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Black History, Black Classical Music
Michael Morgan leads the Oakland Symphony during a concert in 2018. (Oakland Symphony)

Black History, Black Classical Music

There’s struggle, adversity, vibrancy, and beauty linked to a body of work that is beginning to get the recognition it deserves.

Jeffrey Gedmin

In a recent performance by the Oakland Symphony, cultural historian and music impresario Joe Horowitz found an audience so variegated “in age, ethnicity, attire, and attitude that it resists generalization.” The concert took place, writes Horowitz, “in the impeccably restored downtown Paramount Theatre” in a neighborhood “funky, surprising, quiet, and beautiful—and devastated, economically, by the pandemic.”

Horowitz has written books on Wagner, Toscanini, and Dvořák. He has also been a tireless promoter of Black classical music.

The performance Horowitz attended at the Paramount Theatre—an Art Deco building that started as a movie palace in the late 1920s—included the work of a great Black American composer. The concert remembered a gifted Black American conductor.

Michael Morgan died at the age of sixty-six on August 21 last year. He had served as the Oakland Symphony’s music director for three decades. Raised in Washington, D.C., Morgan attended McKinley High School and went on to study music at Oberlin. Morgan described his path as one on the outside: As gay, Black, a Black classical musician, and a Black conductor.

Composer William Levi Dawson made his own way. Dawson was born in 1899 in Anniston, Alabama. He ran away from home at the age of thirteen to study music, working as a manual laborer and librarian to meet costs. Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, on the program in Oakland last month, premiered in 1934 with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. It was nationally broadcast by CBS radio. The Times called Dawson’s symphony dramatic, with a “racial seriousness and directness of melodic speech.” The audience erupted with applause at places, and responded with an extensive standing ovation at the end. Dawson’s work has been a neglected American treasure ever since.

White audiences have resisted Black classical music. White classical composers didn’t help; they were hesitant in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to honor and accept the influence of spirituals, blues, and jazz. George Gershwin was an exception. He embraced these things (his music was also in the program in Oakland). But then Gershwin was seen in elite circles as unacceptably low brow. Says Horowitz:

The people who appreciated him in the United States were foreign-born. It’s incredible once you begin adding up the names: People like Jascha Heifetz, Otto Klemperer, Fritz Reiner, Arnold Schoenberg were in the Gershwin camp. You can’t really find American-born classical musicians of that stature, within that period, who feel that same enthusiasm for Gershwin. I would say it’s a symptom of provincialism—that Americans felt they needed a pedigree, and they felt self-conscious as practitioners of classical music. Europeans didn’t need a pedigree. The pedigree was automatic.

Horowitz’s recent book is Dvořák’s Prophecy and the Vexed State of Black Classical Music. The title refers to Czech composer Antonin Dvořák, who lived in New York City from 1892 to 1895—his New World Symphony was composed at his home at 327 East 17th Street—and who was convinced that homegrown Black music would provide the foundation for a “great and noble” school of Black classical music.

Today, there are signs of growing appreciation for the music of composers like Dawson, Florence Price, and William Grant Still. The story of Black classical music has always been a fraught one.

Black audiences have struggled to access and been hesitant themselves to embrace classical music. The Kennedy Center Terrace Theater hosted recently The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, a play about the founder of the National Negro Opera Company, established in 1941 to bring opera to Black audiences in Washington, D.C. The story starts in 1943, when the company is scheduled to perform on a floating barge to evade racially-segregated venues and a storm sets in.

The concert theater work The Chevalier, commissioned by the Boston Symphony in 2018, tells the story of 18th-century composer Joseph Bologne, known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Bologne was born in 1745 in the French-Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe to a plantation owner and enslaved mother. Young Joseph was sent to Paris for his education, where he became a champion fencer, abolitionist—and virtuoso violinist, composer, and conductor.

Bologne became music director of the Paris-based Le Concert Olympique. He composed symphonies, operas, quartets, and concertos. He befriended Mozart (Mozart may even have borrowed material from Bologne for his own work). He played music with Marie Antoinette. She wanted him to head up the Paris Opera. That was not in the cards in those days for a person of mixed race.

Bill Barclay, writer and director of The Chevalier—and former director of music at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London—first heard of Bologne in 2018.

I only recently became familiar with the work and career of Harlem-born, Juilliard-trained conductor Dean Dixon (1915–76). Dixon made much of his career in Europe. He was director of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1961 to 1974. Dixon thought that building a career in Europe would help open a door for him in America. There were awkward moments. He was once offered a gig in Sweden if he agreed to conduct with white gloves and in whiteface. Later, Dixon recounted he ended up conducting there “10 and 15 times a year in blackface.”

Dixon said he started as “the Black American conductor,” then became “the American conductor,” and finally ended up being known as “the conductor Dean Dixon.”

William Dawson said he wanted his music to sound Black. He wanted the audience to say, “Only a Negro could have written that.”

History opens apertures. We could use more of it.

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

CultureMusicUnited States