Black History Month

Romantic Pieces by Black Composers

Pictured: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

At WDAV, the month of February brings with it two great programming opportunities. Though we play a wide selection of classical music throughout the year, in February we get to highlight certain pieces as we celebrate both Black History Month and Valentine’s Day. It may seem that the calendar coincidence is all that connects these two holidays, but they actually overlap when it comes to classical music, too. Many incredibly romantic pieces have been composed by talented black musicians, and we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorites below. Enjoy!

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Romance in G for Violin and Orchestra

Coleridge-Taylor was a prolific composer whose works included several string quartets, symphonies, sonatas, and songs. Named after the famous poet, Coleridge-Taylor studied at the Royal College of Music in London and soon gained renown as the “African Mahler.” Here, one of his many romances is performed by the London Philharmonic with Nicholas Braithwaite conducting and Lorraine McAslan on violin.

 

 

Robert Nathaniel Dett: “Magnolias” from Magnolia Suite

Dett is a Canadian-born composer, musician, and professor who grew to fame in America for his use of African American folk and spiritual music as inspiration for Romantic Era-style classical music. His piano and choral pieces are so noteworthy that a choir in Canada dedicated to the works of black composers bears his name. Here, Denver Oldham performs the opening to Dett’s Magnolia Suite, which premiered around 1912.

 

 

H. Leslie Adams: “The Heart of a Woman”

Adams went from studying music at Oberlin College, California State University, and Ohio State to a successful career as an orchestral composer. His works, mostly notably piano etudes and choral pieces, have been performed by countless symphonies around the world. Here, Darryl Taylor performs his piece The Heart of a Woman, an arrangement of the poem by G.D. Johnson, with Robin Guy on piano.

 

 

Florence Price: “Song to a Dark Virgin”

Price is one of the most successful black female composers in the 20th century, as she was “the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer.” This piece, an arrangement of the Langston Hughes poem by the same name, is hauntingly beautiful, performed here by opera singer Marie Hadley Robinson

William Grant Still: A Music-Maker and a Groundbreaker

Pictured: William Grant Still in 1949; credit: Carl van Vechten on Wikipedia.

by Hannah Liberman

To the opera-goers who attended the NYC Opera on March 31, 1949, Troubled Island was simply another original work premiering at the renowned theatre. But the three-act opera, chronicling the assassination of a self-proclaimed emperor during the Haitian revolution of the late 18th century, was so much more than initially met the eye.

With music composed by William Grant Still and a libretto partially written by Langston Hughes, it was the first opera composed by an African American to be produced by a major opera house.

As unprecedented as it was, Troubled Island was met with mixed reviews. Critics questioned Still’s ability to transition from “the soufflé of operetta [to] the soup bone of opera,” and the show was never revived in full.

What’s more, the opening cast featured two white opera stars as the lead characters, while both had been written as black Haitians. But Troubled Island earned 22 curtain calls its opening night, and its legacy as a revolutionary work- both in content and context- continues to this day.

It not only beautifully brought new subject matter to the opera world, but opened up conversation about the lack of representation of marginalized groups in American opera.

Troubled Island may not be in some opera enthusiasts’ repertoires, but it has stood the test of time, with noteworthy productions happening as recently as 2013. Meanwhile, opera companies are starting to replace outdated practices so more prolific artists like Still can have their works produced.

Watch a performance of “I Dream a World” from Troubled Island:

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Hannah Lieberman is a senior at Davidson College where she studies Political Science and Theatre. She loves her work at WDAV, where you can hear her live on Sunday mornings.