If you’re like a lot of listeners, most of the time you’ve spent with music up until recently has been like gliding above the icebergs, taking in only what’s been made most obvious. Through a variety of forces, the Beethoven Ninths and Debussy La Mers of this world have risen in stature in concert halls and music schools, somewhat obscuring other major classical statements.
Something is different now, though. Anyone listening to concerts, recordings, and broadcasts over the last year or so might sense an age of new possibility. Just a few years ago, you would be most likely to happen upon a work by a Black composer during Black History Month. Pieces by women, especially women from a previous era, were a rarity year-round. A significant slice of the classical repertoire went largely overlooked.
Now, though, musicians and presenters are finally going deeper and finding a wide audience. For months now, listening to WRTI-FM (90.1), the Temple University radio station and streaming service, has been like dropping in on a graduate-level course in long-neglected works. Orchestras, opera companies, and other performers are commissioning new pieces from women and Black composers (even during the pandemic). Last week’s Philadelphia Orchestra premiere of the original orchestration of Florence Price’s Piano Concerto was a revelation.
Classical music, like other genres, has its fads. One worries that this current institutional interest in Black composers might be a bubble. More likely, though, we will finally see some of this music find a firm place in the repertoire.
“What feels amazing about this moment is the concentration of activity — that’s new for us,” says pianist Lara Downes, who has been exploring this repertoire for at least 15 years.
Downes points out that we’ve been here before, that others have made it their work to uncover music by Black composers. What might be different now is the larger societal context of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“In previous generations, it was really hard to cut through the noise,” says Downes. “It’s still not easy now. But it’s worth noting that exactly 14 months ago when all of this Florence Price music had come to light and I was so excited about it, I went to three [recording] labels and nobody though it was viable.”
She ended up self-producing the project, and now her limited-edition vinyl album of recording premieres, Florence Price Piano Discoveries, is sold out (though it is available for digital download).
There’s a sound social-justice argument to be made for bringing works by women and people of color such as Price, Margaret Bonds, Harry T. Burleigh, Rebecca Clarke, R. Nathaniel Dett, and Ruth Gipps (just to name a few historical figures) into what’s commonly called the standard repertoire. Their inclusion signals that classical music really is for everyone.
And there’s also an incredibly compelling musical reason to delve into the body of work of underappreciated composers: We don’t know what we don’t know. And for anyone who cares about music, that’s a notion both deeply disturbing and tantalizing.
One example: The Florence Price revival is in full bloom right now. And yet, as an indication of how much there is still to learn, of the 132 solo vocal works she is thought to have composed, 83 remain unpublished, says Florence Price scholar Stephen Spinelli, lecturer and assistant director of choral programs at Cornell University.
“My assumption is that her works for other forces are represented by similar figures,” he says.
The good news about classical music is that there’s so much of it you could spend your entire life listening to regularly and still not hear anything approaching all of it. What has changed is that music presenters used to be museums first and foremost, but now are thinking of themselves as something more.
The museum is still around — online, available through downloads and other sources from anywhere anytime of the day or night. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 was on the other day, and it sounded so right and, in a way, inevitable. Every musical idea rolled out and developed in a manner that seemed no less natural than the way a stream splashes down the rocks in a spring thaw. It seemed like the very definition of great.
Many others think so, too. But why do we feel this way? Undoubtedly, we hear certain works and composers as great because we grew up hearing them, studying them, and were told over and over that their greatness stemmed from totally objective criteria.
And in order for a composer’s music to emerge as great, it first needs to be heard.
”Our Black composers need no apology, no defense, no explanation, no patronizing. They need performance,” wrote Natalie Hinderas, the late pianist and Temple University professor, in the dedication of her landmark recorded collection, Natalie Hinderas Plays Music by Black Composers. “They need to be programmed beside their fellow white composers from Bach to Berio.”
“Greatness,” too, flows from music attracting the right interpreter. I had once dismissed Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony as something less than first-rate. But when Vladimir Jurowski conducted it with Philadelphia Orchestra a decade and a half ago, he highlighted the incredible inventiveness of the score, and the piece suddenly jumped out as one of the composer’s powerhouse artistic statements.
With the orchestra’s presentation this month of Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement (available at philorch.org through Feb. 25), that piece has gained new advocacy. Through a passionate, penetrating performance by the ensemble and pianist Michelle Cann, a once-obscure concerto has emerged as a stunning original.
Bodies of repertoire (not to mention music curriculum) are in constant churn. In a way, the moment we are in reminds me of how we came to understand who Schubert was. It was years after his time that some of his greatest works were uncovered. What would we think of him absent the Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished? Its first performance came in 1865, nearly four decades after his death.
“The posthumous revelations brought Schubert’s entire oeuvre more in line with that of Beethoven,” wrote scholar and Bard College president Leon Botstein in an essay in Franz Schubert and His World.
Somewhere, in an attic or a music library or maybe hiding in plain sight, are pieces by non-white-male composers that, with the right kind of attention, will open our ears to genius.
Hinderas’ plea for Black composers to be heard came a half-century ago, in 1971, and maybe we’re finally there. Something about the moment feels like sweet justice. It sounds pretty great, too.