Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries
- CDR 90000 035
Album Description Download Full CD Booklet
Say "classical music," and most people think of names like Mozart.
Cedille Records want the world to know about two of Mozart's less-familiar contemporaries, Chevalier J.J.O. de Meude-Monpas and Chevalier de Saint-Georges, as well as later composers Joseph White and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. All were men of mixed African and European descent who made important contributions to European music in the 1700s and 1800s. Celebrities in their day, they've been all but forgotten in our era.
Performers are violinist Rachel Barton Pine, a celebrated performer who champions less well-known music, and Chicago's Encore Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Hege. The Center for Black Music Research at Chicago's Columbia College helped rediscover the musical compositions and locate the printed scores.
These composers of color lived colorful lives. Relatively little is known of the early background of French composer Meude-Monpas, but we do know that he was born in Paris and was a musketeer in the service of French king Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette - when he wasn't composing and writing books on music. Also active in Paris was Guadeloupe-born Saint-Georges, son of an aristocratic French plantation owner and an African slave. The dashing Saint-Georges (who graces the disc's cover) was a champion swordsman and extraordinary athlete, as well as a violin virtuoso. In 1792, he was appointed colonel and commander of an all-Black military regiment of French Caribbeans and former American slaves.
Cuba's Joseph White was born to a French businessman and an Afro-Cuban mother. A concert sensation in Europe and Latin America, White's violin playing was admired by the finest musicians of his day, including the great opera composer Gioacchino Rossini, who wrote, "The warmth of your execution, the feeling, the elegance, the brilliance of the school to which you belong, show the qualities in you as an artist of which the French school may be proud." When White performed in the US in 1876, one music critic called him "The best violinist who has visited this country . . ."
England's Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the son of a physician from Sierra Leone and an Englishwoman, was esteemed in the US, especially among cultured African-Americans. His circle of American admirers included Booker T. Washington. The Coleridge-Taylor Society, a Black choral group, was founded in his honor in 1901. He visited the US several times and was a White House guest of President Theodore Roosevelt. His idol was famed Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, who encouraged the use of ethnic folk music, including Negro spirituals. Accordingly, Coleridge-Taylor incorporated elements of Black spirituals into many of his later works (although not the piece on this disc).
The CD booklet says the support of a European parent gave each of these mixed-race musicians access to formal educational and social opportunities unavailable to their African relations: "Excellent training and remarkable talents allowed these artists to take full advantage of a rare opening in the social fabric, yet they remained exotic and exceptional."
"What may surprise people is that you don't hear an obvious African influence in these pieces," James Ginsburg, the CD's producer, observes. "The composers approached Western music on its own terms and succeeded in creating outstanding works that show a personal imprint within the mainstream styles of their times."