around a decade later, relocate from Italy to Germany as a married Protestant.

“He wrote sacred and secular vocal music, taught extensively and produced scholarship that includes a unique manuscript treatise on improvised vocal counterpoint. …

“It took until the late 19th century for new scholarship to revisit Lusitano’s printed works, beginning a 150-year-old reclamation project. Important strides were made in the 1960s and ’70s as new sources emerged, most notably a 17th-century manuscript that describes Lusitano as ‘homem pardo,’ a historical Portuguese term for certain mixed-race people of African descent. And since 2000, the internet has become increasingly important to Lusitano scholarship; the summer of 2020 saw the onset of a new and ongoing flurry of interest whose roots are entirely digital.

“Dr. Jones’s demonstration sign played a part in the current wave of activity: A picture of her placard went viral on social media and broadcast Lusitano’s name to a new audience. Joseph McHardy, a Scottish-Congolese conductor and early music specialist based in London, was stunned when he saw Dr. Jones’s post. ..

‘Learning about Lusitano reminded me of the feeling I got when I learned there were Black people in the Roman Empire.’

“After seeing the sign, McHardy quickly searched for scores of Lusitano’s music to perform with his church choir, but could only find scans of the 16th-century originals. So, he spent that summer making his own updated versions. He’s one of many experts and enthusiasts who produced the first modern editions of Lusitano’s compositions and shared them on free online databases. The result was a burst of new performances in the months that followed. Nearly five centuries after Lusitano’s death, dozens of choirs in the United States, Canada and Europe performed his music for the first time, largely because his scores were finally accessible.

“Britain has been the epicenter of Lusitano’s current musical resurgence. In June, McHardy partnered with the Chineke! Foundation to produce a tour highlighting Lusitano’s sacred works with an ensemble composed entirely of vocalists of color. The motets’ beauty astonished McHardy, who said, ‘We had no idea Lusitano’s pieces would be so enjoyable to sing.’

“His collaborators, too, were impressed. ‘I have fallen in love with Lusitano’s music,’ said Malcolm J. Merriweather, an American baritone and conductor who performed on the tour.

“The Marian Consort, another British choir, led by the conductor Rory McCleery, preceded McHardy’s tour with a 2021 concert series featuring one of Lusitano’s works, which they also performed at that year’s BBC Proms. …

“Today, Lusitano is not easy to study, even if you can find performances of his music on YouTube. Little correspondence and few records of his life are known to have survived, both because earlier scholars had no interest and because his sociopolitical disenfranchisement constrained the production of such documents. Contextual evidence is critical, especially with respect to his identity.

“We know other pardo people existed in 16th-century Portugal. At the time, thousands of African and African-descended people, most of whom were enslaved, lived in the country. … Lusitano’s experience as a historical figure illustrates the kind of collective activity that has traditionally excluded composers of African descent from classical music’s conventional performance and academic institutions. Melanie Zeck, a reference librarian at the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center and former reference librarian at the Center for Black Music Research, emphasized that the first historians of Black classical music responded to these exclusionary tendencies by developing what she called a ‘totally separate practice from mainstream academic scholarship.’ …

“Now, the internet and social media can empower these principles of Black music scholarship, though, as Dr. Zeck said, ‘misinformation abounds.’ But for Lusitano, these technologies nevertheless have helped the truths of his life and music become more accessible than ever, 500 years after his birth.”

More at the Times, here.

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Photo: Special Music School.
Three of the student authors of Who Is Florence Price? (left to right: Sebastián Núñez, Hazel Peebles and Sophia Shao), joined by their English teacher, Shannon Potts.

I want to follow where today’s kids are leading. So many of them seem to recognize they have to take matters into their own hands if they want change in their lifetimes, whether it’s a question of global warming or gun safety or race relations.

In today’s story, we see that empowerment can start early.

Anastasia Tsioulcas reports at Natural Public Radio (NPR), “For decades, it was almost impossible to hear a piece of music written by Florence Price. Price was a Black, female composer who died in 1953. But a group of New York City middle school students had the opportunity to quite literally write Florence Price’s history. Their [book]Who Is Florence Price? is now out and available in stores.

“The kids attend Special Music School, a K-12 public school in Manhattan that teaches high-level music instruction alongside academics. Shannon Potts is an English teacher there.

” ‘Our children are musicians, so whether or not we intentionally draw it together, they bring music into the classroom every day in the most delightful ways,’ Potts says. …

“Potts assigned her sixth, seventh and eighth grade students to study Florence Price — a composer born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887. She was the first Black woman to have her music played by a major American orchestra: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her Symphony No. 1 in 1933 and her Piano Concerto in One Movement the next year. …

“Despite Price’s talent and drive, most classical music performers and gatekeepers put her aside, and her work failed to gain traction with the large, almost exclusively white institutions that could have catapulted her to mainstream renown. …

“Recently, though, there’s been a blossoming of interest in Price’s work. A recording of her symphonies by the Philadelphia Orchestra was just nominated for a Grammy. In the months ahead, her music will be performed by the San Francisco Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“When the students began researching Price, however, they realized that although there were a few materials written about her life for grown-ups, there was nothing aimed at kids.

“That gave Potts had an idea: She would have her students write and illustrate their own book about Florence Price, and about how her music was rediscovered. As the kids’ book begins:

” ‘In 2009, a couple bought an old house outside of Chicago. in the attic, they found boxes filled with yellowed sheets of music. Every piece was written by the same woman, Florence Price. “Who is Florence Price?” they wondered…

” ‘Florence’s mind was filled with music, but she had a big question. She was a girl and her skin was a different color than so many of the composers she knew about. Could she grow up to be a famous composer, too? When Florence was only 11, her first piece was published. Was it possible that Florence’s music could change things?’

Special Music School [executive] director Kate Sheeran was extremely enthusiastic about the students’ work. …

“Sheeran was so impressed that she ordered a small, self-published print run of their work. She sent it around to various people in the classical music community — including Robert Thompson, the president of G. Schirmer, the company that publishes Florence Price’s music.

‘I think it’s one of the few moments in my job where I had to cancel the next meeting and I was just kind of filled with tears,’ Thompson recalls. ‘It was just an incredibly beautiful moment.’

“Thompson agreed to publish the book; all royalties will go to Kaufman Music Center, which is a non-profit organization.

Rebecca Beato is a 14-year-old violinist from Queens. She was also one of the lead illustrators of Who Is Florence Price? and she says that Price has been a personal inspiration. ‘Her music has been out there, performed by major orchestras,’ Beato says, ‘and she’s a woman of color, which even now — it’s like difficult to get your music shown to the world.’ …

“Hazel Peebles, a 13-year-old violist from Harlem, says that you can hear Price’s personal history in her music. ‘It really is beautiful,’ Peebles observes. ‘She worked in some of her history, some of her Black background into the music.’ …

“What the students learned in creating this book goes far beyond music, Kate Sheeran says.

‘They’re also seeing that they can have a voice in shaping who writes history and who tells stories … and that we don’t have to just accept the way music is presented to us or the way music history is presented to us — that they too can shape that.’ …

“Potts says that the very last lines of her students’ book have already come true, thanks to their hard work and creativity. ‘Today, Florence’s music can be heard all around the world just like she dreamed of when she was young,’ Potts reads. ‘If someone asks, “Who is Florence Price?” you can tell them.’ “

More at NPR, here.

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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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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.


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