Organizing the festival was no easy task. It involved translating dozens of black American art songs from English into German. Additionally, historical neglect shaped the scores and parts that the orchestra and singers could find. “This music has been forgotten,” conductor Roderick Cox said of William Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony”. “He was neglected; you couldn’t access that music through the publishers; the rooms were in ruins.
Indeed, the Dawson Symphony – once heralded as a brilliant success – had been dormant in the United States for decades. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only recent recording of it was made in Vienna.
But praising Europe for providing a platform for the music of black American composers misses an important part of the story. White European support 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 the names of Oury Jalloh, Stephen Lawrence and Jerry Masslo?
Prestigious music institutes such as Darmstadt, Germany, have rarely invited black composers to join their international communities, or given their due to black composers based in Germany such as Robert Owens and Benjamin Patterson. In the city of Hamburg, which has a black population dating back to the 19th century and was the birthplace of Marie Nejar, an African-German woman who survived the Nazis by playing as a child actress, performers and audiences at Elbphilharmonie music festival this summer were almost entirely white.
Europe has been lax in promoting its own historic black composers and musicians, such as George Bridgetower, Amanda Aldridge, Knight of St. George and Avril Coleridge-Taylor. Many recent high profile performances by black European performers and composers can be attributed to the Chineke Orchestra in England – the first ensemble in Europe to have a majority of musicians of color – 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. .
The recognition of black composers on all stages puts pressure on institutions to confront their racist past and imagine a better future. Rudolph Dunbar’s interpretation of Still’s “African-American Symphony” and Roderick Cox’s “Negro Folk Symphony” of Dawson, nearly a century apart, suggest that efforts to advance racial justice go hand in hand with a commitment to embrace the power of music. Performing the music of black composers is not simply or only an opportunity to correct historical errors. It also shouldn’t be considered the equivalent of eating your proverbial broccoli. Rather, it is an invitation to dine on the most exquisite dishes. To fight for the music of black composers is to fight for a better world.