Who is this guy?

How old are you? How old is your music? How old is the music inside of you? This card seems more relevant than ever. Even before the pandemic, symphony orchestras and other classical music performing organizations were struggling to remain relevant. When I created this card, I was thinking a lot about how as the years go by, the musicians playing “classical” music, usually encompassing music from the Baroque era to contemporary art music, are themselves from eras farther and farther away in time from their date of composition. I was looking at my students and younger colleagues wondering what they thought of all of this music. Could they relate to these pieces and make connections to their own lives? It is because of the potential disconnect that I feel it is important to include historical background and stories of the composers when I teach repertoire. Teachers need to help students make connections to the lives of composers.

Having said this, at least for myself, this card has taken on a whole new meaning over the past year. The image on the card of a man of European descent wearing a powdered wig, is reminiscent of the times and lives of composers of many of the pieces we play as classical musicians. However, there have always been many composers and musicians who were not men and not of European descent. Because of slavery, bigotry, discrimination, marginalization and chauvinism, these artists and their works have not found their way into the standard classical music literature. It should be commended that musicians such as Rachel Barton Pine (musicbyblackcomposers.org) have begun the work of recovering and promoting historical works that were overlooked. Organizations such as The Sphinx Organization (sphinxmusic.org) actively promote young performers of color, literally leveling the playing field for performing and recording opportunities.

When I look at this card today as I’m writing this blog post, I’m thinking about all of the composers and performers who did not have an opportunity to have their music heard. It is likely that many of these talented musicians did not have the opportunity to study with talented and well known teachers who could give them the best training and help launch careers. They probably did always have access to the best instruments to play on which can cost a small fortune. They probably did not get the notoriety they deserved from music directors, symphony boards, and concert promoters. They probably did not feel welcomed by mostly white audiences in concert halls that were owned and operated by mostly white men. There has been an entire infrastructure that was not interested in their music and made no effort to study it or promote it. We have all suffered from this loss no matter our heritage or skin color.

When I wear my hat as a public school strings teacher, the story becomes even more insidious. Growing up as a violin student, I always played classical and folk melodies of European origin. As a violin/strings teacher, I also taught my students music mostly of European origin. The public school music department where I teach has since 2019 encouraged including non European music and music from non European composers in the repertoire we teach our students. This mandate has been particularly challenging when selecting repertoire for beginning string students. I have spent many hours searching for appropriate music for my students. Repertoire for beginning string students needs to be simple in terms of key and rhythm. It needs to present some challenge but not overwhelm the student. It is an added benefit if it has an interesting background story that will present a teachable opportunity for students. We musicians have always been ahead of the curve in our ability to adapt to changing times. Considering how creative we are and how important it is to ensure that everyone has a voice, it is amazing to me how hard it has been to find this appropriate repertoire. It seems obvious to me that a segment of our population has been so subjugated for such a long time that it is a struggle to find evidence of their creations.

Here are some composer and performer names to check out: 

Composer William Grant Still (1895-1978)1

Composer Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780)

Composer Sister Marie Seraphine Gotay (1865-1932)

Composer Thomas Greene “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908)

Composer Horace Weston (1825-1980)

Composer Felipe Gutiérrez y Espinosa (1825-1899)

Composer Thomas J. Martin (19th century)

Composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799)

Composer Francisca “Chiquinha”Gonzaga (1847-1935)

Composer and violinist Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960)

Composer, violinist, conductor Amadeo Roldán y Gardes (1900-1939)

Composer Basile Jean Barès (1846-1902)

Composer Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

Composer, conductor, violinist Will Marion Cook (1869-1944)

Composer Kenneth Kafui (b. 1951)

Composer Juwon Ogungbe (b. 1961)

Composer Godwin Sadoh (b. 1965)2

  1. http://www.williamgrantstillmusic.com (Accessed: April 25, 2021).
  2. Rachel Barton Pine, Megan E Hill, Mark Clague, David Bontemps, Carlos Simon, Danielle Taylor, Music by Black Composers Violin Volume 1, Jacksonville, FL, Ludwig Masers Publications, LLC, 2018, 5-68.