If early African-American classical music composers such as Scott Joplin, who went bankrupt trying to promote his 1911 opera “Treemonisha,” had been better received by white audiences — especially philanthropists — the story of the American music could be very different from what it is today.
In the early 20th century, up to and including the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, many pioneers of black American music both composed and performed vocal and instrumental works in a form of classical music called “art song”. which eventually became less well known than jazz, blues and other genres of African-American music.
But this important form of classical music is celebrated October 13-16, when the UCI Music Department hosts the African American Art Song Alliance’s 25th anniversary conference. The four-day event will take place at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts and is presented by the African American Art Song Alliance, an advocacy organization representing black composers of classic Western art songs.
While the conference highlights the celebration of the centenary of the Harlem Renaissance and composer Margaret Bond, it also embraces more contemporary works by living composers. Several world premieres are planned by current composers who will be present.
This is the fourth consecutive conference of the African American Art Song Alliance to be held at the UCI, where it has been held every five years since its founding here by UCI music professor Darryl Taylor, l one of the most recorded art song performers. Taylor discovered the musical form in Detroit, where he grew up, then attended the University of Michigan under the mentorship of renowned music teacher and operatic tenor George Shirley – after whom one of the prizes to be awarded at the conference bears the name. Taylor continued her research into this art form as a doctoral student at the University of Iowa.
“As a graduate student, my interest in learning more about the music of black composers grew,” he recalls of his early academic research into art song. “But I found these composers important, and their work often didn’t appear in journals and wasn’t included in the courses I took.”
Part of the reason for the lack of knowledge about the art song is the fact that early black American classical music composers were generally unable to achieve prominence in white-run concert halls, let alone receive the financial support from the musical societies of the time. This unfortunate reality is perhaps best evidenced by Joplin’s ill-fated effort to stage “Treemonisha”, his operatic masterpiece, which – unlike his immensely popular and widely imitated ragtime compositions – was largely ignored until the 1970s, when it was expertly pieced together and recorded soon after. before Joplin won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his contributions to American music.
“There was a lack of support from the classical sphere for black composers in general,” Taylor says. “There was just a general lack of desire to branch out on any level through these vaulted institutions of opera and concert halls. Any composer working in this era trying to put forth a symphony found that it was a daunting task.”
Unlike classical music forms such as the opera or the symphony, the art song – or lieder, as it was originally called in the 19th century in Germany, where it originated – usually includes a singer accompanied by a piano or a small instrumental ensemble.
“If you use visual arts as a simile, opera would be like a mural, depicted in broad strokes and meant to be viewed from a distance to get the best perspective, while art song would be like a portrait, where you get the fine detail.” says Taylor. “It’s gritty in its text and vocals; some are brash and daring, and some have the scope of an opera.”
Although generally invisible in the appreciation of classical music, black artists have always been involved in European art song and other classical music. Yet it wasn’t until a century ago that black composers such as the Briton Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and the American Harry T. Burleigh received any recognition for their contributions to the form.
“Black participation in Western culture has always been a hidden figure,” Taylor says. Beethoven wrote music performed by black instrumentalists, he notes, adding that there were black composers at the court of Versailles. “It’s always been there,” Taylor says of the hidden historical record of black participation in classical music.
The Alliance 25 Conference marks the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance, which will be a central feature of the event, and features talks, films, awards, workshops, guest speakers, panel discussions and performances. It will also pay particular attention to female composers such as Margaret Bonds, composer, pianist, arranger and teacher who was one of the first black female composers in the American classical music scene.
Performers will come from as far away as England, Germany and Spain and will include baritone Donnie Ray Albert and soprano Louise Toppin, a University of Michigan voice professor with whom Taylor once bonded. friendship while in college in Iowa.
“These are people who teach masterclasses and are celebrated on the world stage,” Taylor said, adding that he hopes audiences will include people who don’t know artistic song at all. “That’s the whole enigma,” he thinks. “How can you find out something you don’t know? You have to show up for it.”
With generous funding from the Hampsong Foundation, LA Opera and the Flora Family Foundation, the African American Art Song Alliance has made registration for the event free and open to the public. Registration is available on the UCI Department of Music website at https://cloud.broadwayworld.com/rec/ticketclick.cfm?fromlink=2202301®id=121&articlelink=https%3A%2F %2Fmusic.arts.uci.edu%2Falliance -25?utm_source=BWW2022&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=article&utm_content=bottombuybutton1. To learn more about the African American Art Song Alliance, visit its website at https://artsongalliance.org.