When Europe Offered Black Composers an Ear

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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