How African Americans Have Left a Mark on Classical Music

How African Americans Have Left a Mark on Classical Music
February 22, 2014 leonard slatkin

I have been working on a new chapter of a book about the challenges faced by the classical music industry. That portion is concerned with discrimination as it has manifested itself and where we are today. The early part of the essay is devoted to the struggle of women and how their lot has improved dramatically over the past 25 years or so.

But when it comes to the African-American sector of the classical music workplace, the changes are barely significant. There remain but a few who are in the forefront of the industry. Many attempts to alter this situation have seemed patronizing, and, in many cases, unfair to all musicians.

It must be remembered that for a long time, classical music was not a part of the black experience in music. Great conductors and soloists were rarely seen in the profession. One had to look to the operatic stage for the successes to be recognized. Whether Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price or Jessye Norman, these artists proved that talent has few boundaries.

Over time, the contributions of African-Americans profoundly changed the American musical landscape and paved the way for others. Well before such artists as Andre Watts, Henry Jay Lewis, William Grant Still, James DePreist and Thomas Wilkins, however, black musicians were forging paths in all parts of the world, albeit in small numbers.

In their time, Beethoven and Haydn were both described as Moors. The former wrote some of his most significant music for the black violinist George Bridgetower. Before that, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges was France’s most prominent black composer. And in England, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor had considerable success with a work he wrote entitled “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.”

As classical music began to establish roots in America, more and more black musicians began to explore alternative styles and genres in which to express their individuality. Scott Joplin, William L. Dawson and Ulysses Kay were among the pioneers in the compositional world. Performers such as Dean Dixon, Leo Brouwer and Paul Freeman became role models for the young black musicians who would follow in their path-breaking mold.

Today, we can find more and more African-American musicians working in the classical music arena. Denyce Graves, James Lee III, Awadagin Pratt and Eric Owens are among those whose names grace the stages of the most prestigious musical institutions throughout the world. American conservatories continue to be beacons of inclusiveness, and one can see diversity in action at the Juilliard School in New York, Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia or Colburn School in Los Angeles.

For 35 years, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has paid tribute to the contributions of African Americans in what might be termed non-ephemeral music. Classical Roots celebrates a variety of styles and genres that are a shared musical experience. It has been my honor to lead several of these concerts. The DSO will welcome that most distinguished of artists, Kathleen Battle, who will be the featured soloist in selections of songs and spirituals. In addition, there will be concerts of chamber music commemorating those who aided the escaping slaves via the Underground Railroad, as well as those who perished in the long struggle. It is my hope that through the continuing Classical Roots series, we can, at the very least, find common ground that is often missing in our everyday lives. It is disheartening to constantly read and hear about the tension and discrimination that often make us feel as if we are still living in the 1960s.

As more and more minorities make inroads in our society, we must not forget that America is an inclusive society. All music is not for everyone, as different people gravitate to what their hearts and souls tell them is meaningful. But each person must have the ability to pick and choose. This means making great music available to all, as both listeners and participants.

It is best left to Duke Ellington, who said, “There are only two kinds of music: Good music and the other stuff.”

Published in The Detroit Free Press, February 22, 2014