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Spotlight: Classical Music’s Debt To Africa



The words – and indeed worlds – of ‘Africa’ and ‘classical music’ are not often found in the same sentence. By its very name, Western classical music tended to evade pressing influences from continents other than Europe or America, only occasionally stepping outside its cultural comfort zone.

In the instances where African music, usually in diluted Afro-American form, made its way through it has tended to be a white, Western-dominated form of music. Well-known black composers were and still are few. Prior to the middle of the 20th century they could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Perhaps the first classical composer of African descent, to give him his full, unabridged name, was Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a contemporary of Mozart. Growing up as a champion fencer, he became the leader of a sizeable army in the French Revolution, his duties leading to imprisonment when the ‘Reign of Terror’ took hold.

Along the way he had been touted as the next conductor of the Paris Opera, only for this position to be denied him on account of complaints from three divas, refusing to be conducted by a man of his skin colour. Chevalier has subsequently become known as ‘Le Mozart Noir’, and his profile has risen in recent years thanks to concerts from the like of the Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment, revealing his music to have great vigour in its faster passages and poignancy in the slow movements.

At the tail end of the 19th century the idea that classical composition could be embraced by all cultures and creeds was beginning to grope for a foothold, and the melodies of African folk music gradually held more fascination for the 19th century ‘Romantic’ composers. Camille Saint-Saëns began to regularly take holidays in Egypt and Algeria, the latter still a French territory, while Antonín Dvořák‘s move to New York brought him into direct contact with Afro-American themes.

While Saint-Saëns was on holiday he began to study North African folk melodies; the fruits of his studies first realised in the attractive Suite Algérienne. This four movement work could be accurately described as an extended picture postcard of the country, and the music reflects Algiers as a cosmopolitan port, particularly in the Arabic themes successfully incorporated into the second movement. Ironically for the French territory, the composer firmly restores home ground in the last movement, a French military march.

Soon after this came a short rhapsody for piano and orchestra, using similar themes; Saint-Saëns’ more explicit title for this was simply Africa. Meanwhile his Fifth Piano Concerto, while subtitled The Egyptian, is actually less explicit in its use of the folk material. Saint-Saëns died in Algeria in 1921.

The composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, born to a Sierra Leonean father, was not at all well known in comparison, and has only been fully revealed as a talented melodist in the last two decades or thereabouts. Based in Holborn and Croydon, he was perhaps the only black composer to break through from the ‘Romantic’ era, showing an aptitude for classical forms in his Violin Concerto, chamber works and cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. Several of the composer’s chamber and piano works are resettings of original African and Negro material.

More recently classical programmers and recording artists have made us more aware of his melodic gifts, with violinist Philippe Graffin performing the concerto at the Proms and the Nash Ensemble recording the most attractive Piano Quintet. Meanwhile his Symphonic Variations On An African Air remain perhaps his most accomplished orchestral work, and it is to be hoped they are returned to the concert hall shortly.

Arguably the most famous examples of Afro-American themes incorporated into classical music are in Antonín Dvořák‘s Ninth Symphony, the New World Symphony. Rather cleverly the composer did not use original themes; instead he wrote extremely accurate imitations of them, in which he kept their pentatonic qualities.

Dvořák wrote his New World Symphony in 1893, and around the time incorporated these techniques into the popular American string quartet and second String Quintet. At this time his work was pretty much instantly contemporaneous with an emerging style of music in North America called ‘ragtime’. While the debts to African music here were further diluted, the way they were used by Scott Joplin ensured they were instantly memorable. Indeed, rags such as The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag are still wholly recognisable, and went on to have a lasting effect on 20th century classical composers such as Hindemith, who went as far as to write a Rag for orchestra.

Joplin, Afro-American by descent, even went as far as to experiment with a type of vocal in his unfinished opera Treemonisha that isn’t a million miles from the rapping style taken on by Joe Bataan in the late 1970s. The opera’s subject matter was highly political, taking as its theme the liberation of Negros by education, and the range of vocal and musical styles address head-on the barriers between classical and more popular forms of music.

More explicit still was the work of William Grant Still, the composer responsible for the first symphony by an Afro-American man. Rather appropriately titled the Afro-American Symphony, it marries more conventional classical forms with popular African styles, making more than a passing reference to blues music while taking on Dvořák’s influence in the final movement.

Inevitably modern classical music has taken African influences to heart more readily. In 1956 Sir William Walton, despite not visiting the continent, wrote an overture to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the city of Johannesburg. Before writing The Johannesburg Festival Overture, Walton contacted the African Music Society, asking for recordings of traditional African music. As a result of listening to those, the finished score makes demands for three percussionists to bring traditional Zulu rhythms to the foreground.

More recently composers open to the influences of African music include John Cage, and his percussion music in particular, and the American composer George Crumb. Modern classical artists have also dipped their feet in music of the continent, among them Kronos Quartet. Pieces Of Africa, released in 1992, features a string quartet by South African composer Kevin Volans (White Man Sleeps), as well as guest performances from the likes of Dumisani Maraire and Obo Addy. David Fanshawe, meanwhile, wrote an African Sanctus, a striking work bringing the Latin Mass and recordings of traditional African music into immediate parallel. It was premiered in the Royal Albert Hall, conducted by Sir David Willcocks, in 1979.

There are, of course, more examples of the interaction between Classical music and Africa, but the above shows how African music has begun to hold more of an influence for Westerners using the classical model. It is fair to suppose this will continue to grow, as by listening to any of the examples cited above, it is easy to see how Classical music can come alive under such influences.


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Spotlight: Classical Music’s Debt To Africa