by Benjamin Goron
During the 1930s, a handful of black American artists rose to the top of their art despite a profoundly adverse social system. Their courage, commitment and perseverance turned them into role models for later generations, but they also opened new avenues on the broader musical horizon. As the next OSM concert highlights a work by one of them, let’s discover four of these figures who were pioneers of classical music while also deserving notice for their dedication to the rights of black Americans, and to peace and equality between all human beings.
Paul Robeson (1898-1976)
After brilliant university studies in law, Paul Robeson gave up his career as a lawyer because of persistent racism in his professional field. He turned to the theatre. In 1925, all of America discovered his rich bass voice in the number “Ol’ Man River” from the musical Showboat, opening the door for him to an international career that culminated in the role of Othello in the eponymous Shakespearean tragedy, performed in London and New York. His broad repertoire encompassed opera arias, spirituals, and popular standards. Throughout his life, Robeson was outspoken against the plight of black Americans and advocated for peace. His activism and his proximity to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union caused him, however, to be censored and forbidden from travelling in the 1950s.
Marian Anderson (1897-1993)
Denied admission to music schools because of the colour of her skin, Marian Anderson received, nevertheless, the support of various teachers who had noticed her exceptional vocal talent. After winning First Prize in a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic, she pursued her career as an opera singer, performing primarily in Europe in the 1930s and being considered there as one of the finest contraltos of her generation. In 1939, when she was refused accommodation at a concert hall in Washington, she gained the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and, a few weeks later, sang at the Lincoln Memorial for an audience of 75,000. She was also the first black American singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, in 1955.
Florence Price (1887-1953)
A native of Arkansas, Florence Price’s impressive musical background led her, at the young age of 23, to become Head of the music department at Clark University in Atlanta. In the 1920s, her family left the South because of excessive racial violence and settled in Chicago. In that city, Price flourished in her career as a composer, winning many awards and establishing herself as a pioneer in the field. She was the first female black American composer whose work was performed by a major American orchestra (Chicago, in 1933). She left a vast repertoire that includes four symphonies, three concertos, several tone poems, and numerous works for voice, organ, and piano.
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
After studying composition with George Chadwick in Boston and Edgar Varèse in New York, William Grant Still began his career as an arranger and orchestrator for theatre, radio, and Broadway musicals. He composed his first symphony in 1930, which turned out to be the first work by a black American composer to be performed by a major American orchestra (Eastman-Rochester, 1931). He was also the first black American musician to conduct a major American orchestra (Los Angeles, 1936). Throughout his works, Still incorporated elements of black American musical traditions while embracing the Western classical idiom. The thematic content of his compositions often bears on the plight of black American people in the United States. Still’s catalogue comprises five symphonies, seven operas, numerous chamber and piano works, as well as music for film. His Symphony no. 2 “Song of a new race” will be webcasted from April 20 to May 4, 2021, as part of the concert Barber and Still: American sounds, under the baton of Thomas Le Duc-Moreau.