Monday, August 11, 2014

NEGRO MUSIC OF THE PRESENT - A 1918 Article by R. Nathaniel Dett

Samuel C. Armstrong
 The below article was published in The Southern Workman a publication of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute of Virginia. The magazine was founded by General Samuel C. Armstrong, an educator, in 1872.

He had founded the Institute in 1868 for the education of blacks and Indians. Booker T. Washington had been a student at the school.
R. Nathaniel Dett
R. Nathaniel Dett, the author of the article was the Director of Music at Hampton Institute. The article was actually a chapter in a pamphlet on black American music. The article here appears as written and published in 1918.
Here is a link to an article regarding the history of the Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute.
On page seventy-two of his “American Masters of Painting,” Mr. Charles H. Caffin makes the following statement: “ So far as could be judged from the showing made by American painters at previous expositions, they were but reflecting the influences of Paris, or of German and English painting.” And then he asks this pertinent question, “Was there, in fact, as distinguished from art in America, any American art?”
Turning to the realm of music, one finds an analogous situation; for, until very recently, music in America was but the reflection of music in Europe. Many of the works by American composers were even named in a foreign language, which shows how extensive was the disregard for things of native origin. If there was, in fact, any real American music as distinguished from music in America, it had as a foundation the songs of popular minstrels, including those of Stephen Foster, the ditties sung in colored operas, and the farcical “coon songs” of the vaudeville stage—music which, while being distinctive enough, was too trivial in intent and effect to constitute anything worthy of the name of “art.”
As for Negro composers, since it seemed the style to avoid in serious efforts any modes of expression by which one’s work might be recognized and consequently condemned as “homemade,” they, too, turned to far-away things for inspiration, becoming either second-hand imitators of Europe through their white American brothers, or, if possessing ideals, sacrificing them for mercenary ends in the creation of a form of popular music designed to satisfy a preconceived (and not very high) ideal held by white people of what Negro music should be.
It remained for an outsider, a Bohemian—the famous Dvorak to show America and the world something of what is possible in the larger forms of musical composition by using the Negro and Indian folk tunes, if not as actual themes, at least by allowing the spirit of them to be the acknowledged source of inspiration. So much has been written and said of the “New World Symphony," that more is not necessary here. It is sufficient to recall the fact that the symphony and Dvorak’s remark that “the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called Negro melodies” were innovations of a rather startling nature to Americans—forerunners of a new trend of thought, whose truly prophetic significance the present-day work of American composers, especially that of the Negro composers themselves, is evidencing.
Yet one sometimes hears in Negro concert choruses and in the playing of “rags,” jass music, and other dance tunes by untutored or only partially educated Negro orchestras and pianists, effects which surpass in real characterization any of the results obtained by Dvorak. Beautiful and unusual as the “New World Symphony" is, it yet leaves a great deal to be said through the medium of Negro folk idiom,the true expression of which will undoubtedly best be made when some Negro composer, who is thoroughly alive to and appreciative of the traditions of his race, “rises up to say some glorious thing” in the musical language of his fathers.
I do not mean by this that the Negro musician and composer has not been hard at work to elevate and develop his music and thus create a new and indigenous art in this country, for such a statement would be far from true. The foreign scholarship which enabled a few young Negro musicians to go abroad for further study was raised and maintained by a colored woman, who has since given festivals of Negro primitive and developed music in many of our leading cities, to the great edification of both races and of especial encouragement to aspiring black artists. One of the beneficiaries of this scholarship has made arrangements of several of the old spirituals which have gained considerable public favor as new compositions; an article from his pen on the music of his race appeared in one of the leading music journals of the country, and recently one of our largest publishing houses issued a composition for the pipe organ on a folksong theme by the same contributor.
Another foreign scholarship beneficiary, besides touring as solo violinist, has recently published violin arrangements of a high degree of merit based on Negro spirituals.
Again, a Negro musician, the protegé of Northern white philanthrophy, is now one of the best known of American singers and classic song writers. While his efforts in Negro music are small as compared with his general work, yet one short choral arrangement of an old Negro theme has become one of the most widely used pieces of American religious music.
Still another Negro composer has been called the Mourssorgsky of his race, because of his unusual ability faithfully to portray Negro characteristics, especially those which savor of old-fashioned superstitions and quaint humor.
In the West two Negro brothers have made collections of, folksongs and have used them as elements in cantatas; in the East two other Negro brothers, one of whom is a famous American litterateur, have cooperated in the production of lyric and operatic Negro music which has no equal elsewhere, and the influence of which has been largely instrumental in the rise of a new school of popular music in America.
Several other Negro musicians were, until the recent draft of men for the World War, leaders of characteristic orchestras especially devoted to Negro dance music—orchestras whose services were sought by leading actors and play houses in the largest metropolitan cities.
Another Negro composer has written two suites for the pianoforte of five numbers each, on ideas incidental to Negro life; these suites have been considerably used in conservatories and music schools. At the memorial service held at Hamilton, Ontario, last year, for the Canadian dead of the Great War, the Pièce de résistance of the program was an anthem based on a Negro spiritual by this same composer. Another of his folksong anthems has been used by practically all of the leading universities and community choirs of the country, and was one of the features of the Norfolk, Connecticut, music festival last fall. The dedication of one of this composer’s piano suites expresses something of his feeling of appreciation for the efforts of those to whom he is very largely indebted for his musical education.
Lastly, there has been established at the National Capital a conservatory of music, dedicated to the furtherance of Negro music; it is entirely officered by colored people and a colored woman is its principal. It has as trustees some of the leading white musicians of the country.
As the scope of this paper is limited to America, the work of Negro composers overseas is not mentioned. Suffice it to say that two English Negro composers have attained a most enviable position among the world’s music masters, largely by reason of their activity in the development of their own racial idiom.
This glimpse of the work of Negro musicians of the present day in handling their own folk tunes shows that they are at last awaking to the fact that there is a great truth in the words from Holy Writ, “The kingdom of heaven lies within.” It also shows that appreciation, often beyond what has been hoped for, is ever attendant upon worthy effort. Why even more has not been accomplished by Negro musicians in the development of their own music will appear from a study of the following facts :—

1 General indifference, amounting almost to contempt for things of native origin, and a slavish admiration on the part of American composers, critics, and, to some extent, publishers, for European ideals in music and art

2 Lack of literary masterpieces of Negro themes, which as librettos or programs would be sources of inspiration for great idiomatic musical works

3 Lack of proper musical and academic training among Negro composers

4 Lack of time for racial study and composition on the part of Negro composers
Only a moment is necessary for the discussion of these four impediments.
Regarding the first I quote from a treatise on music history for students by a professor in one of our leading American colleges, a college whose conservatory department ranks second to none, and which ought therefore to lead one to expect an extremely progressive point of view: “From a world-historic point of view, it cannot be maintained that American composition has advanced the development of the art, enlarged its field of expression, or propounded new problems. . . . There is no native music; there are no national traditions on which to build.”
And also from a society of American intellectuals devoted to the dissemination of educational literature comes the following: “From this standpoint one is inclined to contend that neither the Negro melodies nor the Indian melodies, which seem to have most impressed Dvorak in his musical researches in this country and which have been cited as the possible basis of a national school of music, have any significance whatever, or in any degree reflect national feelings or characteristics.”
While it must be admitted as true that American composition so far has not materially advanced the art of music, the reason is not because there is nothing indigenous on which to build, but because the great store of native assets which might be so used has been ignored by American musical architects. Furthermore, if Dvorak, Busoni, Coleridge-Taylor, and Laparra, all foreigners, could discover in America, after only a few months’ sojourn, enough native material for a symphony, a piano concerto, an oratorio, a great quantity of salon music, and an opera, it is rather safe to conclude that if American composers themselves have not found here at home inspiration for similar works. defective eyesight rather than the lack of well-springs from which to draw must be to blame. And further, if the Indian and Negro songs do not of themselves express national feelings and characteristics, it still remains true that the race question in America is a national issue, having national interests and national effects.
The second point needs no discussion, not even the great Dunbar having left anything which might serve this purpose. The significance of the third becomes apparent when it is remembered that, so far as the writer has been able to find out, the schooling of no Negro musician has resulted in any higher degree than that of Bachelor of Music. The foundation for the fourth item is the fact that, omitting one instance which is very exceptional, even in the case of those Negroes who seem to have attained the greatest success, composition is a “side issue," done between classes in school or after hours of work in some other profession or trade by means of which a real living can be made.
In the development and conservation of her physical resources, America has spent millions of Government money, but almost all that has been done towards the establishing of a national American school of art or music has been through the personal efforts of students and philanthropists. Recently an Indian boy who has no money came to me after one of my sight-singing classes and asked for lessons in harmony. He knows that the study of harmony forms no part of our school course; he came because he has caught the spirit of race and wishes to learn to express properly the music of his people. I sincerely trust that off-hours will find us working together.
Among the large number of Hampton students there are always some who, being endowed with pronounced natural ability, would make excellent musicians and could be trained to become strong factors in the preservation and development of race idioms. Many have earnestly expressed themselves as being ambitious in this direction but are held back by lack of funds or other circumstances which they cannot control. Such conditions among students are probably to be found in all Negro and Indian schools.
Could a national American philanthropy serve a worthier purpose than the special education to the highest possible point of these native-born Americans, to the end that folk traditions, which are rapidly passing away, may be saved by those who know them best, that the backward races in this country may be greatly encouraged through the attainments of their individual members, and that through a great national enterprise, true servants may be created to the great cause of a real American art?

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