Learning about racial equity has required me to do the hard work of investigation and self-reflection. I am embarrassed to say that I never really questioned why there weren’t more black classical composers. Of course, once I started investigating, I found there were many! And yet, why hadn’t I ever heard their names, listened to their music, or even performed their works? And, why aren’t they included in “standard” classical repertoire?
The next two weeks please enjoy learning about Florence Price, the first recognized African American female symphonic composer. The Chicago Symphony performed a world premiere of Price’s first symphony in 1933. Although she won a composer’s award for this symphony, she faced obstacles due to her race and gender. Price’s first and fourth symphonies were recently recorded by the Fort Smith Symphony, the oldest symphony in Arkansas (her home state). Here is an interview with conductor John Jeter regarding these recordings.
Florence Price’s music blends African American and European traditions. Notably, she included the Juba dance (a dance done by slaves on plantations) in both her first and fourth symphonies, throwing out the traditional Austrian-German scherzo movement, making it a truly American symphony. Listen to the symphonic slide whistle and African drums in the third movement of the 1st symphony! She also incorporates the spiritual “Wade in the Water” in her Symphony No. 4. Explore more in this article about Florence Price and her work.
*A few years ago, a couple discovered 30 boxes of about 200 compositions by Florence Price (including her 4th symphony) in their newly purchased home south of Chicago! After the success of her Price’s 1st symphony, why were her subsequent compositions ignored and left to languish in storage?
In the coming weeks we will present an article and a listening feature to further investigate and learn about systemic racism and classical music. We will present this entry next week as well to allow for adequate time to read and listen.
Have you ever wondered why American classical music is so white? This article delves into the history of “a series of missed opportunities” to have African American composers’ expressive music take root in America’s classical music. In 1890 Antonín Dvořák’s claimed that “Negro melodies” would be the future of American music. So, why weren’t they?
This article features William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra with conductor Leopold Stokowski in 1934 at Carnegie Hall. Listen to it in the article or here and ask why this became an undervalued work in the classical music world.
In reading about William L. Dawson, notice that the St. Olaf Choir produced an album of his spirituals in 1997!
When the MSO Racial Equity committee started work last summer, one of the first things we did was watch, and listen to, several discussions among Black musicians who are working in the Western Classical Music world. Hearing directly from these musicians was very instructive for me. They share so much common experience with me in terms of musical involvement; and they also convey experiences that were really outside of my awareness before. Discussions range from long-term experiences, to thoughts about our current historical moment. One of my favorites is this group discussion from musicians participating in the Austin Chamber Music festival:
This week we’ll be reading “The Stubborn Classism of Classical Music,” a thoughtful article by Robert Jackson Wood that traces the history of classical music performances, how they evolved into elitist events, and how that lingering elitism makes classical music less accessible to families who earn less than the median American income — especially families of color.