Notes from the African Diaspora

Edward Kennedy (Duke) Ellington (1899-1974): Harlem

Born in Washington, D.C., Ellington was a pianist, bandleader and composer of such standards as Caravan, I’m Beginning to See the Light, Mood Indigo, In a Sentimental Mood, Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Sophisticated Lady, I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good, Take the “A” Train and Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me. Beginning in the 1930s, he began writing more extended works: Creole Rhapsody; Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue; Black, Brown and Beige and others.

Ellington and his band were returning from a European tour in 1950. Aboard the Ile de France, he wrote Harlem, a work commissioned by Arturo Toscanini as part of a Portrait of New York Suite. Toscanini was too ill to perform it, so in 1954 Ellington recorded it, and the following year Don Gillis conducted it with the Symphony of the Air in Carnegie Hall.

In his memoirs, Music Is My Mistress, Ellington described Harlem as “a concerto grosso for our band and the symphony, it provides me with the opportunity to make some statements on the subject of Harlem, the music and the people…. We would like now to take you on a tour of this place called Harlem. It has always had more churches than cabarets. It is Sunday morning. We are strolling from 110th Street up Seventh Avenue, heading north through the Spanish and West Indian neighborhood toward the 125th Street business area. Everybody is nicely dressed, and on their way to or from church. Everybody is in a friendly mood. Greetings are polite and pleasant, and on the opposite side of the street, standing under a street lamp, is a real hip chick. She, too, is in a friendly mood. You may hear a parade go by, or a funeral, or you may recognize the passage of those who are making Civil Rights demands. (Hereabouts, in our performance, Cootie Williams pronounces the word on his trumpet–Harlem!)”

Florence Price (1887-1953): Symphony No. 3 in C minor

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Price played her first piano recital at the age of four. Her first composition was published when she was eleven. After graduation from high school, she enrolled at the New England Conservatory, where her teachers included Frederick Converse and George Chadwick. After graduation she taught music in Little Rock and Atlanta, then moved to Chicago in 1927. There she studied at the American Conservatory of Music, the University of Chicago and Chicago Musical College. At the latter she studied orchestration with Carl Busch.

Price composed more than 300 works including symphonies, concertos, organ works, art songs, chamber works, and arrangements of spirituals. She was the first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra when Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in E minor in 1933.  

Price’s Third Symphony was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Music Project. It was first performed by the Detroit Civic Orchestra, conducted by Valter Poole, on November 6, 1940 at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Most of the reviews were positive. In the Detroit Free Press J. D. Callaghan said composer “spoke in the musical idiom of her own people, and spoke with authority.”

Price wrote that the Symphony “is intended to be Negroid in character and expression. In it no attempt, however, has been made to project Negro music solely in the purely traditional manner. None of the themes are adaptations or derivations of folk songs. The intention behind the writing of this work was a not too deliberate attempt to picture a cross-section of present-day Negro life and thought with its heritage of that which is past, paralleled, or influenced by concepts of the present day.”

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799):
Symphony No. 1 in G major, Op. 11

He was called “the black Mozart.” Joseph Boulogne, le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was born in the French colony of Guadeloupe, the son of the plantation owner George Bologne de Saint-Georges and his African slave Nanon. The family settled in Paris around 1749. There young Joseph was given fencing and riding lessons, as well as music instruction. He received the title of chevalier after becoming an “officer of the king’s bodyguard.”

In 1769 François-Joseph Gossec hired him as a violinist in his Concert des Amateurs. According to one account, they performed “with great precision and delicate nuances [becoming] the best orchestra for symphonies in Paris, and perhaps in all of Europe.” When Gossec moved on to the Concert Spirituel in 1773, Saint-Georges succeeded him as musical director of the Amateurs. When the Amateurs disbanded in 1781, Saint-Georges founded the Concert de la Loge Olympique, the same orchestra for whom Haydn composed his six “Paris” symphonies. It is possible that Saint-Georges met Mozart in Paris.

Between 1771 and 1779, Saint-Georges wrote eighteen string quartets, three violin sonatas, a sonata for harp and flute, six violin duos, a cello sonata, lost concertos for clarinet and  bassoon, fourteen violin concertos, and eight Symphonie-concertantes. He also wrote six operas and a number of songs. His two symphonies were published as Op. 11 in 1779. Today the he is best remembered as the first classical composer of African ancestry.

~ Program notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2019.