(Clyde May/New York Times)
By WILLIAM ROBIN
“We’ve been invisible,” the composer T. J. Anderson declared, almost immediately after answering the phone for an interview. “Like Ralph Ellison said, you know: We’re invisible, and any chance we get for exposure is very important.” Ellison, who in his youth aspired to be a composer before turning to literature, might have sympathized with Dr. Anderson’s plight.
At 85, Dr. Anderson is an elder statesman among black composers, and his forceful emphasis on visibility emanates from a career-long experience of exclusion. “It’s inevitable, once you are identified — and you always are identified because of race — there’s a certain different expectation,” he said. “You know that you’re not going to be commissioned by the major artistic institutions like the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera.”
Why do black composers remain on the outskirts of classical music? Along with broader societal prejudices, there are also factors exclusive to the classical world. Past musicians like James P. Johnson and Duke Ellington, who wrote symphonic works alongside playing stride piano and leading a big band, are typically confined to the jazz canon. Black composers have been criticized in both African-American and white intellectual circles for refusing to embrace mainstream commercial trends. The influence of African-Americans on the orchestral tradition is represented more often by Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” than William Grant Still’s “Afro-American” Symphony. And African-American music is often relegated to special events outside the main classical season, like Black History Month concerts or Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations.
There was a time in classical music when black composers seemed on the cusp of the mainstream. In the 1930s, pioneers like Still and William Dawson wrote symphonies inflected by folk tunes and the blues that were given their premieres by prominent American orchestras.
No composer of this era was more impressive than Florence Price, the first black woman to have a work played by a major American orchestra. Price grew up in the Jim Crow South, divorced an abusive husband and had her first symphony performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her Symphony in E minor — available on an Albany recording — is a silvery, post-Romantic work that should be a cornerstone of the American repertory.
At the height of her career, Price tried to convince Serge Koussevitzky — conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — to program her music. “To begin with,” she wrote in a 1943 letter, “I have two handicaps — those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins. I should like to be judged on merit alone.”
The Boston Symphony has yet to play a note of her music.