Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Classical Gash: Black Classical Compositions Ripped from History Re-Discovered, Brought Back to Life by African-American Researchers

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Classical Gash: Black Classical Compositions Ripped from History Re-Discovered, Brought Back to Life by African-American Researchers

Article excerpt

Classical Gash: Black Classical Compositions Ripped from History. Re-discovered, Brought Back to Life by African-American Researchers

Celia Davidson still fondly remembers curling up in her living room and listening to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera.

She remembers, at the age of 10, her urge to one day compose an opera of her own and how, when she gave voice to this desire, neighbors and relatives thought it was "crazy" for a little Black girl to have such foolish notions about "European" music.

It wasn't until becoming a Howard University student that the soon-to-be Dr. Davidson discovered that Harry Lawrence Freeman, an African American, premiered his opera "Epthelia" at the German Theater in Denver in 1893 -- long before radio become a viable commercial entity. In the same year, Freeman premiered a second work, "The Martyr." In fact, Davidson soon learned, Freeman was so well-known during the early part of the century that one of his works, "Voodoo," was broadcast nationally on radio in May 1928.

Also that year, Clarence Cameron White and John Frederick Matheus returned from Haiti and wrote "Ouanga!," basing the opera on rhythms they had heard while there. William Grant Still had scores of operas under his belt during the same period, and even wrote an opera, "Troubled Island," based on a libretto by Langston Hughes.

The Black classical music field, in fact, was rather crowded during those decades. In the 1800s, for example, there were more than 250 composers of African descent making their collective mark in Brazil.

Despite the success of such composers as Freeman, Still and many others, the very idea of African Americans writing an opera, or even performing in one, was met with ridicule, at best, by a white classical music establishment that considered the genre its own private domain. As time passed, because of this attitude, many works by African-American classical composers was forgotten -- so much so that in 1974 the long-awaited debut of Scott Joplin's "Treemonisha" was hailed as the first-and-only Black opera ever written.

Campus Ignorance

The ignorance most America has about the contribution composers of African descent have made to world music is mirrored on many campuses, say Black musicologists, who express frustration at the short shrift Black music receives in the academy, and its apparent exclusion from the music canon.

"Many do not know, and I consider this as part of the mission of research," says Dr. Andrew Frierson, who taught at Oberlin College and Southern University. Now retired, he is the director of the Henry Street Settlement Music School in New York. He also teaches voice privately to professionals and those who aspire to careers.

Says Frierson: "We are relatively young in this field and we are in the first stages of getting this information out -- especially to young people."

For Dr. Samuel A. Floyd, the issue is numbers. He estimates that out of some 3,000 musicologists nationwide, no more than a dozen are African America, and that since the 1960s no more than two-dozen Blacks have earned doctorates in the field.

"We need to get young musicologists because there are pitifully few," said Floyd, who in 1983 founded the Center for Black Music Research (CBMR) at Chicago's Columbia College. The center is one of the few resources of its kind that features the full range of information and materials on the history of Black music -- from the secular and sacred, to blues, ragtime, jazz, soul, reggae, salsa, calypso, rap, musical theater and more.

No Successors

This year, CBMR was included in a national conference of music educators from the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory. And while some see the inclusion as a sign that things have changed, and that their research has gained legitimacy among their colleagues, there are those Black musicologists who still see themselves as the last defenders of a cultural identity, with much work still to be done. …

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