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Revolutionary Music: Commemorating Du Bois


W E B Du Bois

Three years after the Civil War, the African-American polymath William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, traveled widely for his education, earned Harvard’s first doctorate awarded to a black person, and went on to become a great and important (and tireless) educator, writer, sociologist, activist and advocate for human rights, notably black civil rights but also women’s rights. This Friday, February 23rd, the Du Bois Orchestra at Harvard celebrates the 150th anniversary of his birth in a free concert at 8pm at University Lutheran Church in Cambridge (66 Winthrop Street). It will feature the Ballade for Orchestra by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Wagner’s Act I Prelude to Lohengrin, and Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Tickets are HERE.

Founded in 2015, the Du Bois Orchestra offers Boston-area college and conservatory musicians the opportunity to perform both standard and historically neglected repertoire. Last November, the orchestra performed the Lyric for Strings by George Walker, one of the important African-American composers of our time, alongside two works by Beethoven, the Egmont Overture and the Eroica Symphony. Last season, the orchestra featured works by composers Joseph Bologne (Chevalier de Saint-Georges), a prolific Afro-French composer who premiered Haydn’s Paris symphonies, Fanny Mendelssohn, and Silvestre Revueltas. These are works by distinguished musicians rarely heard in American concert halls.Inspired by the staunch efforts of Du Bois over his long life, we consider it our mission to combat social exclusion in classical music. We see musicmaking and listening as one important model for constructive societal dialogue. The musicians of the orchestra also engage in community outreach and educational programming, volunteering in prisons, homeless shelters, and working with underprivileged youth. The orchestra just finished a monthlong music workshop with incarcerated youth in Boston in which a team of musicians taught songwriting and composition and gave instrumental instruction. At the end of the program, the young people performed original songs accompanied by other inmates who had been shown basics of playing keyboard and violin.

Our Friday evening concert opens with the Ballade for Orchestra by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an Afro-British composer whose deeply expressive romantic music deserves to be heard regularly in the classical canon. In his own time he was not only celebrated by the public but also appreciated by such composers as Edward Elgar and Charles Villiers Stanford. Elgar’s publisher August Jaeger (known to history as Nimrod in the Enigma Variations) acclaimed Coleridge-Taylor “a genius”. In 1900 Coleridge-Taylor met Du Bois at the first pan-African conference in London and in 1904, during his first American tour, was received by Theodore Roosevelt at the White House (three years after Roosevelt’s controversial dinner with Booker T. Washington). Du Bois and Coleridge-Taylor became friends and Du Bois made frequent mention of him in his writings. Coleridge-Taylor was in turn deeply inspired by reading Souls of Black Folk. Coleridge-Taylor aspired to create a black musical identity, a kind of black musical nationalism, and his music exhibits bluesy harmonies, syncopated rhythms, and pentatonic melodies. [Coleridge-Taylor’s setting of Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” includes the aria “Onaway, Awake Beloved”]

Antonin Dvořák was Coleridge-Taylor’s musical hero: he learned much from Dvořák’s integration of Central European, African-American, and Native American folk songs. Our concert concludes with From the New World, one of the great works in the orchestral repertory. This piece represents the irony at the heart of American classical music: what is perhaps the foundational work of the American classical tradition (Neil Armstrong brought a recording with him to the moon) was not written until a century after America’s founding—by a European. Dvořák’s sojourn in America was brief: he was hired to lead the now defunct National Conservatory of Music because no American musician of equal stature could be found in the 1890s; but he left after three years, homesick for Bohemia. Yet in that short time, Dvořák put American music on the world stage, where it has been ever since.

At the heart of our program is the Prelude from Act I of Lohengrin. Music, and Wagner in particular, was a central part of Du Bois’s experience and philosophy. Unlike almost any other great work of literature, Souls of Black Folk includes notated music, and it is central: every chapter is headed by a Negro spiritual. In the text, the Lohengrin prelude—the music of the swan—represents both the hope and the tragedy of black existence at the beginning of the 20th century, in a way that reflects Du Bois’s own experience: he was a music lover (with a good singing voice, he reported), and in Europe was able to attend many concerts, but at Harvard was rejected from the glee club because of the color of his skin.

In the chapter Of the Coming of John, Du Bois imagines two Southern men named John, one white and one black, who grew up together. But when the black John attempts to sit next to the white John in a New York performance of Lohengrin, he is removed from his seat, although not before he hears the prelude. The music inspires him to return to the South and work for the betterment of his race and humanity. But these efforts are resented by both the whites and the blacks of his town, and he is fired from his teaching position. The story ends, as so many did in that time, with a lynching: when John rescues his sister from rape, he hears the music of the swan as the white men fall upon him, and it leads him into the next world.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor

In the 21st century, can we hear music again the way Du Bois did, as a signpost toward transcendence and liberation? When we consume it in bits and pieces online, and music is so often piped in for the sake of corporate branding in shops and lobbies, one may wonder. Has classical music lost its soul?

Du Bois worked his whole life to educate the public about the oppressive symbiotic relationship between and among capitalism, racism, and the other forms of social inequality and exclusion. Yet concert programs today seem more divided than ever, between 19th-century warhorses and contemporary works played once. Composers of color and female composers are rarely heard. This has as much to do with music education in America as with institutional racism. Meanwhile, orchestras, conservatories and concert halls, strapped for funding, are increasingly pressured to adopt corporate models, resulting in a homogenized and routinized approach to musical performance.

But like Du Bois we may discover that much classical music actually possesses a radical, revolutionary spirit—institutions are only the frame around the artwork. We might listen to it, as Du Bois did, as a metaphor for spiritual emancipation and social transformation. Mozart sought to challenge the aristocracy: chafing at his servant status while working for the prince-archbishop of Salzburg, and later setting to music Beaumarchais’s revolutionary Marriage of Figaro. Beethoven, living in a police state, composed music of liberation, symphonies for the 99 percent. His Ninth is a hymn for all humanity: “Seid umschlungen Millionen,” (be embraced, you millions). Wagner was a socialist who participated in the Revolutions of 1848; his music juxtaposes transcendent love with a world obsessed with money and power. Verdi’s operas inspired the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy.

Throughout history, the arts and the artist not only have reflected society but also have criticized, stood in opposition to, and even provided revolutionary inspiration for transformation of society. Music was composed and performed not as a commodity (which in our time both popular and classical music have arguably become) but with the political, social, and spiritual concerns of the people in mind. Much music has at its core a volcanic revolutionary spirit: it is an infinite wellspring of idealism, hope, and passion. The members of the Du Bois Orchestra hope that in rediscovering certain composers whose voices have been unheard for hundreds of years, we can begin to tap into their music as a renewable source of inspiration and hope, perhaps helping to ignite a spark for further social transformation.

From Belmont, and trained at Yale and Indiana, the author is conductor of the Du Bois Orchestra.

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