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.
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).
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, and 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 an African American composer with several musical “firsts” to his name.
He is the first African American composer to conduct a major American symphony orchestra—the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936.
He is the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra—his Symphony No. 1 in A-flat, “Afro-American” (1930) by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1931.
Still’s first symphony (he wrote five) sought to express Black culture within mainly European classical symphonic tools and forms available at that time.
About his intentions for the music, Still wrote: “I seek in the ‘Afro-American Symphony’ to portray not the higher type of colored American, but the sons of the soil, who still retain so many of the traits peculiar to their African forebears; who have not responded completely to the transforming effect of progress.” (see- Catherine Parsons Smith’s William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2000, p. 121.)
Arranged in four movements of about 6 minutes each, Still headlined each movement with quotes from poems by early 20th-century African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906). In 1899 Dunbar published his Poems of Cabin and Field and died tragically of tuberculosis at 33 years old in 1906. The “Afro-American” Symphony’s 4 movements are entitled: I. Moderato assai (“Longing”); II. Adagio (“Sorrow”); III. Animato (“Humor”) and IV. Lento, con risoluzione (“Aspiration.”)
The stanza by Paul Laurence Dunbar that William Grant Still selected to follow the fourth movement reads:
“Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul,
Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll
In characters of fire.
High ‘mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky,
Thy banner’s blazoned folds now fly,
And truth shall lift them higher.”
William Grant Still is the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company—his Troubled Island (1939) by The New York Opera Company in 1949.
Finally, William Grant Still is the first to have an opera performed on national television—his A Bayou Legend (1941) in 1981.
Florence B. Price (1887-1953).
Florence B. Price (1887-1953) is the first African-American female composer to have a major symphonic composition performed by a leading American symphony orchestra. This occurred on June 15, 1933 in Chicago in conjunction with the city’s A Century of Progress International Exposition (Chicago was founded in 1833).
Visitors can still see the Auditorium Theatre on Michigan Avenue where the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor completed in 1932 in a world premiere performance. That historic concert also included musical works by Harry T. Burleigh (main entry below), tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977), and mixed-race English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) who was known as the “African Mahler.”
Florence B. Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas into a mixed-race family (her father was a prominent dentist and African American) and later studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and taught piano, organ and voice at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia as well as privately.
In 1927 she moved to Chicago where in a musical career as a composer that produced over 300 works, her métier blossomed. Price’s music often incorporated rhythms expressed in Africa-based musical traditions and African-American folk tunes and spirituals arranged in elaborate orchestrations derived from the European Romantic composers.
In addition to Symphony No. 1 in E minor (1932), some of Florence B. Price’s best known works include her Fantasie Negre (1929), Mississippi River suite (1934), and Symphony No. 3 in C Minor (1940). In 1940 Florence B. Price was the first female African American composer inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
A word on Florence B. Price’s well-known Mississippi River suite (1934): Price composed it in 1934 with a dedication to one of her prominent teachers at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago where Price continued her musical studies after she arrived to the city in 1927.
The suite uses the contrivance of a boat navigating the Mississippi River and along its path experiencing its diverse expressions of human life and history as told in musical sections.
The FIRST part depicts dawn on the river.
The SECOND part portrays its American Indian heritage by using an array of percussion.
The THIRD part expresses the African American experience along the river utilizing well-known negro spirituals— such as, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen; Stand Still Jordan; Go Down, Moses; and Deep River.
The FINAL part has the suite conclude with a melodic cacophony of contemporary tunes during the 1930’s including River Song, Lalotte, and Steamboat Bill.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes (1902-1967).
Langston Hughes, who was born in Joplin, Missouri, said he wrote the poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, after he was crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois in 1919 and inspiration struck. Even after he helped lead the Harlem Renaissance in New York City as a poet, novelist, and playwright in the 1920’s, Hughes, who grew up in the American Midwest (Kansas, Illinois and Ohio), said he always knew the Heartland best.