John McLaughlin Williams plays and writes about Philippa Schuyler
Philippa Schuyler. Just hearing the name takes me back to a place in my childhood I have not revisited in memory more than a couple of times in decades. Philippa Schuyler’s name was but one of dozens lodged in my parent’s large sheet music library, occupying shelf space alongside the giants and talented lesser lights of our canonic music literature. Even among those lesser lights Schuyler seemed to me an odd duck a the time, for here peering at me from the cover of the sole piece of music by her in our possession was a picture of a seven year old girl of mixed race, rather than an aged, wizened and likely bearded Caucasian man. Wasn’t that what a composer was supposed to look like?
My being a beginning pianist of about ten or eleven at the time caused me to be extremely curious about the yellowed sheets containing nine pieces of progressive difficulty penned by Schuyler between the ages of four to nine. The fact that she was considered to be an exemplar of mid-twentieth century black achievement added to her music’s mystique. My parents played piano music of timeless worth; my dad enamored of Beethoven and Brahms, my mom all quicksilver and light in Chopin and Mozart. I was learning to play Scarlatti sonatas, my mind filled with the melody and counterpoint by masters of compositional craft. I sat down to play Schuyler’s music and was immediately filled with disappointment. “This is bad”, I thought to myself! It didn’t sound like what my parents played, much less like the music I was studying. Compared with the masters Schuyler’s work seemed trite, short breathed, and to my young mind, immature. (In retrospect and in defense of Schuyler’s work, because of the unusual way in which I began to play the piano, the valuable didactic nature of these pieces eluded me completely.) I played through the music, put it away and never looked at it again. Until last week.
When Bob Shingleton asked me if I knew anything about Philippa Schuyler, I said I knew a little. That little bit comprised my early impressions of her music coupled with knowledge acquired later of her reputation as a racial role model. (I was given Kathryn Talalay’s biography of Schuyler a few years ago, but I considered her such a marginal figure that to this day I have not read it.) Remembering dimly that my mother (Mrs. Norma McLaughlin Nelson) had some sheet music by Schuyler as well as her autograph (acquired at a concert my mom attended as a child in Greensboro, North Carolina), I offered to ask my mom if she still had these items in her possession, and if so would she share them with us. Mom looked and confirmed that indeed she did, and she would. Mom sent me scans of the material that I soon forwarded to Bob. After perusing the music he asked if I might consider making an informal recording of the little pieces, and that is when my trip down memory lane began.
I returned to the pieces with the same derision that I was left with many years ago, convinced that they lacked worth almost entirely. On paper they look very simple (with one exception). The published edition is in need of further editing; dynamic markings can be inconsistent or seemingly illogical, some pieces are meticulously marked, but some of the pieces have no tempo or dynamic markings at all, leaving one to infer everything about the piece save the notes. And yet as simply and naively as these nine pieces begin, as I played them I began to sense growth from one to the next, not only in an increasing confidence by the composer in her raw material, but also a mind attempting to incorporate aspects of then current musical trends.
For example, looking at the No.1 The Wolf we see simple triads and arpeggiated faux bourdon; No.2 Autumn Rain we have unprepared modulations to remote key areas and the lessening importance of a home key. Whereas No.3 The Jolly Pig is completely diatonic, No.4 At the Circus seems to lightly conjure the Stravinsky of Petrouchka. No.6 Men at Work (The WPA on a Construction Job) is by far the most dissonant piece, employing free linear chromaticism and clusters of minor seconds. This piece is also the most technically involved of the nine. I found No.7 Song of the Machine to be the most remarkable of the group. In its evocation of mechanistic automation it cannily recalls music of Sergei Prokofiev and the Soviet futurist composer Alexander Mossolov, and it is here that I finally thought that Schuyler was showing honest potential as a composer. I became genuinely impressed.
No.8 Morning Miniature returns to Schuyler’s diatonic idiom, but here she shows considerable advance beyond the simplicities of Nos. 3 and 5. The melody rings true as inspiration, admirable in its simultaneous simplicity and sophistication. Even without extension or development, it is a complete thought, and a remarkable one from a nine-year old. No.9 Postscript shows a way similar to Prokofiev in making the familiar seem less so, by imposing a simple diatonic melody upon an accompaniment of more dissonant harmony. Schuyler’s writing here is a far cry from the first pieces of the set; she is showing an ability to absorb tradition and a healthy curiosity about the modern music of her time, all encapsulated in a suite of pieces that impress by their precocity.
Ultimately, what do we have in Philippa Schuyler? What is it about her that is worth the preservation of her memory? Is it the person or the music? As a child Schuyler was presented to the black community as someone to emulate. To whites she was the perfect assimilated Black American; well educated, decent to look at, musically sophisticated and manifest with all the transplanted Western European mores that we were told would make the rest of us not merely good citizens, but good Americans. That had to be a heavy burden for her, and as she left us only a handful of works I’m sure it had a severe impact upon her creativity. Yet I must judge only by what I hear, and what I hear from the seven-year old girl makes me want to hear from the twenty-seven-year old woman.
Schuyler had true talent as a composer, and while she was not a child prodigy composer on the level of a Mendelssohn or Korngold, her compositional talent certainly deserved more support than it ultimately received. It may likely turn out that the value of her music is historical rather than as a living corpus of work for today’s audiences. As a female composer of biracial heritage, Schuyler is a relative rarity among composers. Yet whenever accomplishment is presented to us on the basis of race or ethnicity (as she was), we should rightly be suspect but we should also listen honestly. Whatever judgment is at last rendered, Schuyler’s talent does not deserve to be consciously ignored. Let’s examine what she left and see what she had to say. I have a feeling that we may be pleasantly surprised.John McLaughlin Williams plays and writes about Philippa Schuyler who was born on August 2, 1931. Respect goes to John and to his mother Norma McLaughlin Nelson for making this project possible. The first part of this birthday tribute appeared as Philippa Schuyler - genius or genetic experiment?
Now, I simply must read that book!
1. John recorded Philippa's Nine Little Pieces in a non-studio environment. The piano was a 1919 Steinway and a Zoom H1 Recorder using MP3 192 kbps format was used.
2. The audio player requires the latest version of Windows media player, this may mean downloading a dedicated plug in for browsers such as Firefox or an update for Internet Explorer.
3. My research indicates that The Wolf, Autumn Rain and The Jolly Pig were published in 1938 as Three Easy Pieces and the remaining six pieces were added to an edition published approximately two years later. This should be read in conjunction with Philippa's birth date of August 1931.
4. It would be appreciated if any interested reader could add external links to the two Overgrown Path Philippa Schuyler resources on her Wikipedia entry because the Wiki police do not allow me to add links to my own web pages bacause of "self-interest". A separate post on the boring but important subject (nonsense?) of Wikipedia moderation is needed.
5. Copyright of images 1 and 9 lies with Norma McLaughlin Nelson. Copyright of the audio recording lies with John McLaughlin Williams.
6. My thanks go to Norma McLaughlin Nelson of Shaker Heights, Ohio, John McLaughlin Williams and our son for their pro bono contribution to this project.
Any copyrighted material other than that identified above is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.