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Mar. 2022 | A History of African-American Composers

It is our great honor and privilege to present the first full symphony orchestra concert after a “medical leave” of two years. On March 13 th we will perform the “History of African-American Composers” at the Marvin Williams Center in Bremerton.

We begin with a friend, and sometime roommate of Mozart. Joseph Bologne, also

known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was born 11 years before Mozart in the

French colony of Guadaloupe. He was the son of Anne (called) 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 the greatest fencing master in Europe, a composer, a virtuoso violinist, and the conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris. Upon graduation from the Royal Polytechnique Academy, Boulogne was made an officer of the king's bodyguard, Chevalier, and later a Colonel. This was an incredible and almost unprecedented achievement for an illegitimate son with African ancestry. In his public appearances, it astounded the concert audience when the greatest swordsman in Europe appeared as a violin soloist. The military was equally astounded 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 complete with sword. We will perform the overture of 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 played by a major symphony orchestra. In 1936, he was the first African-American to conduct 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, known as the "Afro-American". Still used blues harmonies and rhythms to create this work. The four movements are titled, Longing, Sorrow, Humor, Aspiration, and each has an excerpt from the poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar.

William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony of 1934 is lesser known but perhaps the

greater work. It had a triumphant premier in Carnegie Hall by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. After the standing ovation, three more performances were schedule including a CBS coast-to-coast live radio broadcast. This was an incredible event for a young composer. One New York critic called it "the most distinctive and promising American symphonic proclamation which has so far been achieved."

Dawson would go on to lead the Music Department of 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 had stolen his ideas from Dvorak. A more modern, nuanced, and I would say, educated response is this: Yes, Dawson learned orchestration from Dvorak, but the sections that sound like Dvorak, are actually Dawson taking back the aspects of African-American music, especially gospel music and spirituals, that Dvorak had stolen previously to use in his own symphonies.

As a child growing up in Seattle in the 1960’s, the music of Jimi Hendrix was inescapable. Every teenage guitarist learned to play every note of Purple Haze. At the age of 12, it took me three days to master that E7#9 chord, a sound that brought something completely new and different to the airwaves. Hendrix described it as a song of love so strong that it made him disoriented. He also thought that a prospective girlfriend had put a Voodoo spell on him that made him that way. We will work our own musical magic on Sunday, March 13.

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.


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