Thursday, February 07, 2008

The History At Home | 7. My Own Spades Dig Deeper

1. Exactly What Shovel Were They Using?

In January, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra presented “A Tribute to African American Heroes.” Promotions for the uplifting evening were described in this manner:
“ a concert honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., composer Harry Burleigh and jazz legends Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. This special evening of music highlights spirituals, gospel music, jazz and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 – known as the “The New World...” Hear the African American spiritual Deep River by Burleigh. And before performing Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, soloist Kevin Deas will sing Goin’ Home – the spiritual by Burleigh which inspired Dvorak to write his symphony. ”

Sounds great doesn’t it! What a night that must have been! All the spiritual, comforting, familiar sounds of Blackness; a veritable auditory cornucopia of our true musical greatness; complete with a stamp of approval! Am I honoured that the Pittsburgh Symphony is willing to include what they consider to be my classical music in their hallowed Heinz Hall? Thank you, thank you, thank you PSO for making sure that everyone sees how legitimate our music can be made by our European teachers and allies.

In all honsty, I’m sure it was a lovely concert. All of the composers included are certainly worthy of the attention of the world renowned Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. For once, can’t I be grateful? Or rather appreciative that the foundation community has put PSO’s back to the wall and tried to make them figure out a way to serve a larger audience? (Yes, I’m jaded, but concerts like this don’t happen unless someone downtown tightens up some financial screws.) Do I always have to find fault everything?

No. This concert would have galloped unnoticed across my radar screen - if my son wasn’t studying the violin. Suddenly, I have this overwhelming need to re-evaluate my appreciation of classical music and connect its relevance to the world I’m building around my son. This has involved a bit of digging in the clay dirt of history and the infrequent use of sledgehammers. And only because I'm making a choice to attempt to place subject matter first on an afrocentric foundation and secondly from a more embracing multicultural viewpoint.

I have made some delightful discoveries about African contributions to the type of music we all agree to call, classical. And I believe everyone - and especially those in the modern classical music world - should be racing to showcase these compositions. (Especially when some of these very same organisations make public statements about improving African-American representation in the industry.) I wouldn't had a thing to say, if I hadn't read about this new mission first.

Like any other hungry person who isn’t given the goodies I’m looking for, my stomach turns and growls. I get a little surly. Especially when I - with very little formal musical education - can uncover layers and layers of African contributions to what many consider to be a European art form.

Please let me make it clear that I am not dismissing Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s program. Nor do I feel that Burleigh, Ellington or Strayhorn were unworthy people around whom to build a concert of celebrating our heroes. It is the manner in which it is positioned (and continues to be positioned) that bothers me.

It is the notion that a European composer needs to be included in a tribute to African-American heroes that bothers me. As if these composers are somehow illegitimate without a European framework to hold their accomplishments in place.

This article, "Anton Dvorák, Harry T. Burleigh and the Origin of African-American Art Song" demonstrates clearly what I am trying to articulate.

Here are some of the best quotes.

“Antonin Dvorák called Go Down Moses as great a melody as any Beethoven wrote and encouraged Burleigh to write out and sing these songs. For his part, Dvorák steeped himself in sorrow song melodies and used them in his own American works, including his Symphony from the New World. The critic Philip Hale of the Boston Journal found that "the plantation melodies contaminated high art of this new symphony," and his American Suite (Opus 89) and Eight Humoresques for Piano written in America.”

And even better...

“In time his spirituals became standards and his art songs were sung by John McCormack, Ernestine Schumann-Heink and other famous singers, to great critical acclaim. We should note here that all of these singers were white Europeans, not Americans!“

Most people know Ellington and Strayhorn. Harry T. Burleigh - 1866 - 1949 - is another story. One which deserves a moment.

2. Raising Up Some Seriously Singing Bones

I suppose the quest to mine, polish and shine our history is really a quest for understanding better how to realise our own true potential and unlock it in others. If this is the case, then a lot can be learned from Harry T. Burleigh.

Harry T. Burleigh was born in Erie, Pennsylvania on 2, December 1866 - one short year after the end of the Civil War. He grew up amongst a community of free, educated African-Americans who had either received their manumission and gone North or escaped there. These tight knit communities were often educated people with trades who worked tirelessly on behalf of their communities.

Harry’s parents were no exception. In 1862, Burleigh’s father, Henry T. Burley helped found and served at the superintendent of The Coloured School. In 1868, Burley, Charles Vosburgh and John Clifford founded The Equal Rights League which tried to enfranchise all citizens at the State level regardless of race or gender. In 1871, Burley made history as one of the first Black men to serve on a jury which led to the conviction and sentencing of a White man.

After his father died tragically, away from home in Chicago of heart failure, Harry Burleigh supplemented his family’s income. He was a street lamp lighter, a deck steward and sung in the choirs of the First Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Jewish Temple. In 1891, Burleigh planned to join the Fisk Jubilee Troupe. However, the Pastor and congregation of the First Presbyterian Church raised his salary. He stayed.

Eventually, he won a scholarship to National Conservatory in New York where he met well known classical composer, Dvorak. The rest is history. You can find more information about his work in here. "'A certain strangeness': Harry T. Burleigh's art songs and spiritual arrangements" has a wonderfully written, scholarly discussion of the importance work of Harry T. Burleigh - without so much of a focus on how Europeans made him great.

In getting my own spade to dig, pick and poke at my own discomfort regarding PSO’s presentation, I find for myself an understanding of what it takes to bring greatness into being.

What is of particular interest to me is the context of Burleigh’s life. The way that community and role models can shape a child’s life. The fact that he came into being a great man through listening to his grandfather - a former slave - sing the songs of their people. The fact that his father and mother believed in excellence and intellect. The fact that they remained rooted in their history whilst carving out a future for their family, friends and community. This is all evidenced in the direction Burleigh took his work. (And it has nothing to do with White people and what they think of us, our talents or artistic inclinations.)

3. Getting My Own Spade

My criticism of PSO stems largely from how unchallenging this concert was. How they stayed so safe. How they scratched at the surface of Black history and chose to deliver something they must have perceived as accessible. Rather than innovate they chose to placate.

Jazz may have been uniquely our own, but, it is not the only classical form to which we have made extensive contributions. Any serious presentation of our African-American heroes would have recognised this.

A simple trip to shows a list of over 38 composers of African descent from te early 1700’s forward. And limiting the composers to the United States Of America does not limit - in any manner - the breadth and scope of work available. .

Regardless, there are African-Americans whose work more closely resembles the traditional fare of the PSO. How might the evening have been changed by the pieces below?

An American Port Of Call by Adolphus Cunningham Hailstork

Maybe the contrast of Strayhorn’s piece with Hailstork’s Epitaph for a Man who Dreamed - In Memoriam: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been a fitting contrast in styles which could demonstrate our unique and individual voices. Find these on: African Heritage Symphonic Series, Vol. II; Chicago Sinfonietta; Paul Freeman, Conductor

How would the concert have differed and become more resonant if they had included the works of Edmond Dede or William Grant Still? How would things change if they'd used my spades to dig deep enough to understand that our collective work would thrill their audiences for years whilst simultaneously developing new ones.

The child calls. The lungs need nebulized. The head and body aches for ibuprofin. I must away - and return again another day. Thanks for listening. But, more importantly dig deep enough to hear.

NOTE: This morning, I sat down to write about my son, his violin and my very favourite of all classical composers, Joseph de Bologne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. But - given that I get maybe an hour and a half to write each day, we will have to pick up on the rest tomorrow. (Lest I leave the day without a post.)

32 Days Of Black History, please visit the others at: Mamalicious!, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, The Dawg House, What Tami Said and InkogNegro. If nothing else, just to witness the evidence that Black folks are all different and unique.


Anonymous said...

Billy Strayhorn, Dakota Staten, Grover Mitchell, Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal.....and ME...all proud Alumni of Westinghouse High School.

The independent Lens documentary on Billy Strayhorn was incredible. I hope they replay it soon. I think you can get it on netflix though.

It saddens me how little effort folk put into black history sometimes...break out the usual suspects and KIM onto March.

Deesha said...

Christina, what a gift this post is! I have a budding violinist here, and I can't wait to mine, and point her teacher to it.

Last year, she came all excited about a new piece her teacher had given her for her upcoming recital. "Mom! It's Come Sunday by Duke Ellington. Have you heard of him?" :-)

Ink, I've been meaning to catch more of the Independent Lens offerings.

And coincidentally, I mentor a student at Westinghouse, and it's great how they have the photos of accomplished alumni gracing the walls.

Christina Springer said...

Deesha: I'm delighted this post worked out for you. At a certain age, children are the funniest of people...everything the learned they discovered completely on their own and you never had a clue it existed! Unless of course, you are the one sharing information - at which point it is useless and boring.

Ink: In spite of itself, Westinghouse manages to turn out some great people. Usually ones who have some precious spark in the soul that they managed to hold onto in spite of their formal schooling. Glad you held your spark and are shining it!