The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: To celebrate Black History Month, let us now praise the influence of African-American composers on European classical music and learn about “Afric-classical” music more often than one month out of 12.

February 26, 2012
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

What is the best way to celebrate Black History Month, which ends on Wednesday?

One way is to recall some uncovered or previously neglected black or African-American composers of art music or concert hall music. Ever hear of Joseph Boulogne, the Chevalier des Saint Georges? I hadn’t either. Maybe someday someone will program his music in concert. In the meantime, here is a clip:

Here is a link to a deeply informative website with several helpful pages about him and lists of all sorts of other neglected black composers of classical music, or so-called “Afri-classical” music:

http://chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com/

http://chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com/history.html

http://chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com/others.html

And here is a link to a daly blog that has helpful information more than one month out of 12:

http://africlassical.blogspot.com/

Another approach is to recall that the influence that black music has had on American music and composers such as Aaron Copland. That may help to explain the burst of programs, local and national, featuring George Gershwin (below), who incorporated blues, jazz and spirituals into his early “crossover” music.

After all, incorporating black music in America was not unlike the way that Brahms incorporated Gypsy tunes and dance rhythms or the way that Haydn and Beethoven used peasant dances like the landler into European music or the way Chopin used Polish idioms such as the mazurka and polonaise.

But this year I decided I wanted to highlight the way that African-American music has influenced very well-known European composers of classical music.

Some obvious ones come to mind, including Antonin Dvorak (the “New World” Symphony), Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel (below) and Francis Poulenc. It’s curious how the French seem especially open to new and foreign cultural influences.

Anyway, the piece that has grabbed my attention this year is the captivating “Blues” movement from Ravel’s Violin Sonata, especially in a stunningly beautiful performance on the outstanding new Sony CD “French Impressions” by violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk. It is in the YouTube video below and starts at the 11-minute mark.

So as a salute to Black History Month, here is that performance, not from the actual CD but from the CD release party at the famous night club “Le Poisson Rouge” in New York City:

What pieces would you play to do the same?

The Ear wants to hear.

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