Four years ago, Liane Curtis, President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, wrote a review for BMInt entitled “Black Composers Matter,” highlighting the work of Boston’s concert and educational series Castle of Our Skins, named for a line from celebrated poet Nikki Giovanni’s Poem (for Nina). You can hear the original, read by the author, HERE.
After this month’s tragic events, peaceful protest, riots, and renewed calls for unity, Giovanni’s words ring loudly in my ears (“for we spirit to spirit will embrace this world”). Castle of Our Skins has begun to present community-based, multi-disciplinary projects (Ain’t I a Woman?) [reviewed HERE], “I Am a Man,” 2019), and concerts featuring the works of local African American composers such as Trevor Weston, [reviewed HERE], but they make me want to hear more, to listen more deeply, and to explore Boston’s rich, local heritage of African American music.
Anthony R. Green, the director of Boston’s Castle of Our Skins, has presented new works in Boston almost every year since 2004: he has been commissioned by Make Music Boston, Celebrity Series Boston, and the Landmarks Orchestra. Excerpts of nine of his works can be heard HERE. His recent arrangement of Chouconne – Haitian Folk Song (for string quartet and orchestra) premiered at the Hatch Shell on Boston’s Esplanade in August 2019, and his recent youth orchestra commission Catto’s Courage premiered online in April 2020. Green’s prescient article on representation in the New Music community is available at NewMusicBox HERE.
Local ensembles such as Landmarks Orchestra have begun to devote whole programs to the issue of race and music, such as the August 1st 2019 outdoor performance of songs and spirituals by African American composers, paired with music from Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein’s Showboat (based on Edna Ferber’s novel against miscegenation statues).
Last April, BMInt’s publisher Lee Eiseman presented soprano Sirgourney Cook in a Palm Sunday “concert/meditation” which contrasted spirituals with Bach-Busoni chorale preludes. He produced similar events with the late Robert Honeysucker for several years [Listen HERE]. And to celebrate MLK’s birthday weekend in 2017, baritone James Dargan showcased the songs associated with five African American concert singers (“Oh Glory! Black History Matters”).
Boston and the Problem of Black Music
Before 1900, few American composers incorporated indigenous materials into scores for the concert stage. Notable exceptions were Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) from New Orleans, who performed his “créole-inspired” piano showpieces in Europe, and Fisk University’s touring Jubilee Singers (founded in 1871), who showcased (seated) concert arrangements of work and spiritual songs. Yankee composers began to study and incorporate Native American and African influences around the turn of the century: these included Charles Wakefield Cadman (who performed extensive field research among the Winnebago and Omaha tribes in Nebraska for the Smithsonian), George Chadwick (whose burlesque operetta Tabasco included plantation songs, 1894) and Charles Ives (ragtime songs such as The Circus Band, 1894).
The Boston Symphony has a storied history of presenting American composers and musical works that deal with American history, but some compositions celebrating African American music clashed with the preferences of early conductors. Henry Gilbert (1868, Somerville, Massachusetts, USA – 1928, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA) attended NEC, studying violin with Emil Mollenhauer and composition with Edward MacDowell. He built on student successes such as Two Episodes (1896), which quoted melodies from Slave Songs of the United States and was heralded in France as “the first autochthonous American writing.” Gilbert was one of the first Americans to follow Antonin Dvořák’s celebrated advice (1893): any truly American music must be based on “native” melodies. Dvořák had directed the National Conservatory (New York City) in the 1890s: his copyist and best pupil was the African American composer and voice teacher Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949). Burleigh sang authentic spirituals for Dvořák and published early arrangements of “Negro folk melodies” such as Deep River and My Lord, What a Mornin’. He and his wife would go on to become regulars of the Boston concert scene.
Gilbert has been called “a musical Mark Twain”: he had profound respect and admiration for American folk and popular music, ranging from slave songs and blackface minstrelsy to Native American vocal music and sea chanteys. Early publications include the three-movement orchestral suite Americanesque on Negro-Minstrel Tunes (later called Humoresque, 1903); Shout (1912, later Negro Rhapsody); Dances in Ragtime Rhythm (1915); and the surviving Comedy Overture on Negro Themes (1905, rev. 1910-11) from his unfinished dialect-based opera based on the Uncle Remus tales. The Overture brought international attention to Gilbert after Reinhold Gliere featured it in Russian concerts in 1914. Gilbert abandoned the opera to compose his most celebrated composition: The Dance in Place Congo.
The inspiration for the work’s theme and title comes from George Washington Cable’s essay in Century magazine (February 1886), peppered with extracts of music heard in the Square. Cable (1844-1925) was a noted author of the once best-selling stories Old Creole Days (1879) and of the novel The Grandissimus (1880), from which composer Delius drew the libretto for his opera Koanga. The illustrations, especially of the bamboula dance, together with the article’s April 1886 supplement “Creole Slave Songs,” brought to life the Sunday afternoon revels of off-duty New Orleans slaves in a “no’count open space [Congo Square] at the fag-end of Orleans Street.” Several creole themes — including the same bamboula quoted by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Gottschalk — form the thematic substance of the freely developed work.
This work should have been premiered in Boston in 1908, instead of New York City in 1918. German-born conductor Karl Muck was the director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1906-1908 and from 1912-1918, accepting and (mostly) rejecting a wide variety of new work from American and European composers, including scores of Henry Gilbert. He championed the Romantic German symphonic repertory and made important recordings with the BSO for Victor (1917) and in Germany for HMV (excerpts from Wagner’s Parsifal at the 1927 Bayreuth Festival and in Berlin from 1927-1929). During the end of World War I, he and his wife were interned as “enemy aliens” in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia for 17 months; during this time he conducted an orchestra of 100 interned musicians in performances of works such as Beethoven’s Eroica.
Muck exerted a powerful influence on the choice of music for the BSO, building the ensemble into what the New York Times called “a virtuoso orchestra” and emphasizing Germanic opera and concert masterworks over French repertory and new American works. The night before he was arrested, he was preparing to conduct Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and federal agents claimed that his markings in the conductor’s score were “code indicative of pro-German activity,” [see our article on the subject HERE].
Henry Gilbert offered Muck the chance to premiere The Dance in Place Congo in 1908, but Muck refused to perform the work, calling it “niggah music.” Gilbert withdrew the work, eventually recasting it as a ballet score. Once the United States had entered World War I in the spring of 1917, there were more opportunities for new American (and especially nationalist) orchestral scores. The Dance in Place Congo (in Gilbert’s revised version of 1916) was first performed at the end of the 1918 spring season by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, conducted by Pierre Monteux.
Gilbert dedicated the score “in friendship to Otto H. Kahn,” a New York financier and patron of the Metropolitan Opera. Ottokar Bartik directed and choreographed the ballet, and Livingston Platt created the décor. Pierre Monteux conducted the ballet on programs with Cadman’s Shanewis (an American opera with “primitive tribal music”), L’Oracolo by Franco Zanoni, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia in both New York and Boston (beginning on April 26th). Monteux also led the first performance of The Dance in Place Congo as a symphonic poem, with substantial cuts, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on February 2nd 1920. At the end of Gilbert’s career, the composer was a guest of honor at the International Festival of Contemporary Music (Frankfurt-am-Main, July 1st1927), and his Dance in Place Congo caused a sensation on a concert also showcasing Bela Bartók playing his first piano concerto.
Black Composers Heard in Boston
W.E.B. Du Bois and Harry Burleigh challenged black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) to utilize African elements in his music: the BSO played his Bamboula in 1920 and his African Suite, op. 35 in 1946, 1947, 2008, and 2019 [watch HERE]; BU showcased a biographical film elucidating his connections to Boston in 2014 [BMInt article HERE].
In the early 20th century, the Boston Pops had a number of “Afro-American folksongs”, minstrel songs, and marches in its repertoire: favorites included a folksong medley arranged by Agide Jacchia (president of Boston Conservatory from 1920-1932), James A. Bland’s “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” (in the 1920s), W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues March (performed over 175 times in Boston) [watch HERE], and the music of Duke Ellington (over 350 songs and suites heard in Symphony Hall, on the Esplanade, and at Tanglewood). The Pops has performed arrangements of James P. Johnson’s Victory Stride” and “The Charleston,” dozens of piano pieces by Scott Joplin (1868-1917), and music from Joplin’s opera Treemonisha, (a choral suite in 1974 and the overture in 2019).
NEC alum J. Rosamond Johnson’s anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has been included in nine BSO programs. He studied piano and at NEC for four semesters in the 1890s. Florence Price (1887-1953), a 1906 graduate of NEC in both organ performance and piano/education, was the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and to have a symphonic work performed by a major American symphony orchestra (Chicago, 1933) HERE. In the last five years, her music has been heard on eight BSO/Boston Pops concerts and discussed in several BMInt articles, such as the one HERE.
William Grant Still (1895-1978) was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra (Rochester Philharmonic), to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and to have an opera performed on national television. Arthur Fiedler conducted his Afro-American Symphony with the Boston Pops in 1937, and the BSO/Boston Pops has presented his music on 33 programs between 1945-2019. Conductor Dean Dixon (1915-1976) was the first African American to conduct the New York Philharmonic (in 1941, at age 23). Over the next three years, both Philadelphia and Boston invited him to guest conduct.
Lyric tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1976) was the first African American soloist to appear with the BSO, singing both spirituals and classical repertoire from 1923-1944. A former member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, he secured professional management with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Concert Company, reportedly making $100,000 per year in 1924, teaching voice in Boston, publishing settings of spirituals, and becoming the first African American to sing in Carnegie Hall. Starting in 1926, he controversially performed in integrated theaters and received national sympathy after being assaulted by a white police officer in 1942 (the officer was fired and brought up on federal charges): Langston Hughes wrote a poem about the incident (How About It, Dixie). Hayes was awarded an honorary doctorate in Music by The Hartt School of Music in 1966 and gave his last concert at the Longy School in Cambridge at the age of 85. Click HERE for an illustrated of his life and work by Christopher Brooks (author of a detailed biography of Hayes).
Other well-respected African American singers and composers have ties to Boston. While the legendary African American contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) was banned from other concert halls, she sang at Boston’s Symphony Hall from the 1930s to the 1960s, and she returned to narrate Copland’s Lincoln Portrait in 1974. Nathaniel Dett’s spiritual Listen to the Lambs was featured on a Boston Pops concert in 1947, and songs by Margaret A. Bonds (Three Dream Portraits, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, and the piano solo Troubled Water) have been presented in Symphony Hall in 1986, 1995, 1998, and 2019. Adolphus Hailstork was the focus of three Boston Pops Esplanade concerts in 1993, and the BSO has played his An American Port of Call and the Finale from his Symphony No. 1. George Walker (1922-) was the first black American composer to win the Pulitzer prize for music for his Lilacs for voice and orchestra, premiered by the BSO in February 1966.
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s first string quartet was played by members of the BSO in 2003 (in Boston and at Tanglewood), and the Boston Lyric Opera developed a concert series entitled “Crossing the Line to Freedom,” featuring the works of Margaret Bonds, Undine Smith Moore, and Dorothy Moore in 2018 HERE.
Isaiah Jackson (1945-) graduated from Harvard in 1966 and was the first African American to be appointed to a musical directorship in the Boston area (Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra). The BSO appointed Thomas Wilkins as their first African American staff conductor in 2011, and Dr. Julius Williams, a composer in residence with the BSO and Berklee Professor of Composition, has just been named the first African American president of the Conductor’s Guild. Last season featured a BSO concert of almost-all African American composers (March 2019, Hailstork, Price, and Ellington). Full sets of songs by jazz pianist Eubie Blake have been featured twice by the Boston Pops (1973 and 1983); he composed “The Boston Pops March” for Arthur Fiedler in 1979, but he died before the work was presented, so it wasn’t heard until Keith Lockhart included it on a Boston Pops concert with works by Blake, Coleridge-Taylor, Billy Strayhorn, Margaret Bonds, Florence Price, pianist Hazel Scott [1920-1981, the first African American woman to host her own network TV show], and MacArthur Fellow Rhiannon Giddens in May 2019.
Current local groups feature African American contributions to music: these begin with student ensembles such as NEC’s Gospel Ensemble, Music of the African American Experience Ensemble, and Black Student Union groups; Harvard’s Kuumba Singers; Boston University’s Inner strength Gospel Choir; the Tufts Gospel Choir; Boston College’s B.E.A.T.S. soul/r&b a cappella group and three majority black dance groups; Boston Arts Academy Spirituals Ensemble; and Yale’s Shades a cappella group. Professional and community vocal ensembles include the Martha’s Vineyard Slave Songs Project (formerly the NAACP Spirituals Choir), [BMInt review HERE]. New England Gospel Ensemble (founded at NEC in 1977), the Boston Community Choir, the Millennium Gospel Choir (founded through NEC in 2000), and the Boston Pops Gospel Choir.
Choral Arts New England, a local organization supporting choral music excellence through grants since 1985, has funded several local projects featuring African American music: free concerts of music by African American composers (New Haven Chorale, 199XX), performances and school residencies of Duke Ellington’s three Sacred Concerts by The Monadnock (VT) Chorus and the Brookline Chorus (2008 and 2012), Bella Voce Women’s Chorus of Vermont’s 2013 concert featuring Underground Railroad songs, RPM Voices of Rhode Island’s Youth Voices intensive summer workshops on “music from Black American culture” (2012 and 2014), Manchester Choral Society’s Spring 2019 performance of William Grant Still’s For Those Who Wait, the Andover Choral Society’s premiere of a new piano/vocal edition of Florence Price’s Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (May 2019), and the Montpelier (VT) Community Gospel Choir’s 25th-anniversary showcase (December 2019). Upcoming funded projects include Music on the Hill’s day-long Festival of African American Spirituals with guest conductor/clinician Dr. Rosephanye Powell in Fairfield, CT.
Jazz masters have frequented Boston, performing in the many local clubs and occasionally collaborating with symphonic ensembles. Dr. Frederick Tillis wrote his Festival Journey for Max Roach and the New Orchestra of Boston in 1993 (recording released on Blue Note in 1996) and the Hartford Chorale premiered his A Symphony of Songs in 1998. Pulitzer Prize winners Wynton Marsalis and Henry Threadgill visit Boston regularly, with the BSO and the ICA presenting them in small group settings. Marsalis’ Quintet and the full ensemble Jazz at Lincoln Center have played Symphony Hall (almost every year since 1992), and the Tanglewood Chorus performed Marsalis’ oratorio All Rise in 2003 and 2004. This Spring, he began a weekly online series called Skain’s Domain, an intimate weekly “conversation about how to stay connected, optimistic, and creative in this crazy moment in time.”
Boston musicians have been crucial in the teaching and mentoring of African American students of classical music. Anne Hobson Pilot was the Boston Pops/BSO Principal Harpist from 1969/80-2009 and leading teacher of harp in Boston after holding positions with the National Symphony Orchestra (1966-69, she was its first black member) and Pittsburgh. In contrast, clarinetist Anthony McGill became the New York Philharmonic’s very first African American section leader in 2014. Professor Marcus Thompson celebrated his 50th year as a leading violist and teacher with a recent recital commemorating his debut at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on the infamous date of the assassination of Martin Luther King. As one of the earliest prominent African Americans in the classical string world, it made an ominous start for a career, but his legacy is a growing number of outstanding young string players of color from both MIT and New England Conservatory [BMInt review HERE].
Other African American musicians are reaching out to students through the internet. Gospel artist and opera conductor Damian Sneed, recently commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, has begun an online series of two-hour conversations entitled “Dialogues,” with episodes dedicated to the “Performing Artist as Educator” and the Harlem Renaissance. He made his Carnegie Hall conducting debut with Wynton Marsalis’ Abyssinian 200: A Celebration (2008).
Recent local commissions by African American composers include the Sanders Theater remix of D. W. Griffith’s Civil War epic “Birth of a Nation” (“Rebirth of a Nation” by DJ Spooky [Paul D. Miller] March 11th, 2005), Berklee professor Jonathan Bailey Holland’s Dream Elegy (Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble, 2016), The Battle of Bull Run Always Makes Me Cry (Boston Opera Collaborative, 2018) and El Jaleo (2019, for Boston’s Phoenix Orchestra, founded 2015); Daniel Bernard Roumain’s 2010 Woodbox Violin Concerto for the Boston Pops and A Boy Called King for the Boston Children’s Chorus (2013); Anthony R. Green’s poignant duo for flute and saxophone (Longy, 2019), Jeffrey Mumford’s 2019 cello concerto of radiances blossoming in expanding air for Deborah Pae and Boston’s Phoenix Orchestra, and Brian Raphael Nabors’ 7 Dances, played by Boston’s Musica Viva in January 2020.
Advocacy and Academia
In the last five years, several new voices and ensembles have made an impact in Boston’s musical scene. As a 2016 MLK Graduate Fellow at Northeastern University, harpist Angelica Hairston presented an NEC-funded concert called Challenge the Stats, showcasing African-American and Latinx performing artists: this is now an incorporated organization, existing “to empower artists of color by creating communities devoted to diversity, inclusion, and euity in the classical performing arts. CTS seeks to equip audiences and artists with the tools needed to advocate for justice both inside and outside of the concert hall. Hairston’s has also founded the Atlanta-based Urban Harp Project, providing free harp instruction to over 80 at-risk students [pictures HERE].
Harvard’s Du Bois Orchestra, founded by NEC-Prep and Yale grad Nathaniel Meyer “in 2015, to make music a means of overcoming social exclusion” has featured the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor HERE, works by Florence Price
HERE, including the April 2019 premiere of her oratorio Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, and Sachiko Murata’s new Sorrow Songs (2019), inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. The Arlington Philharmonic also recently played Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor [BMInt review HERE].
A Far Cry featured the music of Jessie Montgomery (former violinist with the Providence String Quartet) at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in 2018 HERE, and Berklee brought experimental artist/singer Pamela Z from the SF Bay area to perform a full evening of her works for New Music Gathering 2018. The keynote speech on equity and representation is HERE.
Academia and presenting organizations have made contributions to equity as well: the BSO’s Project STEP (String Training Education Program) has served over 1,500 Boston-area music students since 1982 (100% going on to attend college or conservatory). Richard T. Greener was the first African American student to graduate with an A. B. from Harvard (1870), although both Middlebury, Amherst, Bowdoin, and Dartmouth had awarded degrees to African American students in the 1820s. Rachel Washington was the first African American graduate of NEC, graduating with a major in voice in 1872. Nellie Brown Mitchell (1845-1924) studied voice at NEC in the early 1870s, founding her own opera company. Matilda Sissieretta Jones (known as “The Black Patti”) attended both NEC and the Boston Conservatory in the 1880s; in 1887, she performed at Boston’s Music Hall before an audience of 5,000. Maud Cuney Hare (1874-1936) studied at NEC in 1890 and later published the landmark Negro Musicians and Their Music.
W. E. B. Du Bois was a member of the Harvard Class of 1890, earning a master’s degree the following year, and a PhD in 1895 (the first African American to do so). In 1896, educator Booker T. Washington became the first African American to receive an honorary degree from Harvard University. Mary S. Locke (A. M. 1893) and Alberta Virginia Scott (A.B. 1898), were the first African Americans to receive those degrees from Radcliffe College. In 1932, Anna Bobbitt Gardner was the first African American woman to be awarded a Bachelor’s degree from NEC: she went on to found Boston’s Academy of Musical Arts (on Claremont Street), operate five piano studios, produce local radio and television programs, and manage “Colored American Nights” featuring African Americans at Symphony Hall. Drue King’s membership in the 1941 Harvard Glee Club sparked a debate that contributed to the desegregation of venues for college musical groups touring the South.
Author Howard Thurman was invited to Boston University in 1953, becoming the first African American Dean of Chapel at a majority-white American university: Marsh Chapel diversified its musical repertoire as a result of his leadership (1953-65). Thurman served as a spiritual advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, Jr., and Pauli Murray (the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest). The two oldest university departments of African American Studies (founded in 1969) are in the Boston area: Harvard and the Boston University African American Studies Program, which hosted an influential international scholarly conference on “African-American Music in World Culture: Art as Refuge and Strength in the Struggle for Freedom” in March 2014.
Online research institutions with extensive Africana and African American collections include Digital Schomburg (New York Public Library), the Amistad Research Center, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (Smithsonian), and the Center for Black Music Research.
Local institutions with exhibits on African American culture and music include the Museum of African American History (Boston and Nantucket), Boston African American National Historic Site (administered by the National Park Service), the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, the Museum of the National Center Museum of Afro-American Artists, the National Black Doll Museum of History & Culture in Mansfield, MA has thousands of dolls from present and past history on display, and Medford’s Royall House Slave Quarters Plantation has artifacts from the time Boston’s largest slave plantation was operating, and Henry Louis Gates directs the diverse public programs at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
Across the Pond
Europe’s first BME (Black Minority Ethnic) orchestra was founded in 2015 by Royal Academy of Music double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku: Chineke! has presented some of England’s best up-an-coming composers, including Daniel Kidane and Errollyn Wallen (both commissioned by the BBC this year). Kidane’s recent chamber quartet Continuance was inspired by the recent lockdowns: he writes, “In these unprecedented times, when we are all alone yet all together, music lives on. During these weeks of isolation, I choose to be optimistic because it feels better. My inner anxieties manifest as a calm yet resonant work for electric guitars, filled with the hope that this too shall pass.” Its premiere (by Sean Shibe) plays on YouTube HERE.
Addenda from readers:
We would be remiss if we were to forget several other prominent African-American composers in Boston. To wit, composer Dr. T.J. Anderson who was the first African-American chairman of Tufts University Music Department and the famed Elma Lewis and The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts who was a major contributor to arts and education in Boston for decades to hundreds of young students of color.
T.J. Anderson Jr was/is a tireless advocate for Black representation in the BSO! Not only did he advocate that they play the work of Black composers; he also insisted that they hire more Black musicians, and make their concert programs move available to communities of color. HERE is his website.
And among those very much alive, there is impressive composer and performer Donal Fox who lives in Boston, has been the recipient of an Academy Award in Music, Guggenheim, and Bugliasco Fellowships; was composer-in-residence with the St. Louis Symphony.