Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which was given its New York premiere by the Metropolitan Opera when the company reopened in September, is the first opera by a black composer to be performed by the Met in its 138-year history. Nor is this situation unique to the Met. Just three other operas by black composers, Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha (1911), William Grant Still’s Troubled Island (1939), and Anthony Davis’s X (1985), had received major-house productions anywhere prior to 2021.
Not surprisingly, the Met produced Fire Shut Up in My Bones in direct response to the advocacy of the Black Lives Matter protest movement. Performing-arts organizations around the country have responded with similar alacrity, putting into place programs intended to increase the representation of black performers, creative artists, and administrators. In some cases, they have had spectacular success: Seven plays by black writers, for example, are scheduled to be produced on Broadway in the first half of the 2021–22 season.
But classical music will likely find it harder to catch up. While black classical singers have been ubiquitous on the world’s stages since Marian Anderson finally broke the Met’s color bar in 1955, the same has never been true of black instrumentalists. Only one, the pianist André Watts, has had a major concert career. Black composers of symphonic music once fared somewhat better: Orchestral works of high quality were being written by blacks as far back as the ’30s, prominent among them Still’s Afro-American Symphony (1930) and William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony (1934, rev. 1952), both of which incorporate thematic material based on spirituals and other black vernacular music. But while these pioneering pieces were successfully premiered, they went unplayed thereafter until orchestras forced by COVID to tear up their schedules seized the opportunity to revive them.
As for the black audience for classical music, it is disproportionately small in size, though historically there have been a certain number of individual black classical-music lovers, prominent among them W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom were opera buffs. But the vast majority of black listeners have historically shunned the classics, embracing jazz and, later, rhythm and blues and its successors in preference to any kind of classical music, even when it is composed or played by blacks.
Why is black involvement with classical music in America so limited? And is there a practical way—or, for that matter, a compelling reason—to increase it? Joseph Horowitz’s Dvořák’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music deals only in passing with these questions: Most of the book is given over to an idiosyncratic discussion of the limitations of American musical modernism. Nevertheless, what it does have to say about them is of interest.1
THE TITLE of Horowitz’s book refers to a prediction made by Antonín Dvořák after he moved to the U.S. in 1892 to become the director of New York’s National Conservatory of Music. A Czech nationalist who wove the folk music of his native land into his classical compositions, Dvořák was stunned by his first hearing of black spirituals, made eloquent use of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in his Ninth Symphony (whose subtitle is “From the New World”), and concluded that “the future [classical] music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition in the United States.”
Nothing of the kind happened, of course. Even the black bourgeoisie was only modestly interested as a group in the classics, though America’s historically black colleges and universities all had classically oriented music departments. To be sure, black jazz instrumentalists have long sought out classical training, but they mainly did so to improve their playing techniques. Some, such as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Teddy Wilson, simply preferred jazz, while others, like Ron Carter, Davis’s longtime bassist, rightly took it for granted that no symphony orchestra would hire them. America’s top-tier orchestras, after all, were strictly segregated by race until 1957, when the Boston Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra hired their first full-time black players, followed by the New York Philharmonic in 1962 and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1968. The Chicago Symphony did not follow suit until 2002. Little has changed since then: To this day, fewer than 2 percent of U.S. orchestra players are black.
As for black vocalists, they were unwelcome on American opera stages until well into the ’50s. Even Marian Anderson, one of the greatest classical singers of the 20th century, had had to go to Europe two decades earlier to establish herself as a recitalist before she could do the same in the U.S., having previously been warned by Arthur Judson, her powerful manager, that “if you go to Europe it will only be to satisfy your vanity.”
What black musicians could do, if their talents ran that way, was compose, and Dawson and Still both had the good fortune early on to find white conductors who championed their work. Howard Hanson, the conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic and a noted composer in his own right, gave the first performance of Still’s Afro-American Symphony in 1931, while no less a giant of the podium than Leopold Stokowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1934 premiere of Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, recording it 29 years later. The premieres of both works were widely acclaimed by critics and audiences alike.
To encounter these symphonies on record today is to hear the reasons for their original success, for they are both engaging and extremely well-made. They are also radically different in style. Still, who worked in both classical and popular music—he arranged for the big bands of Artie Shaw and Paul Whiteman—was fully conversant with jazz and the blues, and his charming Afro-American Symphony sounds to contemporary ears not unlike the kinds of orchestral pieces that George Gershwin had been writing around the same time. But that doesn’t mean Gershwin was an influence on him; Still began sketching the piece in 1924, and its blues elements (the work’s instrumentation includes tenor banjo) are more idiomatic than anything to be found in Gershwin’s Broadway-flavored concert pieces. Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, by contrast, contains no jazz or blues elements whatsoever. Instead, it sounds rather like a Dvořák symphony, but one that is more extensively permeated with thematic material drawn from black spirituals, all of it developed with uncommon skill.
Were Dawson and Still forgotten because they were black? Not at all. As Horowitz explains, it was because their works were fundamentally traditional in musical style, so much so that one might call them neoromantic. Except for Samuel Barber, the American modernists of the ’30s and ’40s, led by Aaron Copland, sought to forge a collective style that was, while immediately accessible, unambiguously modern in tone. Once Copland and his contemporaries had come to dominate the American new-music scene, older composers—including Dawson and Still—were deemed old-fashioned, even quaint, and their music quickly vanished from view.
Whether or not it might have appealed to black listeners of the period is a moot point, for they did not hear it. Most blacks felt understandably uncomfortable in white concert halls, and except for Marian Anderson, there were no black stars to lure them there or black orchestral players whose presence on stage might have reassured them that they were welcome.
It was not until 1963 that Leonard Bernstein changed the former situation by inviting the 16-year-old pianist André Watts to perform a Liszt concerto on one of his televised Young People’s Concerts. This spectacular performance (which can be viewed on YouTube) instantly catapulted him into classical-music stardom.
Watts, however, has had no successors. Without exception, all the other well-known black instrumental soloists of the past six decades were popular musicians, and now that public-school music education is rapidly disappearing, black students are even less likely to be exposed to classical music early enough in life to be inspired to start the youthful training needed to master an instrument and pursue a professional career. This not only reduces the likelihood that there will be another André Watts, but makes it harder still for today’s orchestras to hire more black players or attract more black listeners, since public-school music programs are the most effective way to expose young people, black and white alike, to classical music.
It does not help that the traditional canon of classical-music masterpieces is currently under aggressive assault by pseudo-scholars and progressive commentators who contend that it is somehow in and of itself racist and a malign instrument of white male privilege, the clear implication being that blacks would be misguided to listen to or perform it. In the words of a columnist for BBC Music magazine, “The link between patriarchal power in the West and the fact that the classical canon is made of lookalike faces of Great Men is more than coincidental.” Absurd and unintentionally condescending though these attacks are, one can expect them to continue and to do collateral damage to black classical composers and performers who believe as deeply as their white counterparts in the enduring value of classical music.
WHAT, THEN, is to be done? One possible answer comes from Terence Blanchard, who is not a classical composer but a jazz trumpeter who also scores films. He tells this story about Champion (2013), the first of his two operas, whose subject is the life of the black boxer Emile Griffith: “This African-American guy in his 70s said, ‘If this is opera, I will come.’ That’s a new audience member we didn’t have before. La Bohème doesn’t mean anything to him. But these contemporary stories do.”
But is this, in fact, true? La Bohème and other 19th-century operas like it have introduced people of all kinds to the delights of opera, and they continue to do so. Are they not capable of doing the same thing for black listeners as well? The answer is that they can and do, as they did for Du Bois and King—but not, it seems, in significant numbers. Might black-themed operas with vernacular-flavored libretti really do better at bringing blacks to opera houses? Just as important, will the white viewers that form the vast majority of classical-music audiences respond to them with enthusiasm? And would white orchestral audiences, which are famously conservative in their listening preferences, respond with like enthusiasm to the music of older black composers like Dawson and Still?
While all these things could well turn out to be true, they also point to another, trickier question: Do opera houses and symphony orchestras really need black patrons? The answer is less obvious than it looks. Comparatively few of us, after all, “need” classical music in any meaningful sense of the word. The average person, whatever his color, gets along perfectly well without it his whole life long. It is for this reason that classical performing organizations rely on subsidies to keep their doors open, and the presence or absence of a necessarily small number of black patrons would have very little effect on their bottom lines.
But if you believe in the inherent cultural value of classical music—if, to put it another way, you believe that its continuing availability makes America a better place to live—then you must accept the iron necessity of persuading people who do not care for it that they should support it anyway. Especially in “minority-majority” cities such as Detroit whose white residents long ago fled to the suburbs, that includes black people who live in and near the downtown and inner-city areas where most concert halls and opera houses are still located.
Hence, then, the special need for classical-music organizations to reach out to blacks, not merely because their political support is essential but because their lives can also be enriched by the classics, very much including the music of black composers like Dawson and Still. Most of them—like most Americans these days—literally do not know what they are missing. Surely it is the duty of America’s orchestras and opera companies to help give them and their children a fair chance to find out.
1 W.W. Norton, 256 pages
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