When Europe Offered Black Composers an Ear

In early September 1945, amid the rubble of a bombed-out Berlin, the Afro-Caribbean conductor Rudolph Dunbar stepped onto a podium and bowed to an enthusiastic audience of German citizens and American military personnel. It was the first Berlin Philharmonic concert to be led by a foreign musician since before World War II.

The orchestra had gathered in an old movie theater functioning as a makeshift concert hall in the newly designated American zone of the city. First on the program was “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then came a fairly standard set of orchestral pieces, with Carl Maria von Weber’s “Oberon” Overture followed by Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony. But one piece stood out from the rest: William Grant Still’s “Afro-American Symphony.” When it premiered in 1931 in Rochester, N.Y., it was the first symphony by a Black American to be performed by a major orchestra.

Still’s symphony received a robust round of performances in the United States in the 1930s. That decade was a watershed for Black composers like him, who finally managed to convince powerful American ensembles to perform their music. The “Afro-American Symphony” was quickly followed by Florence Price’s Symphony in E Minor, in 1933, and William Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony,” in 1934. These works appeared frequently on concert programs in America at the time — and then disappeared.

It was Dunbar, a clarinetist who had studied at the Institute of Musical Art (later the Juilliard School), who brought back Still’s music. In New York, the two had struck up a friendship before Dunbar set off in 1924 for Europe, where he studied and performed for over a decade. A student of renowned musicians like the conductor Felix Weingartner and the clarinetist Louis Cahuzac, he was steeped in the world of European art music.

But he was also a committed Black activist. Running in the same circles as Black Marxists and Pan-Africanists like George Padmore, Dunbar had long made plain his loathing of white supremacy, whether in the form of Nazism or British imperialism. In fact, he’d already performed Still’s “Afro-American Symphony” for its European debut a few years earlier, on a concert with the London Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall to raise funds for Black soldiers fighting the Nazis.

Dunbar was invited to perform in Berlin by Leo Borchard, whom the victorious Allies had appointed the Philharmonic’s conductor, and was also an anti-Nazi dissident and resistance fighter who aided German Jews fleeing the Third Reich. The message of Dunbar’s debut could not be clearer: Classical music could not be divorced from a global fight against racism.

The work of racial justice in the arts has always been a global effort. Europe’s role in this fight, however, deserves closer inspection. Spurned by the barriers white-dominated institutions placed on them in the United States, Black American composers and musicians have long perpetuated the idea that European audiences were more welcoming. Writing to The New York Age newspaper while studying abroad in London in 1908, the Black American composer Clarence Cameron White said as much: “On every side you find the European musician and music-lover as well realizes that music is too broad and too universal to be circumscribed by the complexion of the skin or texture of the hair.”

There is some truth to White’s claim. Some of the earliest performances of William Grant Still’s music had taken place in Paris. At the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in February 1933, the Pasdeloup Orchestra performed his symphonic poem “Africa,” led by the Austrian conductor Richard Lert, who later fled to the United States after the rise of the Nazis. Safely exiled in Los Angeles, in 1944, Lert invited Black American bass Kenneth Spencer to join him in a performance of Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio “The Ordering of Moses,” another work by a Black composer that would soon disappear for decades.

In Torino, Italy, in 1952, the Black American conductor Dean Dixon introduced the music of Ulysses Kay — who was residing at the American Academy in Rome as a winner of the prestigious Rome Prize — to Italian audiences. “Once you secure the allied interest of Europeans according to the highest standards available, you will be heard,” Dixon said.

Later, during the Cold War, Kay toured Soviet Russia on behalf of the State Department. In the 1980s, the pianist Althea Waites brought the music of Florence Price to German audiences — who eagerly applauded. “There they listen to my music instead of looking at me,” Waites said. In recent years, composers such as Tania León and George Lewis have also received premieres in Europe.

In June, one of the largest festivals outside the United States to celebrate the music of Black composers took place in Hamburg, Germany. Initiated and led by the Hampsong Foundation and the performer and scholar Louise Toppin, the three-day festival at the Elbphilharmonie showcased an array of contemporary pieces and historical works. (Full disclosure: I wrote program notes for the festival and supervised the translations for it.)

“The whole experience ended up being a real celebration of Black excellence, but on a continent that I have called home for the past eight years,” said the composer Anthony R. Green, an American based in the Netherlands, whose pieces “Three Quotes from Shakespeare” and “Sojourner Truth” appeared in the festival.

Staging the festival was no easy feat. It involved translating dozens of Black American art songs from English into German. Moreover, historical negligence shaped what scores and parts the orchestra and singers could find. “This music was forgotten about,” the conductor Roderick Cox said of William Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony.” “It was neglected; you couldn’t get access to this music through the publishers; the parts were in shambles.”

Indeed, Dawson’s symphony — once heralded as a brilliant success — had been dormant in the United States for decades. Perhaps unsurprising, the only recent recording of it was made in Vienna.

But praising Europe for offering a platform for the music of Black American composers omits an important part of the story. White European support of and advocacy for Black American musicians has often come at the expense of their own Black populations. As many Black European intellectuals and activists have pointed out, Europeans know the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin, but do they know those of Oury Jalloh, Stephen Lawrence, and Jerry Masslo?

Prestigious music institutes such as Darmstadt, in Germany, have rarely invited Black composers to join their international communities, or given Germany-based Black composers such as Robert Owens and Benjamin Patterson their due. In the city of Hamburg, which has a Black population dating back to the 19th century and was the birthplace of Marie Nejar, an Afro-German woman who survived the Nazis performing as a child actress, the performers and audience at the Elbphilharmonie’s music festival this summer were almost entirely white.

Europe has been lax about promoting its own historical Black composers and musicians, such as George Bridgetower, Amanda Aldridge, Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Avril Coleridge-Taylor. Many recent high-profile performances of Black European performers and composers can be attributed to the Chineke Orchestra in England — Europe’s first ensemble to have a majority of musicians of color — rather than to white European musical institutions. Other Black European composers, such as Werner Jaegerhuber, a Haitian-German composer who lived in Germany from 1915 until he was forced to flee the Nazis in 1937, have yet to receive significant European attention.

The recognition of Black composers on any stage puts pressure on institutions to contend with their racist pasts and to imagine a better future. Rudolph Dunbar’s performance of Still’s “Afro-American Symphony” and Roderick Cox’s of Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony,” nearly a century apart, suggest that efforts to advance racial justice go hand in hand with a commitment to embracing music’s power. Performing the music of Black composers is not simply or only an opportunity to correct historical wrongs. Nor should it be considered the equivalent to eating your proverbial broccoli. Rather, it is an invitation to dine on the most exquisite meals. To fight for the music of Black composers is to fight for a better world.

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