When Europe Offered Black Composers an Ear

It took a lot of hard work to put on the festival. It required the translation from English into German of dozens of Black American art songs. In addition, the orchestra and singers’ access to scores and parts was hampered by previous generations’ carelessness. Conductor Roderick Cox said of William Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony”: “This music was forgotten about.” You couldn’t get hold of this music through the publishers; the parts were in a state of disrepair..”

Indeed, Dawson’s symphony — once heralded as a brilliant success — had been dormant in the United States for decades. The only recent recording of it was made in Vienna, which isn’t all that surprising.

Although Europe has provided a platform for Black American composers, this is not the full picture. White European support of and advocacy for Black American musicians has often come at the expense of their own Black populations. As many Black European intellectuals and activists have pointed out, Europeans know the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin, but do they know those of Oury Jalloh, Stephen Lawrence, and Jerry Masslo?

It is rare for prominent music institutes like Darmstadt in Germany to invite and acknowledge Black composers, such as Robert Owens and Benjamin Patterson, who are both based in Germany. Musicians and audience members at the Elbphilharmonie’s music festival this summer in Hamburg, which has a black population dating back to the 19th century and was the birthplace of Holocaust survivor and Afro-German actress Marie Nejar, were nearly all white.

EU countries have been sluggish in promoting the work of African-American composers and musicians like George Bridgetower and Amanda Aldridge. Many recent high-profile performances of Black European performers and composers can be attributed to the Chineke Orchestra in England — Europe’s first ensemble to have a majority of musicians of colour — rather than to white European musical institutions.

Other Black European composers, such as Werner Jaegerhuber, a Haitian-German composer who lived in Germany from 1915 until he was forced to flee the Nazis in 1937, have yet to receive significant European attention.

Institutions are put under pressure to deal with their racist pasts and imagine a better future when Black composers are recognised on any stage. Rudolph Dunbar’s and Roderick Cox’s performances, nearly a century apart, suggest that efforts to advance racial justice go hand in hand with an embrace of music’s power.

The opportunity to right historical wrongs is not the only reason to perform the music of Black composers. It should not be equated with eating your proverbial kale or cabbage. Instead, it’s an invitation to savour delectable fare. It is a fight for a better world when one supports the music of Black composers.