Celebration of black composers coming on Sunday
It is our great honor and privilege to present the first concert of a full symphony orchestra after a two-year “sick leave”. On March 13, we will perform “The History of African American Composers” at the Marvin Williams Center in Bremerton.
We start with a friend, and sometimes roommate of Mozart. Joseph Bologne, also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was born 11 years before Mozart in the French colony of Guadeloupe. He was the son of Anne (known as) Nanon, an African slave, and Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, a wealthy planter. Recognizing his son’s immense talent, he took him to Paris for a formal education at the age of seven. Young Joseph excelled in athletics and music, eventually becoming Europe’s greatest fencing master, a composer, a virtuoso violinist, and the conductor of the first Paris Symphony Orchestra. After graduating from the Royal Polytechnic Academy, Boulogne was appointed officer of the king’s bodyguard, knight, then colonel. It was an incredible and almost unprecedented achievement for an illegitimate son of African descent. During his public appearances, he amazed the concert audience when Europe’s greatest swordsman appeared as a solo violinist. The servicemen were also amazed to see their greatest fencing master wielding a violin and leading the orchestra. Saint-Georges understood publicity and often played the violin in full military dress with a sword. We will perform the overture to his most famous opera L’Amant anonyme.
In 1930, William Grant Still composed the first symphony by an African-American composer to be recognized and performed by a major symphony orchestra. In 1936 he was the first African American to lead a major American orchestra in a performance of his own works. In 1949, his opera “Troubled Island” was the first opera by an African American to be performed by a major company. We will perform his Symphony No. 1 in Ab, called “Afro-American”. Always used harmonies and blues rhythms to create this work. The four movements are titled, Longing, Sorrow, Humor, Aspiration, and each contains an excerpt from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poems.
William Dawson’s 1934 “Negro Folk Symphony” is lesser known but perhaps the greatest work. It had a triumphal premiere at Carnegie Hall by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. After the standing ovation, three more performances were on the schedule, including a live coast-to-coast CBS radio show. It was an incredible event for a young composer. A New York reviewer called it “the most distinctive and promising American symphonic proclamation hitherto achieved”.
Dawson would go on to lead the music department at Tuskegee Institute and make their choral program world famous. The three movements are “The Bond of Africa”, “Hope in the Night”, and “O, Le’ Me Shine, Shine Like a Morning Star!”
Shortly after the premier, many people heard the obvious similarities to the New World Symphony and suggested that Dawson stole his ideas from Dvorak. A more modern, nuanced and I would say more enlightened answer is: yes, Dawson learned orchestration from Dvorak, but the sections that sound like Dvorak are actually Dawson picking up aspects of African American music, especially gospel music and spirituals. , which Dvorak had previously stolen for use in his own symphonies.
As a child growing up in Seattle in the 1960s, the music of Jimi Hendrix was unmissable. Every teenage guitarist has learned to play every note of Purple Haze. At the age of 12, it took me three days to master this E7 #9 chord, a sound that brought something completely new and different to the airwaves. Hendrix described it as a love song so strong it confused him. He also thought that a future girlfriend had cast a voodoo spell on him that made him that way. We will be working our own musical magic on Sunday March 13th.
The Bremerton WestSound Symphony requires either proof of Covid vaccination or proof of negative Covid test for entry to all performances at all venues regardless of age for this free concert.