Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Somewhat like a Black Bartok

Bach in the 80s, when I was Music Librarian at Indiana University, Natalie Hinderas sent me a tape of a talk Philippa gave, I think at Duke University. It was recorded back in the days of the Communist hysteria and Philippa reflected this in her talk, given rather nervously as she recounted experiences she had in Africa. The tape also included her performing a work or two of her own, somewhat like a Black Bartók (which I hope she will never be called!). I remember Natalie made some reference to Philippa's interest/belief in spiritualism, which was share by the people who actually made the tape. Ms Tallalay [Philippa Schuyler's biographer - ed] followed my escape from Bloomington, working in the library. I find it easy to assume she must have encountered Natalie's gift and took off from there.
That email from musicologist Dominique-René de Lerma , which was prompted by yesterday's post Young, gifted, black and now on the BBC, takes us down several engrossing paths. The first is the hunt for a copy of the tape of Philippa Schuyler's talk, which if found would be an invaluable piece of oral history - watch this space. Then there is the path of the black composer, Natalie Hinderas (1927-1987) who really should have a solo post.

There are many parallels between Natalie Hinderas and Philippa Schuyler. Both were black pioneers on the concert and recital circuit in America in the early 1950s, both laid the ground for black soloists to appear with major symphony orchestras, and both performed in Africa and Asia. And the path leads on: Natalie Hinderas died of cancer in 1987 shortly before she was to appear at the Aldeburgh Festival here in England. Would this have been the first appearance by a black musician at Aldeburgh?


Fortunately Natalie Hinderas is better served in the record catalogue than Philippa Schuyler, as seen above. Particularly compelling is Piano Music by African-American Composers which is available as a download from Amazon. This 2 CD album was recorded in 1970 and if you think this thread is stuck in a neo-romantic loop sample track track 7 on disc 2, which is the Stockhausen-indeted Piano piece for piano and electronic sounds by Olly Wilson (b. 1937). More on that album here.

Finally, there is the path opened by the Bartók allusion which Dominique-René de Lerma so brilliantly invokes and then hopes will never be used. Genius is a devalued epithet, yet both On An Overgrown Path and the BBC have fallen back on it in their Philippa Schuyler headlines. Dubbing Philippa a 'Black Bartók' may be glib, but it is also very powerful description in a digital age where brevity is valued more than scholarship.

But there is more to the Béla Bartók connection than mere spin. Both Dominique-René de Lerma's email and my original Philippa Schuyler post highlight how she was influenced by her many visits to Africa, and her compositions include an African Rhapsody and a White Nile Suite. Paul Bowles' biographer Christopher Sawyer-Laucannno's describes how, at Henry Cowell's request, Bowles' made copies of his field recordings of North African Chleuh music available to Bartók who extensively reworked the folk tunes and incorporated them into his Concerto for Orchestra. Bartók's links with Eastern European folk music are well known. Less well known is that he visited Algeria in 1913 and Egypt in 1932 to pursue his ethnomusicological research, and that tunes collected on his visit to Algeria appear in his Second Quartet composed in 1917.

While respecting Dominique-René de Lerma's misgiving I am pleased he brought the 'Black Bartók' description into play, because it allows us to explore important connections which transcend ethnicity and gender. I have been delighted by the response to my posts on musicians of colour, and am heartened that they have prompted a BBC programme. But there is a risk, and this applies On An Overgrown Path and elsewhere, that we champion Philippa Schuyler and others because of their colour, rather than despite it. In his perceptive essay on Philippa's early piano music John McLaughlin Williams highlights links with Stravinsky, Prokofiev and the Soviet futurist composer Alexander Mossolov, thereby providing a very important reminder that it is the music and not the colour of the musician that matters.

Culturally rich but politically compromised Algeria will feature in a number of future paths. There is more on Bartók's North African connection in Classical masterpiece's surprising parentage.

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2 comments:

Pliable said...

Comment added to AfriClassical blog post about this path by composer George Walker -

I think that it is important to make distinctions between the careers of Philippa Schuyler and Natalie Hinderas. The range of Natalie's performances and repertoire was far more extensive than that of Ms. Schuyler. Natalie's pianism was powerful when strength was required and technically secure. Although she was not a composer, she had an intuitive grasp of the elements found in contemporary music. Her recording of my Piano Concerto played with numerous orchestras remains a reference.”

http://georgetwalker.com/

http://africlassical.blogspot.com/2011/10/george-walker-it-is-important-to-make.html

Carl Grainger said...

Would this have been the first appearance by a black musician at Aldeburgh?
I remember a young Jessye Norman giving a recital, including the Wesendonck Lieder, at the Aldeburgh Festival in the early 1970s. In a small Suffolk church, she sang with relentless volume and I was not alone in listening to the second half of the recital from the sanctuary of the churchyard.