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Feb. 17 2020

Black History Month, as I’ve programmed

By John Scherch | Posted in Host Blogs, New Music | No Comments

(I won’t be expressing much of my opinion on the merits of programming music by black composers here, but I am happy to discuss it with you privately via email. In short, I am very much for it.)

It’s February, and as you might expect, there has been an increase in the programming of composers of color here on WBJC. Particularly when I’ve been on the air, it’s been my intent to give you the music of a different black composer each day in February that I myself program, which means 25 different composers for each day that isn’t a Friday (when you, the listeners, dictate the programming). Here is the running list of different composers, not counting the repeats (if you look at our playlists, you’ll see a fair amount of Still, Coleridge-Taylor, Joplin, and Price), and I encourage you to look further into each one’s music.

2/1: (on his birthday) James Price Johnson, The Carolina Shout. If I had the time, I’d have programmed his Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody. Maybe some other time this month!

2/2: H.T. Burleigh, From the Southland. Burleigh is best known for his arrangements of African-American spirituals. (You may have caught the American Spiritual Ensemble at Peabody on February 11; I suggest looking them up!)

2/3: Chevalier de Meude-Monpas, Violin Concerto no. 4. There are two black Chevalier composers of the late Classical period; we don’t know this one’s name, though. This recording (the only one I’m aware of) is by Rachel Barton Pine, a violinist and a great champion of the works of black composers.

2/4: Joseph Bologne, Symphonie concertante for violin and viola. This is the other Chevalier, de Saint-Georges, and the earliest known composer of color, at least of music that most people call classical in style. He’s sometimes called the “Black Mozart” (though I prefer addressing him on his own merits), and a fair few of his works can be found on Sony’s recently released anthology of their Black Composers Series.

2/5: Jessie Montgomery, Strum. Also the title track of an album of her compositions for strings, this work treats the second violin as a mandolin for much of the piece. Montgomery plays this role in the Catalyst Quartet, who also have a recording of their own arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. jessiemontgomery.com

2/6: José White Lafitte, Violin Concerto. Another of Rachel Barton Pine’s recordings on her compilation of Classical and Romantic concerti by black composers for Cedille, Lafitte also is known by his Anglicized name, Joseph White.

2/8: Valerie Capers, Billie’s Song. This comes from a set called Portraits in Jazz, Billie of course referring to Billie Holiday.

2/9: Florence Price, Symphony no. 4. The latest of her recorded symphonies, discovered in her old house outside of Chicago amongst a myriad of her other works. Price was the first black woman to have a work performed by a major American orchestra; the Chicago Symphony premiered her Symphony no. 1, which appears on the same recording with the 4th.

2/10: Scott Joplin, Overture to the opera Treemonisha. Had this opera been properly addressed as an opera (it was called a “ragtime opera,” though not by the composer, and ragtime is only used during the dance sections) and given a full performance when it was composed, it could have been known right alongside Porgy and Bess as part of the operatic repertoire restricted to a black cast, with the added distinction of having actually being written by a black composer. The world premiere was given in 1972 in an orchestration by T. J. Anderson, and the opera was awarded the Pulitzer in 1976.

2/11: Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Sinfonietta no. 1. Named, of course, for Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, this work is one of many on a Cedille compilation of Perkinson’s works. His output was similar parts jazz and classical, which of course can blend into each other.

2/12: William Grant Still, Suite for Violin and Piano. I imagine you’ve heard of this one. The Dean of African-American composers.

2/13: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Symphonic Variations on an African Air. Same with this one; one of the most famous black composers, from across the pond.

2/15: Clarence Cameron White, Levee Dance. White studied violin with Joseph Douglass (grandson of Frederick) and composition with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. This recording was performed by another great violinist, Jascha Heifetz.

2/16: William Levi Dawson, Negro Folk Symphony. I was first introduced to Dawson’s music through his choral spirituals, for which he is best known; this symphony is actually one of his earliest works.

2/17: Edmond Dédé, Chicago. Born in antebellum New Orleans, Dédé eventually moved to Paris, where he studied composition. Chicago is a waltz that he dedicated to his cousin Samuel L. Armstrong.

2/18: Irene Britton Smith, Violin Sonata. This sonata is the only one of her very many compositions that has been recorded; Smith studied with Leo Sowerby and Nadia Boulanger, among others, and composed this sonata while studying at Juilliard.

2/19: Fela Sowande, African Suite. Africa’s best-known composer of western classical music, considered the father of art music in his native Nigeria.

2/20: George Walker, Lyric for Strings. The first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, though Joplin’s Treemonisha was posthumously given the award in 1976. His son Gregory was the violinist on the recording of Irene Britton Smith’s sonata.

2/21: (on Listener’s Choice!) Evan Williams, Emily’s House. A brand new piece you may have heard after midnight (so technically it’s 2/22), composed by a friend of mine. A great performance and an example of 21st century music being original, yet using harmony in a way that is not an off-putting twist of tonality.

2/22: Noel DaCosta, A Set of Dance Tunes for Solo Violin. We’ll only be hearing part of this set, but it’s a use of the solo violin, which can sometimes feel like a lot, to feel like a folksy solo street performance complete with foot stomps!

2/23: Margaret Bonds, Troubled Water. A frequent collaborator with Langston Hughes for her song compositions, and one of the first black composers to gain recognition in the United States.

2/24: David Baker, Blues (Deliver My Soul). Baker introduced the jazz studies program to the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and his compositions are usually in the Third Stream Jazz vein (a synthesis of jazz and classical music). Deliver My Soul, according to the Cedille liner notes, evokes the ecstatic energy of a Black church service.

2/25: John Rosamond Johnson, Nobody Knows The Trouble I See. Johnson’s arrangement of this spiritual is the best-known classical version; he is most famous, though, for composing the Black National Anthem, Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.

2/26: Lena Johnson McLin, A Summer Day. McLin is known both for her work as a composer, of cantatas, masses, and rock operas, as well as for her career teaching in the Chicago Public Schools.

2/27: Michael Abels, Global Warming. Abels is known best as a film composer, particularly for his work with Jordan Peele on his films Get Out and Us. Global Warming is his best-known work, and is often performed at state high school music festivals.

2/29: Betty Jackson King, Spring Intermezzo. King studied at Peabody, among other schools, and was the President of the National Association of Negro Musicians from 1979-1984. This work is more delicate than much of her oeuvre, and is part of a larger work called Four Seasonal Sketches.

That’s it for this month, but don’t let this be the end of your investigation into music by black composers, as this will certainly not be the end of my programming them!

John Scherch

About

The newest announcer and WBJC's evening and Listener's Choice host, a former heavy metal program director and erstwhile enthusiast, and Peabody graduate in voice and pedagogy, both of which he still practices. Full bio here.

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