Magazine article The New Crisis

Black Strings: The Symphony of a People and an Instrument

Magazine article The New Crisis

Black Strings: The Symphony of a People and an Instrument

Article excerpt


On a spring day in 1841, Solomon Northrup set out from his Saratoga Springs, N.Y.. home, his beloved violin in tow, to provide musical entertainment at a carnival in Washington, D.C. For the educated free Black farmer and musical virtuoso, slavery existed only in whispered tales its specter looming only in the siwy reaches of his imagination.

But,on the,journey Northrop fell ill and awakened from a deep sleep to find himself in a slave pen - shackled, chained and soon after sold to a Louisiana slave owner. Rescued in 1853 Northrop returned to his wife and children, but he remembered the source of his salvation throughout the ordeal. In his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, he wrote:

"Alas! Had it not been for my beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage.... It was my companion, the friend of my bosom triumphing loudly when I was joyful, and uttering its soft, melodious consolations when I was sad."

Once his musical skills were known (he borrowed an instrument from a fellow slave to play the "Virginia Reel" in the presence of a White overseer), plantation owners encouraged him to entertain fellow slaves, masters, overseers and other landowners. Violin artistry elevated his status above that of his peers, and while it may not have saved his life during his enslavement, it surely improved his lot.

Today, few people recognize the long tradition of Black violinists, which is believed to date back as far as 1690, when slaves crafted duplicates of West African goges from hollowed out gourds, calf skin and gut and played them with an arched wooden bow. After slavery, the tradition of the Black fiddler continued with "string bands" that traveled throughout the deep South. (Marshall Wyatt's compilation CD, Violin,

Sing the Blues for Me (1926-1949), features the music of old-time Black masters fashioning a pre-guitar blues style.)

And while slave fiddlers reigned in America, Blacks in Europe such as Chevalier de Saint Georges and Beethoven's friend George Bridgetower (who was said to have so impressed the German composer that he originally dedicated one of his most famous sonatas to him before the two had a falling out) mastered the classical repertory.

Dominique-Rene de Lerma, a scholar of Black history and professor of music at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc., points to the violin virtuosity of not only the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, "but his son and grandson as well."

Early Black violinists even influenced other music. "In early ethnic ensembles it was the violinist who read music," de Lerma says, "and it was this person who taught the Appalachian country fiddlers."

In the years since the artistry of Bridgetower, the Douglasses and St. Georges may have produced a number of gifted artists, but few have made it into the ranks of the major symphony orchestras, and none have managed solo careers that match the status of African American classical pianists Andre Watts and Nathalie Hinderas, or any number of Black opera and concert singers. And no conservatory has produced a Black violinist to equal Jascha Heifetz, Itzhak Perlman or the scores of Europeans and Asians who dominate the concert stage.

In 1998, violinist Aaron Dworkin, then a 26-year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan lamenting his role as "the only Black person in every classical music situation," came across the string music of such renowned African American composers as William Grant Still, who was at his peak in the mid-20th century. "I was upset with myself," he remembers. "I thought, how could I not have known about this music? And had I known, what motivation might it have given me, and how much more focused might I have been?"

"As a string player, I didn't know I had any kind of [Black] peer group around the country," he says. But Dworkin had an inkling that there were talented minority musicians who could benefit from knowledge of (and competition with) each other. …

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