Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bruce D. McClung: 'The selection of a black composer...ran contrary to the Fair’s discriminatory hiring practices'

[ABOVE: William Grant Still shows his score to Grover Whalen and another Fair official. (Photo courtesy Judith Anne Still.) BELOW: William Grant Still was billed second, under designer Henry Dreyfuss, on credits. Photo courtesy Judith Anne Still.]

New York Public Library
Biblion – the boundless library
Professor Bruce D. McClung
“Professor McClung is writing a history of music at the Fair titled The World of Tomorrow: Music and the New York World’s Fair, 1939/1940. His first book, Lady in the Dark: Biography of a Musical, won an ASCAP/Deems Taylor prize.”

AfriClassical presents excerpts from an Essay by Prof. Bruce D. McClung on music at the 1939 World's Fair, where over 5.7 million visitors heard William Grant Still's Theme:

Music, Race, and the Theme Center
bruce d. mcclung
“On July 28, 1938, the Department of Press for the 1939 New York World’s Fair issued a carefully worded release about how the composer for the Theme Center had been chosen: 'Published and unpublished works of numerous composers were played in record form, without the jury knowing the names of the composers. It was finally agreed unanimously that the composer of “Lenox Avenue” and “From a Deserted Plantation” seemed to be most capable of giving musical expression to the mood and color of the exhibit. This composer proved to be Mr. Still.' The next day, New York’s dailies ran with the story under such attention-grabbing headlines as 'Negro Composes Music for Fair' and 'Fair Picks Negro’s Composition for Music in Perisphere Show.'

“The selection of a black composer for the white Theme Center ran contrary to the Fair’s discriminatory hiring practices, segregated lunchrooms, and strained race relations. Despite the Administration’s denial of discrimination, fewer than 700 African Americans would be employed in the Fair’s 6,335-member work force. Similarly, William Grant Still was still one of only two African American artists to receive a commission from the Fair Corporation, thus explaining why the Department of Press promulgated a color-blind audition to explain his selection. Through a close reading of primary source documents, I aim to reveal the fallacy of this myth and to demonstrate how the politics regarding this decision evinced fault lines within the Fair’s own administrative structure.

“The Theme Center for which Still had been hired consisted of a 180-foot diameter sphere (the 'Perisphere') and 610-foot high, three-sided tower (the 'Trylon'). The interior of the Perisphere featured a distillation of the Fair’s theme, 'Building the World of Tomorrow.' A vast diorama titled 'Democracity' by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss depicted a model city of the year 2039.”

“Kohn subsequently involved Kay Swift, a popular song and theater composer, then working in the Fair’s Entertainment Department. On November 28, Swift arrived at Dreyfuss’s apartment, armed with recordings. They sampled the music not only of Harris and Copland but also, on Swift’s initiative, that of Morton Gould, Harl McDonald, and William Grant Still. Dreyfuss typed out his reactions to each. After Still’s name, he parenthetically added 'negro,' thus dispelling the myth of a color-blind audition before an impartial jury.”

“The Executive Committee deferred the matter to Grover Whalen, who in the following week convinced the Advisory Committee on Music’s Executive Board to at least approve of Still’s qualifications. The Executive Committee subsequently appointed the composer at its January 31 meeting. For a six-minute score, the Fair offered Still $1,800, roughly the average annual income for a family of four in 1938. After Still came to New York on July 22 to adjust the timings of his score, the Fair’s Department of Press made the long-awaited announcement. A little over a week later, Still wrote a letter to a friend about the commission, which in his opinion transcended race: 'It seems to me that this is the first time, musically speaking, that a colored man has ever been asked to write something extremely important that does not necessarily have to be Negroid, and I must admit that I can’t help being proud of the distinction.'

“Despite the Fair’s discomfort at announcing an African American composer for the Fair’s Theme Center and the fabrication of a color-blind audition to paper over the corporation’s internal struggles, Still’s music outlasted his detractors and their music festival, which emphasized music of the 'highest class.' Less than a month after the Fair opened, the management canceled the music festival because of waning interest, whereas the 1939 gate figures for 'Democracity' and Still’s score reached 5,723,926. The importance of the Theme Center commission for Still’s career cannot be overstated: his score for 'Democracity' ran continuously during the Fair, making it not only the composer’s most popular work during his lifetime but probably the most frequently played composition by an American composer during the first half of the twentieth century.”

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