How Black Composers Shaped the Sound of American Classical Music

A new project seeks to elevate artists like Harry T. Burleigh and Florence Price, whose work has been ignored by white audiences

Musician Lara Downes aims to highlight the work of composers like Harry T. Burleigh, photographed c. 1938. (Granger)
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Classical pianist Lara Downes knew she was onto something profound when audiences began to react to her show-closing rendition of “Fantasie Negre,” a 1929 composition by the African American composer Florence Beatrice Price. Instead of relying on motifs typical of the time period, Price injected a new musical influence by adapting the melody of the soulful spiritual “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass.”

“People would go nuts,” recalls Downes. “It was this sound that people hadn't heard before.” Although Price was the first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra, her works remained outside the mainstream of classical concert music, not to mention beyond name recognition of the most casual classical music fan. Downes, who also hosts Amplify with Lara Downes on NPR, first came across Price’s music in the mid-aughts, in a dusty library copy of a collection of compositions by Price and her contemporaries.

Downes’ new project, Rising Sun Music, aims to reframe the history of American classical music by embracing its diverse origins and composers of color like Price, while building a more inclusive future for the genre. The project, created and curated by Downes and assisted by veteran classical music producer Adam Abeshouse, is a series of newly recorded works written by black composers—including many works that have never been recorded before—performed by Downes with guest artists. She plans to release one song per week to streaming platforms, with a new theme every month, beginning February 5.

During an era when American popular music was defined by Aaron Copland's sweeping fanfares and George Gershwin's cinematic melding of styles, African American composers brought their own heritage to their music. Inspired by social and artistic movements in Harlem and Chicago, musicians like Price or Harry T. Burleigh took spirituals, a form borne out of a mix of African traditions with Christian themes, and enshrined them in the lexicon of concert performance music. Burleigh’s composition “On Bended Knees,” for example, notably quotes the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

Lara Downes' new Rising Sun project hopes to reframe the history of American classical music by embracing its diverse origins and composers of color. (Jiyang Chen)

Such overt references in classical and concert music to spirituals, notes Horace J. Maxile, Jr., a music theory professor at Baylor University whose musicology work centers on African American composers, often came in the rhythms and note choices.

“There could be actual quotes of spiritual tunes, or [they could] allude to the spiritual by way of their melodic content,” Maxile says. “There could also be evocations of the dance by way of lots of syncopated rhythms and snapped rhythms that feel like stomp, clap, stomp, clap.”

That Downes had never encountered Price before finding the library book, despite training at conservatories in Vienna, Paris and Basel, Switzerland, sent her deeper in search of composers of color, and Americans in particular. But for Downes, the daughter of a Jamaican-born father and a Jewish mother who had lived abroad since her teenage years, her quest was as much a search for her own identity.

“I had just come back to this country by myself without my family,” who remained in Europe, she says. “I was living in cities like Berkeley and New York and sort of processing myself through the eyes of other people and just having all of this input about what it means to walk in the world as a person of color.”

Downes’s childhood in California was preoccupied with loss; her father fell ill and died when she was 9 years old. Growing up in a white environment in San Francisco, she says, left her filled with questions about the part of her family she had lost—questions that led her to trace the larger arc of American identity on her 2001 album American Ballads, and then on America Again in 2016, which included her studio performance of Price’s “Fantasie Negre.”

While studying in Europe, where she walked in the footsteps of composers like Beethoven and Mozart, she says she felt the contradiction of feeling at home playing the piano eight hours a day while also being an outsider twice over—both as an American and as a person of color. Likewise, she found that works by American composers were generally ignored by European conservatories.

“Studying in Europe was the first time that I encountered this kind of bias against a certain type of American music,” she says. “I remember wanting to play something American, and … they didn't know anything about American music. I think they had vaguely heard of Aaron Copland, maybe, but I remember wanting to play ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and it was laughable that I would do such a thing.”

When it came to black composers, the situation she found back home wasn’t much different than the strictures she faced abroad. Maxile says that could be due in part to how classical music is tied to class and race in America. The early consumers of classical music were wealthy Americans with access to leisure tied to European culture and its composers; those associations persist today. For conductors of American orchestras and other classical performing groups, these realities, among others, factor into how they select music for performance, which exacerbates the problem of black composers’ anonymity.

“What are you going to program—are you going to go to the things that are going to get people in the seats, and your wealthy donors, or are you going to take a couple of chances?” posits Maxile. “I think some conductors might be wrestling with that. Some are taking some chances and doing some innovative programming, and putting some things out in schools and that kind of thing, but there's also that go-to clientele, so to speak, that you might have to continuously cultivate.”

With Rising Sun Music, Downes is expanding on her recent explorations into black classical compositions. Last year, her twin releases, Florence Price Piano Discoveries and Some of These Days, highlighted Price as well as pioneers like Burleigh and Margaret Bonds, the first African American to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a composer and arranger known for her collaborations with poet Langston Hughes.

Downes will begin her series with the theme “Remember Me to Harlem,” a nod to the importance of Harlem Renaissance composers such as William Grant Still, the first African American to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera, and Eubie Blake, who co-authored one of the first Broadway musicals written and directed by African Americans. The monthlong February run is also a tribute to her father, who grew up in Harlem and attended the same church as Burleigh.

The church, of course, had a large influence on the work of pioneering black composers, and not only in the religious sense. At a time when African Americans owned little real estate, churches were one of the few spaces where they could congregate, collaborate and perform. “The church was a central place for cultural development as well as spiritual, and social, and educational development as well during those years,” says Maxile.

Price, who will be featured in March as part of the “Phenomenal Women” theme, wrote compositions based on spirituals from the black church, choosing to embrace her roots instead of writing music that adhered to a more Eurocentric tradition.

“It's an intentional thing… and it's a surprising thing, because already you're a woman [and] nobody's going to take you seriously as a composer,” she says. “Now you're a black woman, and twice they're not going to take you seriously as a composer. And you still make that choice.”

Rising Sun Music, which borrows its name from lyrics of the “black national anthem,” the unifying spiritual “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” comes along at a time when Americans are divided along racial, political and class lines more than at any moment in the last half-century. Downes says she wants to set people on a journey of discovery to understand the roots of American classical music, where it has traveled and who it has connected along the way. She hopes it can help others in the same way her journey into the works of black composers brought her to understand her own American identity.

“We're all just feeling this urgency to find the places where we come together, right? That's the only way that we can heal all this division,” says Downes. “When you hear the music, you hear that. You hear that we're all connected, and you hear a song with different references or context or memories than I do. But it's the same song, and that's the beauty of it.”

About Jim Beaugez

Jim Beaugez s a writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone and Guitar World, among others.

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