The Wider View: Songs by Black Composers

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Program Notes

Published April 12, 2022

Like many pianists in my field, I’ve had the Anthology of Art Songs by Black American Composers on my shelf for decades. NYFOS has made good use of it over the years, often programming those concert pieces alongside popular songs by Eubie Blake and Fats Waller. It was high time to open that much-thumbed book again—and keep exploring the contributions Black composers have made to the art song repertoire. Our program, The Wider View, borrows its name from one of the song cycles we found. And our repertoire enlarges the view further, ranging from the first Black musicians to write for classical singers to a newcomer to the field.


It was Harry Burleigh (1866—1949)—baritone, double-bassist, arranger, and composer—who led the way. A natural musical talent, he made his way from Erie, Pennsylvania to New York City where he managed to attain a scholarship at the National Conservatory of Music. There he got a kind of work-study job as a janitor. As he worked, he sang the spirituals that he had known and loved his whole life. The director of the conservatory, Antonín Dvořák, heard the young man in the hallways and was fascinated by the songs, declaring, “In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”


Burleigh’s music fired the imagination of the Czech composer, whose New World Symphony contains a famous faux-spiritual clearly inspired by Burleigh. In return, Dvořák encouraged Burleigh to publish the very first transcriptions of Negro spirituals. Those indispensable volumes would have been enough to establish Burleigh’s career. But he was also attaining tremendous popularity in the field of art song. Superstars like John McCormack and Ernestein Schumann-Heink programmed his ballads in their recitals, and everyone sang his arrangements of spirituals. Admittedly, some of his art songs belong to an old ballad tradition no longer in fashion. But he was prolific, and there are some true gems, like the elegiac “Jean” written in 1904.


Others followed in Burleigh’s path. Camille Nickerson (1888-1982) did her master’s thesis at Oberlin on Afro-Creole music in Louisiana, and collected Creole songs for a one-woman show, which made her famous under her sobriquet “The Louisiana Lady.” She performed the revue throughout the United States for several decades, and also brought her songs to France on a government-sponsored tour. Her impressive credentials landed her at Juilliard for post-grad studies, and then to Howard University where she was a professor for 36 years. “Mo Lemmé Toi” gives us a taste of her scholarship—and her charm.


If Nickerson inherited Burleigh’s folkloric mantle, Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), Florence Price (1887-1953), and Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989) carried his legacy forward in the field of art song. In those mid-century years, voice recitals were still an active part of the concert scene, both for established stars and debut artists. There was a market for contemporary art songs, particularly tuneful, romantic ones. Bonds, Price, and Moore were happy to contribute.


Undine Smith Moore had a distinguished career as a teacher and composer. Much of her work was centered on bringing music education to Black students of all ages, and disseminating the music of Black composers in the larger world. To accomplish this, she co-created the Black Music Center at Virginia State College, which she considered her “most significant accomplishment.” Smith was a passionate freedom-fighter who believed in the power of art as an agent of social change. During her lifetime, only a small portion of her music reached publication, though her influence on her community was powerful. It’s wonderful to welcome her uninhibited music to tonight’s program.


Florence Price is also enjoying a revival these days—Yannick Nézet Séguin has just issued a snazzy recording of her Symphonies #1 and #3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “In her First Symphony, we hear folkloric melodies blended with church music chords,” he wrote in the liner notes, “and chords that are opening up to jazz, to create something that sounds quintessentially American. She was adapting a European form and putting it into her own language.” The same could be said of the song “Night,” where her writing has a kind of Straussian sweep. Alas, her highly romantic vocabulary was out of step with the prevalent taste for the acerbic in the 1950s, and after her initial successes her music fell out of favor. Today we can finally appreciate her for what she was: an impressively fertile artist with a rich musical palette—and the first Black woman to have a piece premiered by a major American orchestra.


One of Florence Price’s students was a teenager named Margaret Bonds, who went on to study at Northwestern and Juilliard. During her college years at Northwestern, where she was one of only a handful of Black students, she took refuge in the poetry room of the Evanston library. There she found volumes of poems by Langston Hughes. When she read his famous “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” she knew she had found a kindred spirit. “Because in that poem he tells how great the Black man is. And if I had any misgivings, which I would have to have – here you are in a setup where the restaurants wont serve you and youre going to college, youre sacrificing, trying to get through school – and I know that poem helped save me.” She and Hughes ultimately formed a close friendship that lasted until the poet’s death in 1967.


Bonds went on to an impressive career as pianist and composer—the first Black person to perform as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the creator of an impressive body of work. Her list of compositions contains many Langston Hughes settings, including the evocative Three Dream Portraits programmed tonight.


Spirituals were only one influence on Black American composers. Another was the blues, as evidenced in the “Song Without Words” by Charles Samuel Brown (1940-2021). Brown’s career covered the waterfront—he was a professional singer, an arranger (for Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle), a professor of voice at the university level, and an educator in the New York City public schools. Brown’s songs respect the beauty of the human voice, and set lyrics with the graceful clarity you might expect from a student of William Bolcom. You won’t glean that from tonight’s song, though: a wordless vocalise written in honor of the blues and gospel icon Blind Willie Johnson.


Not all Black composers took their inspiration from the sounds of the American south. Robert Owens (1925-2017) served in the U. S. Army during the Second World War, and remained in Europe when the war ended. He studied in Paris with the piano legend Alfred Cortot, made his concert début in Copenhagen in 1952, and continued his training in Vienna. Owens returned briefly to America in the late 1950s for a stint at Albany State College, but returned to Germany for the rest of his life. There he became a sought-after actor both on the stage and in the movies as he continued his career as a composer. Though he lived abroad, the lion’s share of his songs are set to Black American poets, primarily Langston Hughes, but also Paul Laurence Dunbar and Countee Cullen. Among his works are a few echte Lieder in German, the language of his adopted country, set to poems by Hofmannstal, Hesse, and Eichendorff. They are fascinating additions to the repertoire.


David N. Baker (1931-2016) took the opposite path, delving deep into third stream jazz. For two decades he was the conductor and artistic director for the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, and he was revered as a recording artist and writer. He began his career as a jazz trombonist, but after he was seriously injured in a car accident in 1953 he took up the cello, only occasionally picking up his horn in the decades after. Baker is one of America’s most important jazz scholars, but among his 2000 compositions are a violin concerto for Joseph Gingold and a cello concerto for his teacher, the legendary János Starker. In “Status Symbol,” we get a quick but potent dose of Baker’s musical powers: an R&B groove, a confrontational, progressive jazz harmonic structure, a voice line that often seems ripped out of Arnold Schoenberg’s notebook, coupled with a sly sense of humor that allows Mari Evans’s poem to detonate slowly.


The music of H. Leslie Adams (b. 1932) brings the exalted lyricism of Burleigh and Samuel Barber into our times. His vocal lines are imbued with a welcome sense of breadth, and he is able to create melodies that both charm the ear and shed a gentle light on the poems. Adams’s studies included composition, piano, and voice, the perfect triple-threat training for a songwriter. He has written symphonies, choral pieces, ballets, and an opera too, but the warmth of his songwriting has been his calling card in recent years.


When I polled tonight’s cast about the music they wanted to include on the program, I was somewhat surprised to see a healthy selection of spirituals among their requests. But of course it makes sense. Those melodies are foundational to Black musicians, and their appeal is evergreen to listeners of all races. Some musicians have made spirituals the bedrock of their creative life, including the composer Roy Jennings (b.1951), whose mission is “to perform, teach and disseminate African-American Spirituals as American artwork.” These songs were the original source for the tidal flood of Black music that followed—jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, and all the varied modalities of classical composition. Jennings goes on to state, “The spiritual in its continual development has actually come to be influenced by the forms it helped to create.” Case in point: his song “The Paradox,” which sets the traditional tune, “City Called Heaven,” to a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar against a dense, complex accompaniment. It’s a dazzling amalgam: the melody, the text, and the piano writing are from three different historical moments, yet they join hands to create a powerful whole.


Other composers take a more straightforward approach to bringing spirituals to the recital stage. If I have a preference for the settings of Hall Johnson (1888-1970), it is because I vibrate to their particular combination of religious fervor and jazzy vibrance. His were also the first spirituals I heard—I’ve loved “Witness” ever since my early teens, and tonight I finally get to play it for the first time. Johnson enjoyed a long career in music, first as a violinist (he played in the orchestra for the groundbreaking 1921 musical Shuffle Along); later as the leader of a renowned choir, the Hall Johnson Singers; concurrently as a composer for films and television; and intermittently as a vocal coach for some of the great Black singers of his day (Marian Anderson, Robert McFerrin, and Shirley Verrett).


Hall was not alone—spirituals have attracted many fine arrangers, like Wayne Sanders, the co-founder and musical director of Opera Ebony. His career has taken him all over the world, and he has received honors in Austria, Italy, Russia, Estonia and Germany. The Finnish press summed it up: ”He will be remembered as one of the great figures in the history of vocal music.” His credits are dazzling, but there is no glitz in his arrangement of “Been in de storm so long,” just the pure soul of the song.


Others have contributed to the repertoire by writing new spirituals. “All good things will be added unto you” by Shelton Becton (b. 1953) proudly bears the label “New Spiritual,” yet despite its comparatively recent provenance it has become a staple in the Black churches and choirs of America. A musician of tremendous versatility—conductor, composer, arranger, keyboard player, and vocalist—Becton has collaborated with a dizzying array of superstars, including Judy Collins, Patti Austin, Bette Midler, Anita Baker, and Denyce Graves.


If you’re raising an eyebrow at seeing Duke Ellington (1899-1974) in a program of classical composers, think again. Ellington was of course most famous for his work in jazz, but he also wrote extended concert works that merged the genres. The first one was Black, Brown, and Beige, which debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1943. In this project as in so many others, he was vastly aided by his assistant, Billy Strayhorn, who had more training in large-form musical structures. The piece had an ambitious agenda: to tell the story of African-Americans, including their years of slavery and the value of the church in their lives. It was ground-breaking to hear an oratorio by Duke Ellington, especially in Carnegie Hall, but the public and the press weren’t quite ready for it. Reception was mixed. Still, the score contained gems, among them the iconic “Come Sunday.”


We’re happy to welcome a relative newcomer to the scene tonight, B.E. (Brittney) Boykin (b. 1989). Last year, Kearstin Piper Brown premiered her cycle Moments in Sonder at Finger Lakes Opera, and we’re excerpting four of the 14 short songs that make up the work. Boykin has long nurtured a close relationship to the poetry of Maya Angelou, the inspiration for Moments in Sonder.


Brown and Boykin met at the African-American Art Song Alliance in 2017, where the soprano heard some of the Angelou settings that were to become part of the cycle. The two women discovered that they were not only both alumnae of Spelman College, but also of the same high school—and that they grew up practically as neighbors in Alexandria, Virginia. This discovery, as well as Boykin’s music, cemented their friendship.


At Spelman, Boykin branched out from her piano studies to explore composition. She continued her schooling at Westminster Choir College, where her concentration in Sacred Music allowed her to continue writing music. After graduating she returned to Atlanta, where she is now a faculty member at Georgia Tech’s School of Music.


Discovering—and re-discovering—this music has been a beautiful journey. Black composers indeed provide a wider view—on America, on the richness of our musical culture, and on the human heart. We’ll be coming back for more.


All of the artists provided invaluable help with this program, for which I am very grateful. Special thanks to Nathaniel LaNasa, whose impressive knowledge of this repertoire is matched only by his kindness and his intelligence. He is a dream colleague—until just recently a student, but now a pro among pros.

author: Steven Blier

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Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.


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