Wednesday, August 1, 2007

"Witness, the soul of American music" by Dominique-René de Lerma


Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma is an oboist and musicologist who has been a Professor of Music and a prolific author for more than half a century. For the past four decades he has specialized in Black classical music. He is a Professor of Music at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. Prior to assuming his present position, Prof. De Lerma served as Director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago. He is principal advisor for

The review of the series of four CDs appears in the August 2007 eNewsletter of the Myrtle Hart Society and is used by permission. The Society is named for an early African American harpist, and its Founder/Director is Rashida Black, also an African American harpist. The organization's motto is: "Illuminating The Accomplishments of Classical Musicians of Color". The website and the eNewsletter fulfill multiple functions, including announcements of performances, reviews, profiles of performers and ensembles. Historical reference material is also researched and compiled. The eNewsletter is free and may be requested by E-mail to

Witness, the soul of American music
By Dominique-René de Lerma; Part 1 of 4

Got the Saint Louis blues, Classical music in the Jazz Age

VocalEssence Ensemble; Philip Brunelle, conductor; liner notes by Dominique-René de Lerma; texts; series note; performer bios.

Burleigh, Harry T. Ethiopia's paean to exaltation. (5:40).
Burleigh, Harry T. O Southland. (3:08).
Dett, R. Nathaniel. Ave Maria. Ryan French, baritone. (3:31).
Dett, R. Nathaniel. Listen to the lambs. (4:28).
Dett, R. Nathaniel. The chariot jubilee. Michael Forest, tenor. (11:43).
Diton, Carl R. Poor mourner's got a home at last. (3:14).
Jenkins, Edmond Thornton. Charlestoniana; Folk rhapsody for orchestra, no. 1; reconstructed by Vincent Plush. (9:30).
Johnson, J. Rosamond. Yamekraw; a Negro rhapsody. Paul Shaw, piano, with orchestra. (15:59).
Handy, W. C. Saint Louis blues, arr. by Hall Johnson. (4:28).
Price, Florence. Moon bridge. (2:23).
Price, Florence. Song for snow (1:57).

This series of four CDs is enjoyable – no question about that – but in the process offers an extraordinary educational potential. The conductor has shown the insight of a highly attuned historian, who can put musicologists out of business as he surveys the African American musical scene of the past century, selecting works of unquestioned historical importance such as one reads about but suspects will never be heard. This is balanced with works of genuine merit, no matter how tentative were the times

Philip Brunelle is based in the musically rich twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, but his frequent engagements carry him to South America and Europe. While he is billed as a choral conductor, he is as at home with an orchestra as before the keyboards of the piano or organ. His concerts, which he founded in 1969 as the Plymouth Music Series, addresses a repertoire not scheduled by the area's eponymous orchestra, but does speak to the various ethnic communities. Their work is not confined to the formality of the concert hall, but is shared with school children (The Twin Cities, with a population under 4,000,000, have an unusually diverse population. About 10% are Chippewa, 5% African American, and 4% each Hispanic or Asian), but VocalEssence, while celebrating these and various European heritages, closes any gaps that might exist in multiracial perspectives.

The earliest work in this set is Diton's Poor moaners got a home at last, from 1914. It comes from these days before the Harlem Renaissance, when songs of slave times were only gradually being accepted. Diton is not often greeted as one of the first figures who sought to make legitimate these precious melodies from the previous century, but he has securely earned that position.

This was the same year as Dett's Listen to the lambs for which he won $25 in a competition. In fact, this is a priceless classic, elegantly performed. When we hear Dvorák's American quartet, we might not be reminded of the spiritual, but Dett, when a student at Oberlin, heard this work in a performance by the Kneisel Quartet, and was reminded of the music his grandmother sang during his Canadian childhood. He dedicated much of his life then towards transforming these gems into anthems and art songs.

Most unexpected within this anthology is quite possibly Charlestoniana (1917), an early work by the son of the founder of Charleston's Jenkins Orphanage (that produced, for example, Cat Anderson). The composer was yet a composition student in Europe, dying only nine years later in Belgium, suggesting we should look not just at New York, Chicago, or even the U.S. for roots of the Harlem Renaissance. Here was a talent and an ambition that was cut too short for its full flowering. The reconstruction by the Australian Vincent Plush involved preparing a concordance of several unfinished drafts, held, like all of Jenkins' extant works, by the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago.

Chronologically next was Burleigh's O Southland (1919), the text by James Weldon Johnson. It was two years later that Burleigh wrote Ethiopia's Paean to Exaltation. The text was by a former slave from North Carolina, Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, who was to earn her Ph.D. in 1925 from the Sorbonne.

In 1920 was the première of Dett's The Chariot Jubilee, which very likely was the first instance of the expansion of a spiritual (Swing low, sweet chariot) into a motet (to be followed in 1930 by his oratorio, The ordering of Moses, his graduate thesis at the Eastman School of Music). This was the same year as his Ave Maria, written for his chorus at the Hampton Institute in Virginia.

Florence Price's Moon bridge comes from 1927, the text by Mary Rolofson Gamble (of the Gamble Hinged Music Company) and Song for snow from 1930, a tribute to her days in Maine (text by Elizabeth Coatsworth). These are two quite innocuous works for chorus. Price is well remembered as a piano teacher from her days in Chicago, where one of her young students was Ned Rorem.

Hall Johnson's setting of the 1914 Handy hit was prepared for the 1939 film, The best of the blues, at a time Johnson had been writing and conducting for Hollywood, where he and his chorus migrated from New York to participate in the film version of The green pastures. The performance, not overly refined, cannot fail to elicit smiles from the listeners. This is a joyously, self-assured work.

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