Classical Music: Black and Latino Musicians Hope to Change the Image of the Art Form

By Clark, Anna | Colorlines Magazine, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Classical Music: Black and Latino Musicians Hope to Change the Image of the Art Form


Clark, Anna, Colorlines Magazine


PLAYWRIGHT LORRAINE HANSBERRY coined the phrase 'young, gifted, and Black' ... and hit a nerve. Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin are among the many who have borrowed the phrase to spotlight the predicament of being an artist of color, to "have a lovely precious dream," as Simone put it, in a whitewashed society.

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The point is pushed to crisis in classical music. While Asian musicians have found a place in classical music--and, consequentlly, in audiences--Black and Latinos have not. With the exception of ethnic celebration concerts, stages and audiences remain heavily white. Nationwide, less than three percent of the members of symphony orchestras are Black or Latino. An analysis of 200 U.S. orchestras by the American Symphony Orchestra League in the 2000-01 season found that 1.4 percent of musicians were Black and 1.9 percent were Latino. For Black musicians, the numbers actually declined from a similar survey in the early '90s.

That's not to say that artists of color haven't influenced classical music. George Walker made headlines in 1996 as the first living Black man to win the Pulitzer Prize in music. (Scott Joplin posthumously won the honor in 1976, more than half a century after his death.) Walker's prizewinning composition Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra is a 16-minute piece that matches instrumental music with a tenor singing text from Walt Whitman's poem "While Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd," which reflects on Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Lilacs was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and features complicated rhythms, melodies and time changes. While Lilacs may be his most famous work, Walker has published more than 70 compositions in a variety of forms, and his music is performed regularly across North America and Europe.

Walker's Pulitzer was followed by Wynton Marsalis's 1997 win. Marsalis, a Black genre-bending trumpeter and composer, took the prize for Blood on the Fields, a three-hour oratorio for three singers and a 14-member ensemble that follows the story of an African couple sold into slavery in the U.S. Blood is a hybrid of classical and jazz musical traditions. In an interview with PBS, Marsalis said that he uses the language of jazz in Blood's multiplicity of voices--the trumpet and the rest of the ensemble "speak" to each other. At the same time, Marsalis uses a brass chorale, which is otherwise seen in symphonies.

Despite the successes, classical music is still generally associated with rich whites, and that's hard to dispute considering the cost of attending a show. Tickets range from about $30-$115; even an orchestra's open rehearsals cost about $17 to attend. People of color, however, have influenced the history of this art, and today more musicians of color intend to change the image of classical music as the realm of dead white men. "There are, in the last 100 years, contributions by [Blacks and Latinos] that aren't terribly known," said Anton Armstrong, who leads St. Olaf College's major choir--a 75-member group with a long list of recordings and tour dates across the United States. The St. Olaf Choir specializes in classical choral music, and Armstrong is developing the choir's repertoire to include more music from Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America.

"We're only just recognizing concert music from Latin America," Armstrong said. "Those pieces need to be performed, in public schools, everywhere."

Classical music is notoriously difficult to define, except in opposition to popular music. Typically associated with Western European orchestral music--particularly symphonies--classical music also includes smaller ensembles and choral music.

And it includes more than Mozart. Classical music is not only living and breathing in contemporary society, it is the medium of choice for many artists of color. Besides Walker and Marsalis, major figures in classical music include pianist and composer Eleanor Alberga, a Black Jamaican-born woman working in Britain. …

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