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Concerning Race

by sarah - August 13th, 2014.
Filed under: composers, news, women composers. Tagged as: , , , , , .

Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy is working to level the playing field when it comes to the representation of works by women in the classical music repertoire.  But it goes without saying that there is a need for equal representation not only of works by women, but also works by people of color.  The recent article in the New York Times calling out the severe lack of representation of works by black composers in repertoire echoes many of the difficulties that women have faced in their efforts to have their works heard.

  • Having works relegated to Black History Month/Women’s History Month
  • Being criticized for not sounding “Black” enough/sounding too feminine, or not feminine enough
  • And, perhaps above all, wanting to be recognized for their own work, creativity, and skill — not qualified with race or gender.

We have encountered this quite a lot from many different voices who object to the qualification of “women” composers versus a composer who happens to be a woman.  However, the continued and blatant inequality that persists throughout the field requires attention be called to the issue, and such descriptors (though I caution to use the term “qualifiers”) are necessary to highlight just how far we are from hearing a range of different voices in the musical landscape.  In order to advocate for more works by people of color and by women to be added to concert programs, and studied in classrooms, we first must acknowledge the lack of presence — that they are unjustly ignored — to begin with.  The Times article asks: if there still is a racial divide, where does it come from?  The divide is relatively simple — though it is not caused by any overt racist or sexist motivations, it is the lack of innovation in artistic programming that continually promotes Bach, Beethoven, and the boys and neglects any voices that have not been cemented into the Canon of “great” western music.

The defense of the Canon seemingly always dissolves into a discussion of worth and greatness – if the works by women/people of color were as magnificent/valuable/important as the “great” works that have been performed repeatedly, then they would surely rise to the top and stand on their own.  But how can that possibly take place if these works aren’t ever heard?

The article, which features several of today’s prominent composers, doesn’t include the voices of any contemporary black women.  It does, however, recall the life and work of Florence Price who achieved an amazing amount of recognition, in particular considering her role as a black woman working as a composer in the 1930s and 1940s.  The article also recalls a time when women, and people of color, were gaining ground in the field of classical music – writing, having their works heard, receiving not only acknowledgement but even accolades.  But that time has passed, and the voices that had been gaining such prominence in the repertoire of American orchestras have disappeared completely from the repertoire.  Instead, the expectation is to hear Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler (again, and again) and to ignore the voices that are no longer around to advocate for their own works.  Though, as Price knew all too well, there were and will always be barriers:

At the height of her career, Price tried to convince Serge Koussevitzky — conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — to program her music. “To begin with,” she wrote in a 1943 letter, “I have two handicaps — those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins. I should like to be judged on merit alone.”

The Boston Symphony has yet to play a note of her music.

In building off of the Times article, let’s also acknowledge the other black women who made their mark with their additions to the American musical canon, though they remain un- or underperformed.  To name a few:

Julia Perry:

Undine Smith Moore:

Eva Jessye:

Margaret Bonds:

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