Category Archives: 19th century

Five African-American Classical Composers and their work: William Grant Still, Florence B. Price, Harry T. Burleigh, William Levi Dawson, and Mary Lou Williams.

mary lou williams

African American pianist, composer and arranger, and vocalist Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981). She  demonstrated remarkable musical talent in modern genres as diverse as classical, free jazz, hard bop, swing, big band, and gospel.

Text by John P. Walsh

Following the tradition set down by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, the White House officially announced that June 2017 was to be African American Music Month. The proclamation in part reads: “During June, we pay tribute to the contributions African Americans have made and continue to make to American music. The indelible legacy of these musicians who have witnessed our Nation’s greatest achievements, as well as its greatest injustices give all Americans a richer, deeper understanding of American culture. Their creativity has shaped every genre of music, including rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel, hip hop, and rap.” A very nice tribute although I would hasten to attach onto its last sentence – “and all other American musical genres.” This could then include the significant contributions by African American artists to classical music such as William Grant Still (1895-1978), Florence B. Price (1887-1953), Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), William Levi Dawson (1899 – 1990), and Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981). 

William Grant Still (1895-1978).

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WILLIAM GRANT STILL (1895-1978) is the “dean” of African-American classical music composers. Born in Mississippi, William Grant Still grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music, both in Ohio. In addition to composing over 150 works— including five symphonies and eight operas— William Grant Still is the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936); the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra (his 1930 Symphony No. 1 in A-flat, “Afro-American” by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1931); the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company (his 1939 Troubled Island by The New York Opera Company in 1949), and the first to have an opera performed on national television (his 1941 A Bayou Legend in 1981).

WILLIAM GRANT STILL (1895-1978): In Memoriam of the Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy (1944). Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Szell.

Florence B. Price (1887-1953).

Florence B. Price.

FLORENCE B. PRICE (1887-1953) became the first African-American female composer to have a major symphonic composition performed by a leading American symphony orchestra. It was on June 15, 1933—in conjunction with A Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago— that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the world premiere of Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor at The Auditorium Theatre on Michigan Avenue conducted by music director Frederick Stock. The concert included works by Harry T. Burleigh, tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977), English mixed-race composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), sometimes called the “African Mahler,” and others. Price, who was born into a mixed-race family in Little Rock, Arkansas, studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and later taught piano, organ and voice both at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia and privately. She moved to Chicago in 1927 where, in a career which produced over 300 works, Price incorporated rhythms expressed in Africa-based musical traditions along with African-American spirituals and folk tunes, and the orchestrations of European Romantic composers. In addition to Symphony No. 1 in E minor, some of her best known works include Sonata in E MinorFantasie NegreMississippi River suite, and Symphony No. 3 in C Minor. In 1940 Florence B. Price was inducted into ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers).

Mississippi River by Florence B. Price was composed in 1934 and dedicated to a prominent teacher at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music where Price continued her musical studies after she arrived to Chicago. The suite uses the contrivance of a boat navigating the Mississippi River and experiencing its various expressions of human life and history along its path told in musical sections. The first part depicts dawn on the river; the second part its American Indian heritage via an array of percussion; the third part the African American experience utilizing traditional negro spirituals (Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen; Stand Still Jordan; Go Down, Moses; and Deep River). The suite concludes in a melodic cacophony of then-contemporary tunes such as River Song, Lalotte, and Steamboat Bill.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers
by Langston Hughes (1902-1967).

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
     flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln 
     went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy 
     bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Hughes had said he was crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois in 1919 when inspiration struck just outside of St. Louis and he wrote the poem. Hughes, who was born in Joplin, Missouri, and raised in various places in Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio, always knew best the landscape of the American Midwest even after he helped to lead the Harlem Renaissance in New York City as a poet, novelist, and playwright in the 1920’s.

William Levi Dawson (1899 – 1990).

William L. Dawson American composer

WILLIAM L. DAWSON (1899-1990), born in Alabama, was a composer and arranger, trombonist, and music educator. He continually was learning so to use the rich heritage of African American music and later African music as the basis for many types of music that he composed and arranged. After graduating with highest honors from Tuskegee Institute he studied music and composition in Kansas City and Chicago and performed for many years as first trombonist with the Chicago Civic Orchestra. It is Dawson’s work as music director with the 100-voice Tuskegee Institute Choir that led to many distinguished and fêted national and international choral engagements throughout the mid-twentieth century. William Dawson is most famous perhaps as the composer of his Negro Folk Symphony which he wrote in 1934 but revised in 1952 after studying indigenous African music throughout West Africa. The three movements of the symphony are entitled: “The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night” and “O, le’ me shine, shine like a Morning Star!”

William Dawson conducts the Tuskegee Institute Choir in 1955 in his arrangement of the negro spiritual Listen to the Lambs written by R. Nathaniel Dett first performed in 1913.

In 1952, Dawson visited several countries in West Africa to study indigenous African music. The experience inspired him to revise his Negro Folk Symphony which was first written in 1934. The new work was recorded in 1961 by Leopold Stokowski for Decca Records.

Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949).

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HARRY BURLEIGH (1866–1949), born in Erie, Pennsylvania, was an eminent African-American baritone, and influential classical composer and arranger. As a student at New York City’s National Conservatory of Music of America, Burleigh became associated with Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) who heard the baritone sing spirituals and encouraged him to create arrangements for these melodies. With the Czech composer’s active interest, Burleigh developed into one of America’s most important composers and arrangers of spirituals. He created arrangements for more than 100 songs including “Deep River,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” which are classics today. Burleigh’s “In Christ there is no East or West” remains a church hymnal standard. Burleigh set poems by Walt Whitman to music also. When Burleigh was accepted in 1894 as baritone soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan—a post where he stayed for over 50 years—the tie vote of the congregation which had never allowed African-Americans to worship there before—was broken by J. P. Morgan in Burleigh’s favor. While Burleigh’s advocacy of negro melodies through writing, speaking engagements and new arrangements remained indefatigable, he found time to coach many well-known singers, including Caruso, Roland Hayes, Marion Anderson, and Paul Robeson.

Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981).

Mary Lou Williams,

A self-taught pianist, by the time she was 20 years old MARY LOU WILLIAMS  was a professional musician and touring bandleader. In these formative years she looked for inspiration to Chicago bandleader and composer “Lovie” Austin (1887–1972) but Williams’ own records as a pianist and arranger began to sell briskly. In a 50-year-plus career she wrote and arranged music for bandleaders as famous as Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and Benny Goodman (1909-1986) and was a beloved mentor to slightly younger African-American musical artists who became household names in the world of jazz: Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), Charlie Parker (1920-1955), Miles Davis (1926-1991), Tadd Dameron (1917-1965), Bud Powell (1924-1966), and Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993), to name a few. Though Mary Lou Williams’ musical talents fly under the popular culture radar almost 40 years after her death, to her admirers—many of which are artists and institutions—her recordings remain a treasure to listen to and she is much honored for her inspiring work

Mary Lou Williams’ album, Zodiac Suite, released in 1945 and remastered here from the original acetates, is a 12-part interpretation of the astrological zodiac composed and performed on the piano by Mary Lou Williams who is accompanied by two of her hand-picked session musicians—all innovators from the clubs of New York—namely, Canadian jazz double-bassist Al Lucas (1912-1983) and American jazz and rhythm & blues drummer Jack “The Bear” Parker. Each movement is a set of classically-inspired jazz tone poems for the signs of the horoscope: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces.

©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.

ART REVIEW: Van Gogh’s Bedrooms, The Art Institute of Chicago, February 14 to May 10, 2016.

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Van Gogh’s Bedrooms at The Art Institute of Chicago, February 14 to May 10, 2016. This is the exhibition’s penultimate gallery featuring the three versions of Van Gogh’s “Bedroom.” Left to right: from the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris (1889), The Art Institute of Chicago (1889), and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (1888). The three masterworks are gathered together in North America for the first time.

By John P. Walsh. May 6, 2016.

I saw the Van Gogh’s Bedrooms exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago (February 14-May 10, 2016) on the last Friday afternoon before the show closed. The museum that day was drawing a large crowd and it was challenging to navigate through the multi-room art show in a mass of frequently immobile art lovers. Exactly for what cause some stationary patrons might be transfixed could only be speculated upon but often no art was present. No one I think comes to art shows to be caught in a logjam of people yet that recurrent phenomenon in Van Gogh’s Bedrooms soon became one of its unpleasant features. The expansive exhibition space—striking for its illogical reasoning to display three relatively small masterpieces—proved impractical, or at least a two-edged sword, in terms of containing its throngs.

Those three featured paintings are this show’s raison d’être and prove a marvelous highlight after reaching them by way of a dozen or so high-ceiling galleries. Once arrived to the show’s penultimate room, my eyes settled on the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam’s version as the most intriguing of the three superficially identical works. The other two versions are from the collections of The Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

When 35-year-old Van Gogh painted his The Bedroom series starting in October 1888, the Dutchman had been an artist only a short while: about 7 years. This had followed a variety of other occupations, although Van Gogh began his professional life as an art dealer.  By late 1888—less than two years before his death by self-inflicted gunshot in Auvers-sur-Oise in July 1890—Van Gogh had traveled long and far from his beginnings in North Brabant. He arrived into Paris in 1885 to paint and join his brother Theo who was an avant-garde art dealer in the Rue Montmartre. Looking to sell more of his artwork, he began painting in the bright Impressionist style for which Van Gogh is probably most famous today.  By February 1888 Van Gogh relocated to Arles in the South of France on account of his health and to possibly start an art colony.  Still quite poor and alone, this roughly 15-month period in Arles proved to be prolific for the artist’s production when Van Gogh completed 200 paintings, and over 100 drawings and watercolors. Many of Van Gogh’s most famous works were created in this fecund period—for example, his portraits of Eugène Boch (Musée d’Orsay), Postman Joseph Roulin and Augustine Roulin (both Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)  and Madame Ginoux (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) among several others; sunflowers and irises such as Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers (National Gallery, London), Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers (Neue Pinakothek, Munich) and Irises (Getty Museum, Los Angeles); 15 canvases of cypresses; and his iconic Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin in the Harvard Art Museums.

None of these contextual artworks were in the Chicago show but demonstrate the range and depth of Van Gogh’s artistic vision in the same time period that The Bedrooms—which shared his body of work’s intoxication with color and decorative strategieswere painted. Despite its title—Van Gogh’s Bedrooms—this show is not content to let their presence in Chicago suffice. Instead, much of the other parts of this massive show were from the Art Institute’s permanent collection of mostly Barbizon and Impressionist artwork.  Perhaps if they had been left on whatever museum walls from which they had come, these fine artworks might have maintained an even greater impact for themselves and this show’s ultimate purpose than crowding them onto walls into this special exhibition space.  That said, the condensed interpretive curatorial exercise of parts of the permanent collection in this show could prove interesting for visitors who are not willing or able to visit other parts of the museum. In a show that took on the formula of a typical Regenstein Hall blockbuster, its propensity for Impressionist rehash (“delve” was the museum’s word) had a boring art textbook’s sensibility. Recognizing that the show dipped into the museum storehouse to retrieve the life-size maquette of the Yellow House from AIC’s vastly superior exhibition Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South in 2001, produced a dispiriting effect on at least one viewer who recognized it. But so far I am quibbling: this AIC exhibition brings together the powerful canon of all three versions of Van Gogh’s The Bedroom for the first time in North America which is very special and undoubtedly sufficient to any museum goer’s time and interest. I don’t believe, however, that their full artistic power was best served by being able to see these objects intensely advertised in the media markets and then only hung at the show’s virtual end following a cacophony of mostly extraneous art historical resources however severely earnestly presented. Instead, a surfeit of front-loaded artistic riches labors to obscure these significant Van Goghs that finally appear in the second to last gallery, all of which are jam-packed with art, people, various filmic explorations, somewhat bloviating wall texts, whole house reconstructions, etc.

AMSR+TERDAM FINAL exh_vangogh-bedroom-Amsterdam_main_480

Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam,  October 1888. 72.4 x 91.3 cm.

CHGO Vincent van Gogh. The Bedroom, 1889. The Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.exh_vangogh_bedroom_main_480

Chicago, 1889. 72.4 x 91.3 cm. The version Van Gogh first painted in the asylum at St. Rémy.

PARIS FINAL exh_vangogh-bedroom_Paris_main_480

Paris, 1889. 57.5 x 74 cm. Destitute bachelor Van Gogh gave this version to his mother and sister.

It is certainly obvious that Van Gogh’s Bedrooms possibly could have benefited by not pulling out all the stops (“in-depth study”) but to focus on the three colorful masterpieces uniquely gathered in their essential power. If one wants to read blow by blow explanations of virtually every curatorial application in the show, one might turn to other reviews cited in “Further Reading” below. The equitably in-depth appreciation of this trio of Van Gogh worksand minus the Disney World trappingsmight be advanced using timed tickets (as done for Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South) and within a pared down and simpler exhibition scope. The way things are constructed by the show’s curator Gloria Groom, Chair of European Painting and Sculpture at The Art Institute of Chicago, the exhibition transmits encyclopedic knowledge while largely missing a tangible evocation of bachelor Van Gogh’s humble petit boulevard persona who produced in Arles in 1888 and in Saint-Rémy in 1889 these bold canvases of his simple bedroom and even gifting one of the versions (the one now in Paris) to his aged mother and sister to reassure them in his destitution. For Van Gogh the motif of his private and hard-featured bedroom in Arles continued his bold self-expression in a tightly woven and complex painting composed in broad outlines using a many-hued post-impressionistic palette in thick impasto. Despite Van Gogh’s reputation as madhe mutilated his ear in this bedroom in December 1888he soon carried on painting two more versions of The Bedroom (the last one slightly reduced) with the apparent added intention to express to his family and friends that the artist was as stable and restful as his artistic subject.

What should an exhibition advertised as Van Gogh’s Three Bedrooms wish to have its spectators looking for and come away with? By the time a visitor reaches Van Gogh’s three paintings after plowing through the aforesaid gauntlet of people and well-known Chicago art resources, the exhibition almost runs the danger of displaying these highly-prized artworks not as denouement but incidental. These Van Gogh paintings are hardly allowed to speak freely for themselves. Of course they have a fascinating history but to what degree should these particular artworks’ written history be simultaneous to their exhibition? Thinking of the viewer, does the display of three paintings of an artist’s bedroom (albeit Vincent Van Gogh’s) that when placed side by side measures the whole of about ten feet across merit thousands of cubic feet of mostly academic groundwork before a viewer can even see them? To what degree are artistic exhibition and their intellectual exposition necessarily complementary since many museum art shows follow this tactic?

The final gallery after the display of the three bedrooms continued Van Gogh’s Bedrooms’ devotion to comprehensive information and theatricalityalthough a side-by-side blow-up of the bedrooms’ diverging painterly details was perhaps the most useful techie display so to appreciate the artist’s handling of the individual paintings. Yet it begged a question: could this orientation to detail, to seeing the painting, somehow serve as the exhibition’s primary or sole introduction, such as in a film theatre? This last gallery then led directly to the ubiquitous and depressing gift shop hosting the galleries’ same multitude disporting themselves basically as they did there. Hearing its timbre I wondered if a unique opportunity to view together the three Van Gogh bedroom paintings“the first time in North America”had under- or overplayed its hand. Had Van Gogh’s Bedrooms rightly oriented and imparted to its viewers an intimate and perhaps personally revealing look into these three sensitive treasures of Van Gogh’s oeuvre as its elemental objectiveor had Van Gogh merely omitted to paint into the scene a proverbial kitchen sink?

FURTHER READING:

http://www.artnews.com/2016/03/14/domestic-dreams-van-goghs-bedrooms-at-the-art-institute-of-chicago-offers-a-rich-look-at-three-masterworks/

http://chicago.suntimes.com/entertainment/art-institute-explores-van-goghs-bedroom-and-a-sense-of-home/

http://www.wsj.com/articles/van-goghs-bedrooms-review-1455750210

http://chirontolife.com/2016/review-of-a-view-van-goghs-bedrooms/

http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/museums/ct-ent-0204-van-gogh-bedrooms-art-institute-20160210-story.html

http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2016/03/blockbuster-art-shows

©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by an means, electronic  or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.