Each week throughout the month of February, WDAV’s First and The Future blog series highlights two Black composers or musicians who have shaped the course of classical music: one who shattered a historical barrier, and one whose extraordinary achievements in the same field continue today. Check back here every Monday for the next pair of classical artists!
The first fully American-trained musician to appear with a European orchestra; the first Black woman to perform as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic
Born in 1883, pianist Hazel Harrison’s proficiency at just 8 years old allowed her to earn extra money accompanying local parties and dances. While attending one such event, German pianist Victor Heinze noticed Harrison’s remarkable gifts and asked to take her on as a student. She would continue to study with Heinze throughout her early years, even commuting to Chicago regularly from LaPorte, Indiana to maintain her studies after he moved. Harrison developed a steady career as a private instructor and performer in her late teens, but it wasn’t until two years after her high school graduation that her big break arrived.
In 1904, Harrison was invited to travel to Germany to play with the Berlin Philharmonic. The concert, at which she played Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E Minor and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, was both a critical success and the marker of two historical firsts: Harrison became the first entirely American-trained musician to perform with a European orchestra and the first Black woman to perform as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic. Her 1910 performance at Chicago’s Kimball Hall was an even greater success, inspiring one music critic to advocate for the local music community to sponsor Harrison’s return to Germany for continued training.
Faced with the challenges of World War I and the Great Depression, opportunities to perform grew scarce for Harrison after her time in Europe, though she did continue to play concerts and recitals periodically. Harrison spent six years teaching at the Tuskegee Institute, once giving a student this advice:
“You must always play your best… even if it’s in the waiting room at Chehaw Station, because in this country there’ll always be a little man hidden behind the stove.”
Harrison later became chair of the piano faculty at Howard University, where she established the Olive J. Harrison Piano Scholarship Fund in honor of her mother. She passed away at the age of 86 in 1969. For more information on Hazel Harrison’s life and accomplishments, read a full bio here.
At 25 years old, Isata Kanneh-Mason is quickly gaining traction as one of today’s most extraordinary young pianists. Though neither of her parents are musicians, Kanneh-Mason was raised in a deeply musical family: she is the oldest of seven siblings, all of whom excel in classical music, and the family often comes together for collaborative videos and recordings. In 2015, Kanneh-Mason and six of her siblings made it to the semi-finals on Britain’s Got Talent, where Simon Cowell commented that the Kanneh-Masons were “probably the most talented family in the world.”
Family accomplishments aside, Kanneh-Mason has more than earned distinction as a soloist in recent years. After receiving her Master of Arts in Performance degree in 2020 from London’s Royal Academy of Music, where she studied as an Elton John Scholar, her concert career has reached new heights with engagements across the globe. Kanneh-Mason’s accomplishments in just the past three years include being named one of the European Concert Hall Organization’s Rising Stars, making her Wigmore Hall solo recital debut, serving as Young Artist in Residence with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and making her debut as a television presenter at 2019 BBC Proms.
Gramophone magazine lauded Kanneh-Mason’s 2019 debut album, “Romance – the Piano Music of Clara Schumann,” as “one of the most charming and engaging debuts.” Her second album, “Summertime,” was released in July 2021. Last November, Kanneh-Mason and her brother Sheku spoke with NPR about the importance of representation in classical music:
“We always feel so happy when there are more young people, and more Black people in our audiences… when they say they started playing because of seeing us, I think it’s just a wonderful thing. And it definitely keeps you wanting to do it, and it keeps you inspired.”
Kanneh-Mason’s recent accolades include the 2021 Leonard Bernstein Award, a 2020 Opus Klassik Best Young Artist award, and the 2021 Best Classical Artist award at the Global Awards (won jointly with her siblings). To read more about Isata Kanneh-Mason, visit her official website here.
Sources and Further Reading
Extraordinary pianist and gifted teacher Hazel Harrison (New York Amsterdam News)
Hazel Lucile Harrison (1883-1969) (Blackpast)
Hazel Harrison (WIkipedia)
Isata Kanneh-Mason (Official Website: Isata Kanneh-Mason)
Isata Kanneh-Mason (Official Website: The Kanneh-Masons)
For classical stars Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason, representation matters (NPR)
One of the earliest American guitar virtuosos; considered the United States’ first Black classical guitarist and Cleveland’s first Black professional musician
Classical guitarist and civil rights activist Justin Holland is remembered as one of the United States’ most important early classical music figures. Born in Virginia in 1819, Holland moved to Boston at 14 after the death of his parents and Nat Turner’s Insurrection, and there he discovered a knack for the guitar. He would go on to study with guitar masters at Oberlin College followed by two years in Mexico, where he honed his Spanish language skills to better understand classical guitar pedagogy “at its source.”
Holland returned to Ohio in 1845 and settled in Cleveland, quickly establishing himself as a well respected, no-nonsense guitar instructor; in his own words, he maintained “the most cautious and circumspect demeanor, considering the relation a mere business one that gave me no claims upon my pupils’ attention or hospitality beyond what any ordinary business matter would give.” In addition to his musical pursuits, Holland was known to work with Frederick Douglass as a member of the Underground Railroad and campaigned tirelessly for abolition and civil rights throughout his life.
Now considered Cleveland’s first Black professional musician, his reputation as a composer, performer, and teacher blossomed into fame. Holland played the guitar, piano, and flute professionally, and his many published works achieved national popularity (though he is credited with 35 original compositions and 300 arrangements, roughly ⅔ of those have been lost). His instructional texts, including his Comprehensive Method for the Guitar (1874), were some of the earliest of their kind in the United States and remain hugely influential in classical guitar instruction today.
For more information about Justin Holland, find a full bio and media sources on his life in the links below.
Hailed as a “tremendously versatile and sensitive player,” French classical guitarist Raphaël Feuillâtre was already well known in European circles when he entered the U.S. classical guitar scene with a splash: in 2018, he took first prize at the Guitar Foundation of America International Concert Artist Competition, the most important American competition of its kind. Born in 1996, Feuillâtre explains his childhood attraction to the guitar in an interview with Classical Guitar Magazine:
“I’ve no exact memories of why I chose the guitar, but it was this instrument or nothing! … First, I had an electric guitar toy and then a classical one. I would play it all the time, so my parents understood that it was not just some childish desire, but something I really wanted and probably needed.”
Feuillâtre started guitar lessons at the Cholet Conservatory at age nine, soon moving up to the Conservatory of Nantes and the Paris National Superior Conservatory of Music and Dance, where he earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Classical Guitar with highest honors. Now just 26 years old, his achievements – though remarkable – have only just begun. In addition to his landmark GFA competition win, he is the recipient of several major awards, including first prize at both the International Guitar Competition José Tomás and the Concours & Festival de Guitare. WQXR named his album “Guitar Recital: Raphaël Feuillâtre” one of the best classical recordings of 2019, praising his “virtuoso technique and elegant phrasing.”
Sources and Further Reading
Remembering Justin Holland, guitarist and crusader (Boston Globe)
HOLLAND, JUSTIN (Encyclopedia of Cleveland History)
Justin Holland (WUOL)
Justin Holland (Wikipedia)
Raphaël Feuillâtre Puts His Stamp on the Classical Guitar World (Classical Guitar Magazine)
Dr. Eileen Southern
First Black woman to hold a tenured full professorship at Harvard University; publisher of the first musicological journal on the study of Black music
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Dr. Eileen Southern’s work on the scholarship of Black music. Born in Minneapolis in 1920, Southern studied piano throughout her early years, making her debut at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall at the age of 18. During the 1940’s, Southern completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Chicago, embarked on a decades-long teaching career, and toured the United States as a concert pianist.
Having received her Ph.D. at New York University, Southern became a music faculty member at Brooklyn College in the 1960’s. There, she was asked to develop a course incorporating Black Studies into the musicology field. Southern was infuriated when a colleague claimed there was “nothing to Black music” in a meeting about the course’s potential and sought out works that would prove his remarks were baseless. However, only three books on the subject had been published at the time, and none were widely available – so Southern got to work, scouring libraries and collections for original materials. The painstaking research she devoted to the effort was so comprehensive that it became the basis for her book The Music of Black Americans, still considered a landmark work in music studies today.
Southern and her husband Joseph made history with the founding of The Black Perspective in Music, the first musicological journal on the study of Black music, in 1973. The journal’s mission was clearly defined in its first editorial:
“[The Black Perspective in Music] seeks to improve the conditions for the performance, publication, and recording of an important area of American and African music that hitherto has not received its due share of attention.”
The following year, Southern joined the faculty of Harvard University, soon becoming the first Black woman to hold a tenured professorship at the institution. Southern’s time at Harvard was filled with remarkable successes in spite of racist and sexist treatment from fellow faculty members, including her instrumental role in the development of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department and service as its first chair.
Among other accolades, Southern was the recipient of a 2001 National Humanities Medal for her work to “transform the study and understanding of American music” and a 2000 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for American Music. More information about Southern’s life, work, and influence can be found through Harvard’s Eileen Southern Initiative.
Dr. Samantha Ege
A “leading interpreter and scholar” of composer Florence Price (and 2019 Society for American Music Eileen Southern Fellowship recipient), Dr. Samantha Ege is making incredible strides as a champion of composers from underrepresented backgrounds. Ege, who began playing the piano at the age of three, was astonished to hear the music of Margaret Bonds and Florence Price for the first time during one of her undergraduate classes. “It had been inculcated in me to see classical music through a narrow lens that rendered the contributions of Black women entirely absent,” Ege explained in an op-ed for The Guardian. “My music education proceeded from there and left me looking into a world in which I felt I could never truly belong.” Galvanized by the discovery of influential Black women in classical music, Ege’s lifelong passion for lesser-known works took root.
In 2009, a scenario straight out of a musicologist’s wildest dreams unfolded: though much of Florence Price’s work was believed to be lost, a trove of her written scores and papers was discovered in an abandoned house set to be renovated. For the past several years, Ege has combed through the archives, working to catalog and preserve the pages’ priceless content. Ege was particularly interested in Price’s Fantasie Nègre No 3 in F Minor, a presumed-unfinished work that “ended after two pages really abruptly.”
Using Price’s other compositions as a blueprint, Ege’s hypotheses on “where the music could go” led her to uncover what she believed to be the work’s remaining pages, which had been sitting untouched for decades. As she played through the music that evening, Ege realized that the pieces fit perfectly into place. She described to BBC Music that it felt like “history was coming to life… I sort of had chills thinking about the fact that I am hearing this music for the first time in this century.” Ege recorded the complete work for the first time as part of her 2021 album “Fantasie Nègre – The Piano Music of Florence Price,” which includes numerous other finds from the archive.
Currently the Lord Crewe Junior Research Fellow in Music at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, Ege has received the American Musicological Society’s 2021 Noah Greenberg Award and will publish her first book, South Side Impresarios: Race Women in the Realm of Music, in 2024. Ege’s third studio album, “Black Renaissance Woman,” will be released later this year. To learn more about Dr. Samantha Ege’s achievements and current projects, visit her official website here.
Sources and Further Reading
The Work of Pioneering Musicologist Eileen Southern (JSTOR Daily)
Eileen Jackson Southern Memorial Minute (The Harvard Gazette)
The Eileen Southern Initiative (Harvard University)
First Black Conductor on Broadway
After being introduced to the violin at the age of 8, conductor, violinist, and scholar Everett Lee’s musical gifts took flight quickly. He continued his studies in violin at the Cleveland Institute of Music, later touring the southern United States as a well-known concert violinist, and pursued conducting at The Juilliard School.
Lee’s history-making Broadway career began when he was asked to move to New York City to join the orchestra for “Carmen Jones,” an update of Georges Bizet’s Carmen featuring an all-Black cast, in 1943. One night, Lee was asked to fill in at the podium when the show’s regular conductor was snowed in – and Leonard Bernstein happened to hear Lee’s work with the orchestra. Impressed, Bernstein invited Lee to serve as permanent music director for his musical “On the Town.” Lee agreed, becoming Broadway’s first Black conductor in 1945.
In the coming years, Lee would continue to break barriers as one of the first Black conductors to lead both a major opera company and a white orchestra in the American South, but racism denied him many opportunities afforded to white conductors of his status. Oscar Hammerstein II notably refused to hire Lee as a conductor for his touring shows, giving the excuse that stops in the South would be difficult to book with Lee at the helm. In a 1970 interview with the Atlanta Constitution, Lee recalled being turned away from auditions at two major American orchestras:
“I then made up my mind that if I can’t join you, then I will lead you. I did make good on that promise to myself. Those two orchestras that denied me even an audition, I have conducted… I just had to. I just had to show them that I was there.”
After Lee and his family expatriated to Germany in 1957, his star began to rise throughout Europe, where he became the chief conductor of Sweden’s Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in 1962. His lengthy and highly decorated career included directing tenures at Columbia University’s opera department, the Symphony of the New World, and Colombia’s Bogotá Philharmonic Orchestra, and he made regular conducting appearances at Carnegie Hall through the 1980’s.
Lee passed away earlier this year at the age of 105, leaving behind a remarkable legacy for generations of conductors to come. Archivists in Lee’s hometown of Wheeling, Ohio compiled the following video in honor of his life.
First Black South African Woman to Conduct and Own an All-Black Orchestra
Young conductor and architect Ofentse Pitse is the founder and leader of Anchored Sound, an all-Black orchestra based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Pitse fell in love with music growing up in the band and choral traditions of her church, but her access to formal music education was limited; in an interview with Forbes Africa, Pitse describes the elitist environment of her childhood school’s music department:
“I remember one day just wanting to touch the piano in the music department… and being told, ‘no, you can’t touch the piano’. That made me feel so small. My argument will always be that you have to be what you want to see; you cannot fight a system if you are not willing to challenge it yourself.”
Though she went on to pursue a career in architecture, Pitse’s passion for music only grew stronger. Intrigued by standout soloists she had encountered at choir competitions in the area, Pitse gathered a handful of singers for a jam session at a local church on her 25th birthday – and immediately sensed that she had found something special. The jam sessions continued to grow week after week, and before long, an entire orchestra had materialized.
Initially apprehensive to lead the orchestra, Pitse reached out to conductor Gerben Grooten for mentorship. Describing her “raw talent and raw passion” in an interview with South Africa’s Sunday Times, Grooten explained that Pitse “has had an upside-down journey… she truly is a pioneer, doing what has never been done before.” Three years later, Anchored Sound has evolved into a 45-piece orchestra and 30-member choir, and Pitse’s conducting gifts have blossomed with countless hours of practice and coaching. Proceeds from the orchestra’s concerts and engagements go toward educational opportunities for its members.
Despite the setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pitse’s hopes for Anchored Sound and the future of distinctly African orchestral music haven’t dimmed: “I’m eagerly excited… to find out how the spirit of Africa can come alive within this new world of what an orchestra can be.”
Sources and Further Reading
Everett Lee, First African-American to Conduct on Broadway, Has Died at 105 (The Violin Channel)
Everett Lee (Wikipedia)
Young conductor Ofentse Pitse is taking up her own baton (Sunday Times South Africa)
The Musician Who is Conducting Inspiration Even During Covid (Forbes Africa)
Ofentse Pitse (Wikipedia)