W.E.B. Du Bois’s 150th anniversary has inspired the Du Bois Orchestra to feature Schubert, Wagner, and Coleridge-Taylor at University Lutheran Church on November 3rd, in the third concert of a series celebrating the life and legacy of the visionary Harvard sociologist, who combined music, sociology, and philosophy to fight for social equity. Since the orchestra’s founding in the autumn of 2015, the ensemble has maintained that classical music can be key to authentic dialogue.
The orchestra, made up of college and conservatory musicians from around the Boston area, provides an engaging community for advanced orchestral playing while also seeking to employ music to overcome social exclusion, performing marginalized and underrepresented works along with standard repertoire. In addition, outreach to youth and the underprivileged are integral to the orchestra’s belief that music can unite and transform society.
Du Bois’s documented interest in music began at Fisk University, where as a student, he called on African Americans to “build up an American school of music which shall rival the grandest schools of the past,” and commenting on a student performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah by the Fisk Mozart Society, of which Du Bois was an ardent supporter, he wrote: “Our race, just a quarter-century removed from slavery, can master the greatest musical compositions.”
When he arrived in Cambridge in 1888, calling 20 Flagg Street home, just seven blocks from the venue of Saturday’s concert, Du Bois was eager to share his good singing voice with the Harvard community. He auditioned for the Harvard Glee Club, but was rejected because he was black. Undaunted, he pursued his own musical education, actively seeking out performances of opera and orchestral music during his studies in Europe and throughout his life.
The centerpiece on Saturday’s concert is the Petite Suite de Concert by the Black English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. In his day, Coleridge-Taylor was celebrated by the English public and Edward Elgar. Coleridge-Taylor met Du Bois at the first Pan-African conference in London in 1900, and again in 1904, during Coleridge-Taylor’s first American tour. They corresponded, and Du Bois sent him a copy of his great work The Souls of Black Folk. In turn, Coleridge-Taylor was deeply inspired by Du Bois’s work and the possibility of a black musical identity. As Du Bois had done in his writing, Coleridge-Taylor sought to create such an identity through music. His music exhibits bluesy harmonies, syncopated rhythms, and pentatonic melodies, merging African-American spirituals with the traditional forms of classical music. He wrote: “(w)hat Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk music, Dvořák for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for Negro melodies.”
The other pieces on the program, by Schubert and Wagner, were works that Du Bois heard in his mid-20s while studying abroad in Germany, and which made a powerful impact on him.
In Europe, Du Bois immersed himself in music. On the eve of his 25th birthday, Du Bois celebrated by hearing Schubert’s 8th Symphony and walking around the vibrant city of Berlin. He came to know Beethoven’s symphonies, and traveled to the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, attending performances for five nights at a time. He listened to Parsifal, Lohengrin, and the Ring of the Nibelung. He wrote of his experience at the Festival: “Men need places where they can renew their strength, where they can catch again faith in themselves and in their fellow men.”
For a short time during his travels, Du Bois lived, studied, and fell in love, in the small town of Eisenach, where there is a castle, the Wartburg, which inspired Wagner’s early Romantic opera, Tannhäuser. David Levering Lewis, the Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer, paints, for us, a vivid portrait of Du Bois, during that time: “He found Eisenach glorious, worshipping in the simple church in the square where Luther had preached, mastering the libretto of Tannhäuser, strolling and picnicking in the woods with the Marbach family and some of the other boarders, and, hoping Mary Silvina [Du Bois’ mother] would have condoned it, learning to drink a great deal of beer in the August evenings. … Eisenach had begun to transform “profoundly my outlook on life,” Du Bois always insisted, awakening in him “something of the possible beauty and elegance of life.” In Europe, Du Bois felt more at home and accepted as a man than he ever felt in the United States.
The tragic story and struggle of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, who is doomed to be an outsider both in the world of the gods and the world of the mortals, and ultimately is only redeemed in his death, may have inspired Du Bois to conceive of his theory of double consciousness, which figures prominently in his work, The Souls of Black Folk. In Du Bois’s words, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
The concert is Saturday November 3rd at 8pm at the University Lutheran Church, 66 Winthrop Street in Cambridge is free and open to the public. Recent concerts have been very popular. To reserve your seat, please order tickets in advance HERE.
From Belmont, and trained at Yale and Indiana, the author is conductor of the Du Bois Orchestra.