February Newsletter Wrap Up
While Black excellence in the arts should be celebrated year-round, we would like to take an opportunity this month to emphasize the importance and influence of Black musicians and composers. Each week in February, we highlighted Black composers and musicians, sharing with you some links to their music and backgrounds. We also included some clips from performances of their works that happened in recent livestreams at Caramoor.
William Grant Still, 1895-1978
William Grant Still, the “Dean of Afro-American Composers”, forged a career that was comprised of many “firsts”. Born in 1895, he was the first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a professional orchestra in the United States. Symphony No. 1, Afro-American (1930) encapsulates his career, drawing on the influences and harmonic complexity of jazz, blues, and spirituals. William Grant Still was a prolific musician throughout the Harlem Renaissance and helped pave the way for many other prominent Black composers who have proceeded him. Learn More.
Shirley Graham Du Bois, 1896–1977
The next artist we would like to highlight is playwright, novelist, and political activist, Shirley Graham Du Bois. At age 35 she enrolled at Oberlin College, where she eventually completed her master’s degree in fine arts and music history. During her time at Oberlin, Graham composed the three-act, 16-scene opera, Tom-Tom: An Epic of Music and The Negro. The opera opened at Cleveland Stadium in 1932 and drew an audience of approximately 10,000. Graham also made significant contributions to the world as a political activist, serving as the YWCA-USO Director of Fort Huachuca and as Field Secretary of the NAACP. She continued her fight against white imperialism alongside her 2nd husband, W.E.B Du Bois, until her death in 1977.
Listening To Tom-Tom: Past Event for Your Viewing
During the Great Depression, a time of significant racial discrimination and conflict, Shirley Graham Du Bois wrote an opera that covers centuries of history and draws on many different musical styles. The opera, Tom-Tom: An Epic of Music and The Negro, was thought to be lost to obscurity until Harvard purchased Du Bois’ papers, including the opera manuscript, in 2001.
On July 9, 2020, Caramoor presented Listening to Tom-Tom, a livestream performance of selections from the opera and an illuminating discussion with scholar Lucy Caplan, Caroline Jackson Smith, and the performers in which they explored the magnitude and scale of this opera. We are pleased to make our recording of this event available for your viewing again.
Born into slavery in antebellum Georgia, the pianist and composer “Blind Tom” Wiggins is one of the most singular, and tragic, figures in the annals of American music. Despite the prodigious talent that manifested in boyhood — among other gifts, he could memorize and play complex pieces after one hearing — he was judged to be mentally, not just visually, impaired and thus incapable of managing his own affairs. He made his concert debut at eight, performing in Atlanta. After emancipation, he was exploited by a succession of white “patrons” and court-appointed guardians, who promoted him as an “idiot savant” (today he would be diagnosed as having autism) and pocketed most of his considerable concert earnings. Wiggins’s repertoire ranged from European art music — one of his “tricks” was playing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto while standing backwards at the piano — to his own compositions, some of which featured technical effects that were far ahead of their time.
Jeremy Denk Performs The Battle of Manassas by “Blind Tom” Wiggins: Past Event for Your Viewing
At the age of only 12, Wiggins made a significant contribution to the time-honored genre of “battle-music”. The piece, titled The Battle of Manassas, was inspired by the first hand account of the confederacy’s first major victory in the Civil War. The virtuosic piece incorporates various compositional techniques that weren’t common place until later in the 20th century. Techniques including: non-musical sounds, tone clusters, and a train whistle emanating from the pianist’s mouth.
On October 25, 2020, Caramoor presented a live-streamed performance featuring Jeremy Denk performing this piece in a set of diverse works from American composers. We are pleased to make this selection available for your viewing again.
Born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence Price began playing the piano at age four and had her first composition published at 11. By the time she was 14, Price had already graduated at the top of her high school class and matriculated at Boston’s esteemed New England Conservatory of Music. In 1906, before she was 20, she had graduated with honors. In 1910, Price moved to Atlanta, where she became head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University. Upon her marriage, she moved back to Little Rock, but after a series of racial incidents there, including a lynching, she and her lawyer husband left for Chicago. There she became friends with both the writer Langston Hughes and the great African-American contralto Marian Anderson, both of whom had a hand in promoting her composing career. After her Symphony in E Minor won First Prize in the Wanamaker Foundation Awards in 1932, conductor Frederick Stock selected it for performance in June 1933 at the Chicago World’s Fair by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: the first composition by an African-American woman ever to be played by a major American orchestra. Over the course of her career, Price wrote some 300 pieces in a variety of genres.
The Thalea String Quartet performs Five Folksongs in Counterpoint by Florence Price: Past Event for Your Viewing
Found in the University of Arkansas’s library only through its individual parts in Price’s handwritten manuscript, Five Folk Songs in Counterpoint is believed to have been written around 1927. The collection of re-imagined folk songs, based on African-American Spirituals, emphasizes Price’s counterpuntal compositional prowess.
On November 17, 2019, Caramoor presented a live-streamed performance featuring the Thalea String Quartet performing this work alongside Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement. We are pleased to make this selection available for your viewing again.