3 New Albums Retell the History of Black Composers
Music cannot survive on its own. Composers who are not anchored in the canon need support: from publishers, from foundations, from interpreters. Without these champions, it’s all too easy to slide into the dark.
Three projects – from the Catalyst Quartet; the baritone Will Liverman; and pianist Lara Downes – think of another way to preserve a legacy: recordings. Gone are the days when you could rely on classic albums as a money maker. But in the age of streaming they are endlessly accessible, easy to distribute and, in the case of these new releases, ideal for introducing overlooked color composers whose music often exists in varying degrees of decay.
Recordings have helped fuel the recent revivals of Julius Eastman and Florence Price, whose works have now been held up by scholars and critics but have been weakened for decades – neglected for various reasons, including race.
When a friend of mine, the musicologist Jacques Dupuis, programmed Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Endymion’s Dream for the Boston Ensemble Calliope a few years ago, the only score he could find was a rare hologram in the Library of Congress. So he traveled to Washington and spent dozens of hours transcribing it and creating a performing edition. A video of the resulting concert is the only available recording of the piece.
“I’m not sure if this would be sustainable as a regular practice without solid institutional support,” he said, “which speaks to some of the hurdles in creating equity and diversity for music programming.”
Similar work was put into the creation of these albums with the aim of highlighting music by black composers and opening up new possibilities for the classical canon.
‘Uncovered, Vol. 1: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’
The Catalyst Quartet’s Uncovered project began in 2018 and grew out of the initial idea of performing and recording a program of works by some underrepresented composers. That quickly turned into something more ambitious: a series of focused polls, starting with music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
Coleridge-Taylor, born in Great Britain to a white mother and a black father in 1875, wrote the pieces on Uncovered, Vol. 1 as a student at the Royal College of Music, London. Although they reflect the influence of Brahms and Dvorak, as violinist and scholar Matthew Leslie Santana notes in the album’s liner notes, they feel like a “new music project,” said Karlos Rodriguez, the quartet’s cellist.
“Unless it’s not new, of course, and now it’s redefining canon,” added Rodriguez. He pointed to the clarinet quintet in F sharp minor: “You’re thinking of the clarinet quintets by Brahms and Mozart, but that’s up there. It holds its own. “
Uncovered, Vol. 1, released earlier this month on the Azica label, features Catalyst – violinists Karla Donehew Perez and Jessie Montgomery, violist Paul Laraia and Rodriguez – in three early works by Coleridge-Taylor, including quintets performed with pianist Stewart Goodyear and Anthony McGill, the main clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. (Montgomery, increasingly in demand as a composer, left the quartet last month and was replaced by Abi Fayette.)
Preparing for the Coleridge-Taylor album – and future episodes of Uncovered, which will continue with a recording by Florence Price – was not as straightforward as recording Beethoven quartets, for example. The scores were not always readily available and there was no established history of interpretation.
“These pieces are not in your blood,” said Donehew Perez.
Some of the music had never been recorded, or there was only a single recording, and as Laraia said, “None of these pieces should exist in a recording.” The quartet members hope that Uncovered, Vol. 1 will encourage more Coleridge-Taylor appearances.
“I think this is an interesting way for moderators to move in an interesting direction, but it doesn’t have to come as a shock,” said Fayette. “You can hear the classical era and the romance; It’s not like you’re driving the audience in depth. And I think this year has shown us that classical music is ready for a shift. “
“Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers”
Will Liverman’s Dreams of a New Day, a program of American art songs by black composers released on Cedille Records on Friday, has been in the works for two years. But, Liverman said, the album “comes at a good time.” Due to delays in the pandemic, he recorded her with pianist Paul Sánchez last summer, a time of widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations and renewed urgency for racial justice in classical music.
At the heart of the album – which includes both living and senior composers such as Margaret Bonds and Harry Burleigh, known for his influence on Dvorak and for threading spirituals with classic idioms – is the premiere of Shawn Okpebholo’s “Two Black Churches.” “It’s a stunning backdrop to poetry about the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 and the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC
Liverman, who will sing in the Metropolitan Opera’s inaugural production of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” – the first opera by a black composer – this fall, said he had performed these works in concerts but that inclusion is a possibility to “normalize” them.
“When I started as a student, I kept seeing people like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau because they had taken so many pictures,” he said. “It’s very important to have music that is out there and accessible.”
Rising Sun Music
“But it had to happen,” she recalled. “So I just did it.”
A similar spirit led to the creation of Rising Sun Music, a digital label that debuted this month with the EP “Remember Me to Harlem” and will continue to release recordings of works by black composers. “When you are independent,” said Downes, “you can move a lot faster.”
Downes has worked to develop a community of scholars and musicians to help with the project that aims to highlight the work of color composers dating back more than 200 years. Two of these collaborators appear in “Remember Me to Harlem”: oboist Titus Underwood in William Grant Still’s “Song for the Lonely”; and bass-baritone Davóne Tines, painfully gentle in Margaret Bonds’ “When the Dove Enters In”.
As part of the initiative, Downes also intends to publish new – in some cases the first – editions of scores to make them more accessible to performers and students. The shaky condition of these works reflects the history of American music and the country in a broader sense.
“With every story you uncover, the question arises, ‘Why was this covered? “Said Downes.” You speak of black life and an imbalance. Part of it is bigger than the music. We can look at our art and culture as a microscope of ours. “