Friday, July 3, 2020 Penetrating establishment firewall: Black composers, music matters

Florence B. Price (1887-1953)


Walla Walla, Washington 

July 3, 2020

By John Jamison for the Union-Bulletin

In popular music, from Ray Charles to Kanye West, no one doubts Black musicians matter. Really.
A contemporary music scene without Black artists would be like orchestras without violins: not impossible, but absolutely different from what we know.
But I write about classical music. What about black composers? Who were they? Why don’t we know more about them?

As with women composers, throughout the era of “classical” music (roughly 1700 to the present), composers of African descent were marginalized in a number of ways: from not being given an education, or time to write, to not having their works accepted in the classical mainstream.
And, again like women, some managed to penetrate the establishment firewall and get their music into the world’s bloodstream. Meet a few of them:
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 – 1799). Highly esteemed and popular Parisian composer in his day, born of a slave and her French master in the West Indies, Bologne was the envy of the young Mozart. Besides a virtuoso violinist, conductor and composer, he was a champion fencer, and led an all-black regiment during the French revolution.

George Bridgetower (1778 – 1860). One of the greatest violinists of his generation and the original dedicatee of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata.” He and Beethoven were initially close but had a falling out over a careless comment of Bridgetower’s (you had to be mighty careful around the touchy Beethoven), which resulted in Beethoven re-naming the sonata after Count Kreutzer. From Poland, though son of a man who variously claimed to be West Indian and African, Bridgetower also composed a handful of works.

Scott Joplin (1868 – 1917). It was Texas-born pianist and composer Joplin who put ragtime onto the musical map, so if you like Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale,” shout him out. His most famous work in the genre, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” (1899), brought him fame and a steady income, but not the fortune he needed to balance his spending habits. Besides numerous piano works, he wrote a ragtime ballet and two operas. The score of one of them was seized along with his other possessions by a collection agency and is now considered lost. His death brought the end of ragtime as a living tradition.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 1912). Coleridge-Taylor was a late Romantic English conductor and composer, incorporating traditional African melodies within the classical tradition. He wrote three cantatas on Longfellow’s epic “Song of Hiawatha.” Descended of freed colonial slaves who, as loyalists, had escaped to Canada at the time of the revolution, he awoke to his ancestry on a triumphant concert tour of the U.S., which culminated in a visit with President Theodore Roosevelt.

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