Thursday, July 2, 2020

Deutsche Welle: From Joplin to Marsalis: Black composers matter as well

Scott Joplin
(Copyright picture-alliance/Hulton Archive)

Classical music is a largely European, even Eurocentric art form. Yet there are largely neglected composers with African roots worth getting familiar with.

Black classical composers worth a listen

Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

He died of syphilitic dementia and was buried in an unmarked grave. His opera "Treemonisha" wasn't performed until seven decades later. But Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and 43 other ragtime piano pieces made him one of the 20th century's most influential composers. Melody in the right hand, accompaniment in the left, and those syncopations! Jazz? No, thoroughly classical in form and structure.


As for the "classical" branch itself, a number of black composers, against all odds, found their own voice and made a contribution. That their music is only rarely heard in the concert hall points to the obstacles and prejudices they faced — and shows that concert organizers have some catching up to do.

Indeed, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, who took on a professorship in the US from 1892-1895, was only one of several Europeans who delved into indigenous — i.e., Native American and African American — musical forms and advocated the development of a uniquely "American" art music out of those sources. Dvorak's famous "New World Symphony" is an expression of that.

In the 1930s, American composers of color such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William Grant Still and William L. Dawson took Dvorak at his word and integrated spirituals and gospel into their symphonic works. The results were hailed by critics yet somehow never lodged themselves in the repertory.

Scott Joplin and Wynton Marsalis: two very different lives

Fast-forward to 1974 and "The Sting," which won an Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. Inseparable from the film is its lilting, syncopated theme, classy and a bit lascivious: "The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin, the son of a slave and the "King of Ragtime." Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag was played in every parlor around the turn of the 20th century. But obsessed with being accepted as a composer of art music, Joplin ran up against formidable obstacles.

It wasn't until the 1970s that his only surviving opera was performed, and his unmarked grave in the New York borough of East Elmhurst was finally given a marker. Joplin is considered one of the originators of jazz, although in form, content and harmony, his creations were thoroughly classical.

"To begin with I have two handicaps — those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins," wrote the composer Florence B. Price to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky in 1943. It wasn't for lack of determination however. The onetime child prodigy had her first composition published when she was 11, and she was an early graduate of the New England Conservatory. As a divorcee and a single mom, she later earned her living as a music teacher and an organist for screenings of silent films; she also composed for radio ads. Her concert pieces were authentic in the sense that Dvorak had once called for, and her popular Songs to a Dark Virgin were described by a reviewer in the Chicago Daily News as "one of the greatest immediate successes ever won by an American song." Yet the concert stage stubbornly remained the domain of DWM composers — dead white men.

It still largely is, but a contemporary composer of color such as Wynton Marsalis seems to have had few apparent roadblocks placed in his way due to his skin color. Neither has the most recent Pulitzer Prize winner for music, Anthony Davis, whose creations include eight operas, symphonies and choral and chamber music.

Black composers writing "white" music and vice-versa

It wasn't until 1996 that a Pulitzer was first awarded to a black composer: George Walker (1922-2018), creator of Lilacs, a setting of a poem by Walt Whitman mourning the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Walker was a student of the American composer Samuel Barber, and his roughly 100 compositions show a wide range styles and idioms, from Debussy and Stravinsky to serial, atonal music. A couple of centuries earlier, Guadeloupe-born Joseph Bologne,nChevalier de Saint-Georges wrote operas, quartets, symphonies and concertos that blended perfectly into the style of the times: European music for court royalty.

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