In 1893, just before the premiere of his New World Symphony, Antonín Dvořák made the now famous proclamation that “the new American school of music must strike its roots deeply into its own soil…I am now satisfied that inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants.” Dvořák’s words have often been taken to gesture toward a more racially inclusive future for American classical music, one which acknowledges and celebrates the indelible contributions of Black and Indigenous musicians.
That future has not yet come into being. Throughout the twentieth century, and into the present, racism and white supremacy have continued to shape the experiences of composers of color. William Grant Still lamented in 1950 that “There is resentment against a Negro composer who doggedly insists that he can and will write abstract music of a non-racial nature. At the same time, if the Negro composer writes racial music, his opponents will say [white composers like] John Powell and George Gershwin did it better!” Still’s words identify a fundamental limitation of Dvořák’s vision, which insists upon the use of Black musical material without necessarily making space for Black composers. Half a century later, George Walker asserted in a 2000 interview that “Racism is alive and well in classical music.” While the systematic exclusion of Black composers might once have been viewed as a matter of “benign neglect,” Walker continued, “today, it is better described as arrogant disdain.”
Two decades later, musicians and cultural institutions are reckoning with this history of exclusion in a variety of ways. This evening’s program features the music of Walker and Still—widely celebrated, yet still underperformed—alongside that of Dvořák; it also includes examples of African American spirituals, one of the traditions that inspired Dvořák’s commentary. Music by other American art music composers, which similarly draws upon popular and vernacular song, rounds out the program. These works offer a collective sense that “the American identity” is inseparable from the histories of racial exclusion that have so often fractured that seemingly unified term; they also remind us of the remarkable breadth and beauty of the traditions that comprise American sound.
Spirituals, Deep River & Go Down Moses-Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Spirituals—the vast body of sacred songs which originated among enslaved people in the United States—vary in tone, from the mournful (they are sometimes known as “sorrow songs”) to the resolutely hopeful. Whatever their mood, they are powerful. Indeed, abolitionist Frederick Douglass once wrote that “the mere hearing of these songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject would do.” After the Civil War, songs including “Deep River,” “Go Down, Moses,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were preserved and popularized by groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers and concert singers including Harry T. Burleigh, a renowned baritone and composer who worked closely with Dvořák during his time at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City.
Antonin Dvořák, String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major, Op. 105 (1895) and “Lento” from String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96, “American” (1893)
Dvořák’s Quartet No. 14 has an elusive relationship to place. Dvořák began initial sketches for the piece while in the United States, then completed it shortly after his three-year sojourn there came to an end. It has been interpreted either as reminiscent of Dvořák’s fondness for America or as an expression of relief to be back in his Bohemian homeland. Whichever psychological state it represents, the quartet is a remarkably vivacious work. A sinuous, minor-key introduction precedes a lively first movement. The whirling scherzo that follows has echoes of the furiant, a Czech folk dance. Its trio section features a sustained duet between two voices—a favorite technique of Dvořák across his chamber music. The preternaturally calm opening of the third movement eventually gives way to a harmonically adventurous middle section, capped off by an elaborate return to the movement’s opening theme. A rumbling in the cello introduces the final movement, an energetic romp which alternates between forward-driving intensity and moments of playful lyricism before coming to a triumphant close.
The celebrated slow movement of another of Dvořák’s quartets, the “American,” offers a poignant counterweight to the optimism of the Quartet No. 14. The first violin and cello’s elongated melodic lines unspool over a rippling texture in the inner voices, joining together in a plaintive duet filled with nostalgic longing.
William Grant Still, “The Quiet One” from the Lyric Quartet (1960)
Still’s chamber music is often evocative in nature; for instance, his Suite for Violin and Piano (recently featured on the Concert Classics Series) takes its inspiration from three works of sculpture by African American artists. The Lyric Quartet follows in this pattern: subtitled “Musical Portraits of Three Friends,” it depicts three distinct personalities. “The Quiet One,” the quartet’s middle movement, is somewhat subdued in tone but still pervaded by warmth and generosity. The four instruments begin in rhythmic unison, then expand into a busier texture anchored by occasional pizzicato interjections.
Charles Ives, “Prelude: Allegro” from String Quartet No. 1, Op. 57, “From the Salvation Army” (1902)
Charles Ives’ experience of American identity could hardly have been more different from that of William Grant Still. Born twenty years apart and separated by race and region, the two composers nonetheless found themselves similarly intrigued by the possibility of melding vernacular and classical influences. Ives’ first string quartet, written while he was a student at Yale, mixes, reimagines, and resets a variety of Protestant hymn tunes, which the composer encountered often while working as a church organist in New Haven. While much of this movement retains the harmonic simplicity of that original material, it also presages some of the lively experimentalism that would come to characterize Ives’ later work.
George Walker, Lyric for Strings (1946)
2022 marks the centennial of George Walker’s birth, and Lyric for Strings links the composer to much deeper American histories. Written while he was in his twenties and still a student, the piece was initially conceived as a memorial to his maternal grandmother, Malvina King. Born into slavery, King emancipated herself and went on to become the matriarch of a sprawling family in Washington, D.C. Walker’s tribute to her is alternately mournful and optimistic, reaching an impassioned climax before turning to a more tranquil conclusion. Like the spirituals and other folk traditions it evokes, it insists on finding beauty within struggle.
Robert Pete Williams (arr. Steven Mackey), “I’ve Grown So Ugly”
In “I’ve Grown So Ugly,” the Louisiana-born blues musician Robert Pete Williams embraces the genre’s characteristic mixture of the tragic and the comic: “Got so ugly,” he sings, “that I don’t even know myself.” Written while Williams was incarcerated in the Jim Crow South during the 1950s, the song’s seemingly humorous lyrics actually reflect on the dehumanizing and debilitating experience of imprisonment. Mackey’s arrangement of the song emphasizes its original instrumentation, with sliding pitches that evoke the blues singer’s assertive timbre and a forceful repeated riff that takes the place of the guitar.
By Lucy Caplan © 2022 • Program Annotator
Lucy Caplan is a Lecturer on History and Literature at Harvard University and a winner of the Rubin Prize for Music Criticism.