The last live performance I performed prior to last year’s lockdown featured excerpts from Nkeru Okoye’s gripping 2014 opera “Harriet Tubman: When I Cross That Cross to Freedom”. Score takes listeners to one Journey through black music genres, Including spiritual, jazz, blues and gospel.
“I am Moses, the Savior,” Harriet, in her final aria, declares to take the pistol in hand as he urges a weary man to flee to freedom. “You keep going or keep dying.”
With its themes of survival and deliverance, Okoye’s work would be a spectacular grand opening for an opera company’s post-epidemic relaunch. But the American classical music industry has often chosen familiarity and symmetry over the liberating power of diverse voices.
To help break this inertia, we must face a work that has left an indelible imprint on music in this country: Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. To meet the complex legacy of this classic piece will allow us to move beyond this, promoting new paths for artists of color.
In 1893, the year of the Symphony’s premiere, Dvorak argued in print that Black musical idioms should form the basis of an American classical style – Not new Situation, but far from ideal at the time. Some white musicians were so intimidated that they accused journalists of misrepresenting Dvorak’s ideas. Certainly, he meant exactly what he said, as he constantly repeated his ideas, eventually adding indigenous American music to his recommendations.
Dvorak was true to his word in the “New World”. After concluding the symphony, he explained in an interview with the Chicago Tribune that he had studied some of the songs from the Black tradition until they were “thoroughly impressed with their characteristics” and felt that “those characteristics Keeping in mind and being able to create a musical picture. ” “The musical gestures inspired by these songs inspired the melodious interlude of” Swing Low, Sweet Chariot “in this movement and the famous, Wadi Largo theme of the second movement, often mistaken as a direct quotation of the spiritual – but which were really only words given later and changed the inspection A spiritual, “home”.
Echoing the policies of separatist Jim Crow that ensued at the time, many white critics insisted on the backward to deny black influence on the “New World” – despite Dvorak’s own words – as in the African original national musical fabric Will leave the piece in place. Black writers, on the other hand, acknowledged the importance of their advocacy. Richard Grenner, former dean of what is now Howard University School of Law, suggested in 1894 that if Black composers took Dvorak’s recommendations into consideration, they would “become more than lawgivers” —a clear explanation for the prevailing social order the challenge.
Musicians of a wide variety of racial backgrounds, including R. Nathaniel Date, Amy Beach, Henry Gilbert, Florence Price, Dennison Wheelock. John powell Following in the footsteps of Dvorak during the first quarter of the 20th century, Nora Holt wrote a cascade of pieces applying black or indigenous folk styles.
White musicians often earned praise for their musical engagement with these idioms, often involving direct quotations. A critic of Music America wrote for Music America, for example that Powell’s “Rapsody Negre” had a “savage, almost brutal polyphonic climax that was slowly yielding to a more quiet slowness, which the Dorvacians A lyrical phrase was reared with loveliness. ” But white writers attacked Black composers such as Florence Price and William Dawson for using a similar approach.
When Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra Performed Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony” In 1934 at Carnegie Hall, another writer for Musical America wrote that “Dvorak’s influence is strong almost to the point of quotation, and when all is said and done, the Bohemian composer’s symphony, ‘From the New World’ today The best symphony ‘A la nagre’ till date. “
Powell was as sophisticated and adorable as Dawson did when he did.
Dawson responded to The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper, defending his stylistic choice. “Dvorak used negro idioms,” he said. “This is my language. This is the language of my ancestors, and my misfortune is that I was not born at a time when great writers came to America in search of material. “
Over the decades, “New World” has steadily increased in popularity, but the aura of controversies over its relationship with Black music has never ceased. In 1940 an annotator from the New York Philharmonic Program remarked that “Dvorak, in his zeal for Negro music, ignored the fact that our diverse population has a rich heritage of folk music brought here by other colonists . ” At the same time, Olin Downs of the New York Times called the symphony’s origins and inspiration “a question for pedagogical reasoning.”
However, for many black musicians, the “New World” was precisely galvanizing because of its ties to African descent. In June 1940, a short song won Stills’ heart a year after the release of Billy Holiday’s anti-lynching protest song “Strange Fruit,” Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic. “And they lay him on a tree.” In the early part of this piece a somber English horn recalled the famous “New World” Largo, who introduced it directly to the program.
During his race, Rodzinski discouraged violinist Everett Lee from auditioning for the Philharmonic, during his race Lee formed and became the conductor of the country’s first racially integrated orchestra, the Cosmopolitan Symphony Society. During his third season, in 1951, he ranked Dvorak’s ninth, which he would later direct to worldwide engagements in a brilliant career spanning nearly seven decades.
At the height of the civil rights movement, in the mid-1960s, a group consisting of conductor Benjamin Steinberg and composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson Established another major integrated orchestra In New York is called Symphony of the New World – Dvorak an optimist. When Everett Lee returned from Europe To conduct the group in 1966, Her program included her name and her favorite: the “new world” symphony. And the piece remained a staple in the repertoire of several other prominent black conductors, including a. Jack Thomas, Rudolph Dunbar, Dean Dixon, Jerry Lynn Johnson, Thomas Wilkins and Michael Morgan.
In the last 50 years, the “new world” has probably become Keystone at the Apocalyptic American Orchestra concerts abroad, including the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 1973 visit to China and the 2008 New York Philharmonic’s visit to North Korea. But the ensemble with the color living composer has rarely added it. Instead, Dvorak alone becomes the international spokesperson for the entire multinational American experience.
Which should be changed. To begin, organizations must reject the unethical politicization of white musicians of the past who appropriated Black or indigenous music genres – Dvorak, for example, or George Gershwin – such as programming works of color, past and present K is at no cost to musicians.
Like Okoye. Gershwin’s “Pori and Bays” has its strengths, but on the contrary, Okoye’s Deep research opera Provides singers an opportunity to connect with our national past, while being freed from the burden of perverted stereotypes. Okoy’s stirring “Black Bottom” was premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Its annual classical original festival last March, Is one of the most entertaining musical images of black history in the repertoire available. (The performance was a particularly memorable moment for an artist who credits his decision to continue his career in composition, part of the Detroit Orchestra’s tradition of inclusivity.)
The “new world” symphony holds a safe place on programs well into the future. But Dvorak, and the white musicians following in his footsteps, should not be the loudest voices on behalf of all Americans.
At the Detroit Symphony’s first Classical Roots ceremony, in 1978, conductor Paul Freeman performed “New World” – a rich musical crossing of living and historical blacks, with music by Hale Smith, William Grant Still and Jose Mauricio Nunes Garcia. Composers Miscellaneous Backgrounds. To continue today with Dvorak’s legacy, Detroit has commissioned a piece by James Lee III that will premiere next season with “New World”. Lee’s work, “Americana”, presents a grand tapestry of musical images drawn from six centuries of indigenous and black history.
Lee said in an interview that he found Dowrak to incorporate Black and indigenous musical material into a work “quite gratifying”. According to the notes accompanying the piece, it “represents memories of unchanged freedom and enthusiasm with music.”
Lee said his work was set by Dvorak with other orchestras, but in Detroit he would join the tradition of true creative dialogue between the past and the present.
“Being programmed with Dvorak’s music is not new to me,” he said. “But this case is special.”
Douglas W. Schaald is an Associate Professor of Musicology at Vanderbilt University and the author of the book “Antonin Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony.”