Tuesday, May 25, 2010

AfriClassical.com Celebrates 10 Years Promoting African Heritage in Classical Music

[Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th & 19th Centuries; Rachel Barton Pine, Violin; Encore Chamber Orchestra; Daniel Hege, Conductor; Cedille 90000 035 (1997).]

Amazon.com says of Leonard Bernstein, “Bernstein conducted his first Young People's Concert on January 18, 1958, just two weeks after becoming Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.” I grew up with limited access to classical music, but Leonard Bernstein's engaging Sunday broadcasts showed me what rich enjoyment and appreciation classical music could bring to my life. My Dad's collection of 78 rpm jazz recordings completely filled a record chest. My Dad knew I preferred classical music to jazz, so he often assured me that Duke Ellington and other jazz composers were capable of writing classical music.

My Dad passed away long before I stumbled upon my first classical CDs by Black composers, two 1993 Chandos recordings of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Neeme Järvi. The works were William Grant Still's Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American) (24:10) and Symphony No. 2 (Song of a New Race) (29:22); William Levi Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony (28:26), and two suites of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, Harlem (15:48), orchestrated by Luther Henderson; and Suite from “The River” (26:50), with orchestration by Ron Collier.

I was elated by this discovery, but also profoundly angry that 33 years of regular listening to classical music had not introduced me to these or other classical Composers of African Descent. I had previously been on the staff of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights for several years, so I decided upon a personal Civil Rights campaign to promote awareness of African Heritage in Classical Music.

I began to build a collection of CDs of Black Composers. The CBS Black Composers Series of LP records was also recorded by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, in the 1970s, under the direction of Maestro Paul Freeman and with research provided by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma. Among the composers represented was Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799).

In 1997, the young violinist Rachel Barton Pine recorded the first U.S. CD of Saint-Georges, Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th & 19th Centuries. Rachel was accompanied by the Encore Chamber Orchestra and Daniel Hege, Conductor, on Cedille 90000 035 (1997). This landmark CD is still in print 13 years after its release. Classics Today gave the disc its highest rating, “10/10.” The New York Times was also enthusiastic about it. The moment I laid eyes on the cover etching of Saint-Georges, dressed in concert finery but wielding a sword in place of a baton, I knew I had what I needed for a website.

May of 2000 was the first full month for the new website, initially named for Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. By year's end the site had 15 composers and was called “Composers of African Descent.” As with other artists added later, each was a classical composer, conductor or instrumentalist. I felt vocalists of African Descent had received more recognition than people in these three categories, and I knew I had more interest and expertise in instrumental music.

Early in 2001, Jean-Claude Halley of Guadeloupe contacted me and sent me a copy of Le Fleuret et l'Archet (The Sword and the Bow), a lavish, fact-filled exhibit catalog for the first Saint-Georges Exposition. Jean-Claude Halley was President of the Saint-Georges Association, and remains so today. He and I have shared research and materials since that time, and I am proud to call him a friend.

The “About Us” page preserves the Guest Book entry which would change the course of the website: "This is an excellent public service, very informative and quite sophisticated." Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma, Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin, U.S., June 28, 2002.

Prof. De Lerma's name had come to my attention numerous times by then, and I was elated by his overture. We soon began corresponding, and eventually he became principal advisor to the website. He was former Director of the Center for Black Music Research, and had concentrated on Black Classical Music since 1969.

Prof. De Lerma made his authoritative research files available exclusively to AfriClassical.com. In many cases, these included Works Lists and Bibliographies with hundreds of entries. On the William Grant Still page, for example, the first 48 paragraphs are surpassed in length by Prof. De Lerma's Works List and Bibliography by at least 10 to 1!

Dominique introduced me to Judith Anne Still, who promotes and distributes her father's sheet music and recordings via William Grant Still Music, http://williamgrantstill.com/; Rashida Black of the Myrtle Hart Society, http://www.myrtlehart.org/, which promotes Classical Musicians of Color; Michael S. Wright, Chair of the International Society for African to American Music, now in Devon in the U.K., mike@isaamnet.com; Dr. Fred Onovwerosuoke, a Ghanaian-born American composer who is Founder and Artistic Director of African Musical Arts, Inc., http://fredomusic.com/; and Suzanne Flandreau, Head Librarian and Archivist, Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College Chicago, http://www.colum.edu/cbmr

I was able to contribute research for the 2003 CBC Television special Le Mozart Noir, released on DVD in 2005, so my name was listed in the credits. In 2004, the 3 top-level pages were subordinated to a new home page, “AfriClassical.com.”

Also in 2004, Dominique put me in touch with another friend of his who became a friend of mine: Daniel Marciano, a writer, fencing expert and former Professor at the University of Franche-Comté in Besançon, France. Daniel began providing the first professional translations of the biographical page on Saint-Georges, which was revised with the releases of biographies by Claude Ribbe, Gabriel Banat and Pierre Bardin. He translated many other pages at the site from English to French, and has very generously continued to assist the website with his expertise on the fencing career of Saint-Georges, among other topics.

During 2005 the increasing time and expense required by each addition to the website made it necessary to cap the number of biographies at 52, of which 41 are composers and 11 are musicians. By 2006 I was frequently sending this message: “The absence of the person you have suggested is not in fact an oversight. AfriClassical.com is an introductory resource. It was not designed to be a comprehensive reference work such as the International Dictionary of Black Composers.”

Some of the overflow has been addressed with a companion blog, launched in 2007, http://africlassical.blogspot.com/. The blog has been especially useful for transcripts of interviews. The two people interviewed most recently are African American Composer & Professor Adolphus C. Hailstork; and Afro-Brazilian Classical Guitarist and Composer Celso Machado, who is anticipating publication of a book of sheet music, Brazilian Music With Baroque Inspiration.

On Nov. 7, 2009, AfriClassical Blog proudly posted: “Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma: Scholar of Black Classical Music for 40 Years.” As AfriClassical.com turns 10, it is only fitting to note that Prof. De Lerma's scholarship and generosity have enabled it and its companion blog to achieve their present roles in promoting awareness of African Heritage in Classical Music.

Comments by email:
Bonjour: Bravissimo for the celebration of ten years promoting African Heritage of symphonic music. Thank you for your kind words when mentioning my modest contribution. It has been a real pleasure to correspond with you. Daniel Marciano
Happy Birthday AfriClassical...Time is going so fast...But it was a great pleasure to see you come up to be the greatest site on Promoting African Heritage in Classical Music and on Saint-Georges. Happy Birthday to Bill. Jean-Claude-HALLEY
Many congratulations, Bill. Yours is a very valuable work in the world. Judith Anne Still

1 comment:

msladydeborah said...

As soon as I read Leonard Bernstein's name, the televised concerts came to mind. I remember watching them as a child.

Your work here has been a real education for me. I find myself looking up information and trying to find music to listen to. I want to say thank you for sharing your love with us.