When Europe Heeded Black Composers

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The staging of the festival was no easy task. It included translations of dozens of Black American art songs from English to German. Moreover, historical neglect shaped the notes and parts that the orchestra and singers could find. “This music is forgotten,” said conductor Roderick Cox of William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony. “Neglected; you cannot access this music through publishers; the pieces were smashed.”

Indeed, Dawson’s symphony, once heralded as a brilliant success, has been dormant in the United States for decades. Not surprisingly, the only recent recording of this was in Vienna.

But praising Europe for providing a platform for the music of Black American composers omits an important part of the story. White European support and advocacy for Black American musicians often came at the expense of their own Black populations. Like many Black European intellectuals and activists Europeans know the names George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin, but do they know the names of Oury Jalloh, Stephen Lawrence and Jerry Masslo?

Prestigious music institutes such as Darmstadt in Germany rarely invited Black composers to join their international ensembles or gave credit to Germany-based Black composers such as Robert Owens and Benjamin Patterson. In the city of Hamburg, the birthplace of Marie Nejar, an Afro-German survivor with a Black population dating back to the 19th century, the artists and audience performing at the Elbphilharmonie’s music festival were almost entirely white this summer.

Europe has been lax in promoting its own historic Black composers and musicians such as George Bridgetower, Amanda Aldridge. Knight de Saint-Georges and Avril Coleridge-Taylor. Many recent high-profile performances by black European artists and composers can be attributed to the Chineke Orchestra in England – Europe’s first ensemble to have a majority of white musicians – rather than 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 gain notable European attention.

The recognition of black composers on any stage puts pressure on institutions to combat their racist pasts and dream of a better future. The performance of Rudolph Dunbar’s Still’s “African-American Symphony” and Roderick Cox’s Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony” almost a century apart demonstrates that efforts to advance racial justice go hand in hand with a determination to embrace the power of music. Performing the music of black composers is not simply or simply an opportunity to right historical wrongs. Also, the proverbial broccoli should not be viewed as an equivalent to eating your broccoli. Rather, it is an invitation to dine at the most delicious dishes. To fight for the music of black composers is to fight for a better world.

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