Philippa Schuyler - genius or genetic experiment?
A child prodigy fêted by Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson, performed by five leading American orchestras while still a teenager, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic at age 16, ranked alongside Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein, mourned with a Pontifical Requiem Mass in St Patrick's Cathedral, New York, and the rumoured subject of a Hollywood biopic. That is the executive summary of an American musical legend who was born eighty years ago tomorrow.
Child prodigies, anniversaries and even executive summaries are the common currency of classical music today. But there are several reasons why the story that is going to be told On An Overgrown Path over the next two days is important. The first is that the legendary figure was a woman who had a black father and white mother. The second is that she experienced the barriers to musicians of colour that still linger on today. And thirdly, despite her legendary status, until the second part of this feature appears tomorrow her music will have been completely inaccessible to modern audiences. This is a long and often painful story but it is also important, so do please read on.
Philippa Schuyler was born on August 2, 1931. Her father, George Schuyler, was a renowned and controversial black journalist and her mother, Josephine Cogdell, was a blond, blue-eyed Texan heiress. Josephine Cogdell followed the path of miscegenation because she believed "the white race, the Anglo Saxon especially, is spiritually depleted and America must mate with the Negro to save herself". The young Philippa was raised on a diet of raw food, and even the meat was uncooked because her mother believed cooking destroyed the vitamin content. When the family moved into a new apartment the cooker was ripped out as it was redundant. The young Philippa is seen above and the accompanying photos form one of the most comprehensive set of images of Philippa Schuyler available online.
Philippa's upbringing followed the recommendation of the behavourial psychologist John B. Watson that a child should never be hugged or kissed, and her mother's journals contain numerous references to beating, whipping and slapping. Watson also recommended that parents should talk to their children frankly about sex at the earliest possible age. The approach may have been unconventional, but the results were spectacular. When Philippa was not yet three she had a 500 word reading and writing vocabulary, and when she was 5 her IQ was measured at 180. She displayed musical talent at a very early age and made her first broadcast public appearance as a pianist aged four. Shortly before her fifth birthday she entered her first musical competition and as well as playing four set pieces performed six of her own compositions to win a gold seal certificate.
Her mother, seen with Philippa above, became obsessed with the idea that her brilliant interracial child could single-handedly break the American race barrier by a gruelling schedule of public appearances. In her early years she became an important role model, and her achievement was summed up by the sociologist Hylan Lewis when he asked "Do you know how many blacks took piano lessons because of Philippa?" But Lewis went on to describe her with great prescience as a "A prodigy puppet, and she has two very good puppeteers".
In pursuit of artistic excellence Philippa's piano teachers were repeatedly changes and over a fourteen year period she studied with almost as many teachers. One was Antonia Brico, who was the first woman to conduct the Berlin and New York Philharmonic Orchestras. Brico resigned from teaching the young Philippa because of the concert schedule imposed by her mother. Otto Cesana was her first composition teacher, she also attended conducting classes with Dean Dixon and for a time she studied with Paul Wittgenstein for who Ravel composed his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.
In the mid-1940s it became clear that Philippa's colour was an insurmountable barrier to her career as a soloist in America, so she switched her focus to composing. Her Manhattan Nocturne was performed and broadcast in April 1945 at a New York Philarmonic Young People's Concert and this marked the emergence of Philippa Schuyler the composer. Twelve months later she made her debut in the dual role of pianist and composer with the New York Philharmonic at Lewisholm Stadium playing Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto in G in a programme that also included. Thor Johnson conducting her Rumpelstiltskin Scherzo and a work by Paul Creston.
By the end of 1946, when she was still only 15, Philippa's compositions had been performed by the Chicago, San Francisco and Detroit Symphony Orchestras as well as the New York Philharmonic. In 1947 she played a piano transcription of her Fairy Tale Symphony at a festival in Nashville that also featured music by Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, William Schuman, Marc Blitzstein and the African American William Grant Still. After the concert the influential critic Virgil Thomson wrote of her Symphony "It is in every way as interesting as the symphonies Mozart wrote at the same age".
But despite a limited number of high profile concerts in front of white audiences Philippa's appeal remained largely limited to the African American community. In a Look magazine profile she was described as "The Shirley Temple of American negroes" and her appearance with Arthur Fiedler in Boston was in the ghetto of the "Colored American night at the Pops". Philippa later wrote that it was in the late 1940s that she became intellectually aware of America's racial prejudice. Her insecurity was further fuelled by the increasing realisation that her mother viewed her simply as a genetic and behavourial experiment whose success was due to nutrition and training rather than natural talent.
In 1950 Philippa's search for new audiences took her on extensive tours of Central and South America and it was on one of these tours that she was introduced to the occult ritual of tarot cards. She consulted the tarot for the rest of her life and used them to take important decisions including planning recital programmes. Her European debut was made with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1953 and during her visit to England she formed a lasting friendship with the black Guyanese conductor Rudolph Dunbar while the African American Everett Lee conducted several of the orchestras that accompanied her on her tours (see note below).
In 1955 Philippa visited Africa for the first time and in 1958 undertook a world tour that took her to thirty-three countries. On returning she made her Carnegie Hall recital debut in June 1959 in front of an audience drawn from New York's A-list including Leonard Bernstein. The photo below shows Philippa with her parents after her adult recital debut at New York's Town Hall six years earlier.
Philippa Schuyler was a pioneering feminist. Her militancy increased as her travels widened and she was a notable early campaigner against female circumcision in Africa. But there was a darker side to her sexuality and in Kathryn Talalay's biography a close friend of Philippa's, when asked what her greatest ambition was replied "Sex - and not of the nicest kind". Despite expressing public indifference to matrimony she was desperate to marry. This led her into several disastrous liaisons, one of which ended with an abortion in Mexico in 1965. Yet, in another example of the internal conflicts that tormented her, Philippa had converted to Catholicism in 1958. Despite her mother's involvement with the psychic and supernatural and her own involvement with the tarot she remained a devout Catholic for the rest of her life and visited more than 150 Christian missions in Africa during her travels.
Her early success notwithstanding, it became clear that Philippa's colour was an insurmountable barrier to her ambitions as a pianist. So in 1959 she started to experiment with her ambiguous ethincity by describing herself as 'white' on visa applications. This allowed her to travel to South Africa which was then in the grip of apartheid, and during her brief visit she was championed by white residents. In the early 1960s the bold experiment in miscegenation reinvented herself as a white performer using the Iberian American name Felipa Monterro Schuyler and successfully applied for a Portugese passport using this identity. The photo below shows Philippa in Istanbul on one of her concert tours in 1953.
Her black father had made the extraordinary political journey from moderate left to the extreme right. In his later years George Schuyler was described by a Harlem friend as politically to the right of Barry Goldwater and he finally fell from grace after writing a front page article for an ultra-conservative newspaper condemning the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Martin Luther King. What is even more extraordinary is that his daughter followed him on that journey and, as part of the plan to establish herself as a white performer, went on the John Birch Society lecture circuit using her Felipa identity to talk on subjects such "Red terror in Angola and Central America".
In April 1963 Felipa Monterro Schuyler made her recital debut in Switzerland to mixed reviews and then followed a sequence of events that would be comic if they were not so tragic. After her 'white' debut in Europe she returned to America as Philippa Schuyler to make a recording and receive an award as a black woman of achievement. She then returned to Europe where she played as the 'white' Felipa in Italy and France before crossing the border into Germany where she changed identity again and appeared as the 'black' Philippa Schuyler.
At this point it must have been apparent even to Philippa and her mother that her career as a pianist and composer had reached an impasse. Philippa had discovered the vocation of political journalist when she found herself in the Congo in 1960 as the country lurched towards independence. As well as a journalist she was a prolific author whose output included a semi-apocryphal autobiography, two novels, non-fiction books on the Congo and Vietnam, and a feminist tract. Her new career as a journalist was confirmed when she returned to the Congo to report with United Press International accreditation. Then, in 1966, she was invited by the US Ambassador in South Vietnam to play for wounded troops and was also retained as a correspondent by the ultra-conservative Manchester Union Leader that had published her father's infamous condemnation of Martin Luther King.
Philippa Schuyler returned to Vietnam in spring 1967 where, despite supporting US involvement in Vietnam and her accreditation as a journalist to a notably right-wing newspaper, she attracted the attention of American intelligence officers. The attitudes that she found among the American forces on her second visit reignited her oppositiion to racism, and this was expressed in her second novel Dau Tranh! The heroine Jeanette, who is modeled on Philippa, is the child of a white and a black parent. Her dilemna is lucidly expressed in this extract:
'Her skin was light enough for her to be accepted as second-class white in Rhodesia, Kenya or South Africa, and its color made no difference in Europe. But to Americans it was the most important of all characteristics. It categorised one as a person to be insulted, to be treated as a pariah, to be deprived of respect in all deeper human relationships. The same white Americans who were supposed to be bringing democracy to Vietnam were incapable of practicing it themselves in any context that went deeper than the superficial.'
Philippa gave a recital on South Vietnamese television on April 15, 1967. The programme consisted of her piano transcriptions of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and American in Paris, Copland's Scherzo humoristique and her own composition Normandie. On May 9, 1967 she was travelling on a US military helicopter to Da Nang on her way back to America for a recital in New York's Town Hall. When it was ten miles from its destination the Lycoming UH-1D crashed into Da Nang Bay, capsized and sank. Three of the sixteen personnel on board perished: the dead were an American soldier, a young Vietnamese orphan and Philippa Schuyler.
An accident investigation board was unable to find a satisfactory explanation as to why the helicopter crashed on what should have been a routine flight. Philippa was 36 when she died and was the second woman journalist to be killed in Vietnam. She was buried in her favourite gold concert gown and President and Mrs Johnson sent a basket of red and white flowers to the funeral. Two years later her mother, Josephine Schuyler, hung herself.
That is the story of Philippa Schuyler, all of which is in the public domain and much of it drawn from the the definitive Composition in Black and White, the life of Philippa Schuyler by Kathryn Talalay. It is a powerful and moving story. But as I retold it I was very aware of the dangers of slipping into the rhetoric of "undiscovered genius" and "neglected masterpiece". I was also aware that if my appreciation ended at this point it would fail to answer the question posed in my headline - Philippa Schuyler, genius or genetic experiment? What was missing was the music, and the apparently insurmountable problem was that there are no catalogue CDs of her as pianist or composer, and the only scores are at Syracuse University (see below). At which point Grammy winner, violinist, pianist, conductor, champion of the musically marginalised and African American John McLaughlin Williams enters the story.
When I was first planning this feature I emailed John asking if he knew of any recordings of Philippa Schuyler's music. John replied no, but said his mother had an autographed score of some of Philippa's piano teaching pieces. Thinking 'nothing ventured, nothing gained', I then put the crazy idea to John that he record some of Philippa Schuyler's music for piano as part of my anniversary tribute. And that was what John agreed to do.
Sadly we will not be able to hear Manhattan Nocturne or any of her other orchestral works. But we will be able to hear the first samples of her music to be widely available for decades, and John also generously agreed to keep a journal of his encounter with the child prodigy to shed some light on the question - Philippa Schuyler, genius or genetic experiment? I am very grateful to John McLaughlin Williams for his participation and his contribution can be read here.
+ Philippa Schuyler - August 2, 1931 to May 9, 1967 +
* Sources include:
1. Composition in Black and White, the life of Philippa Schuyler by Kathryn Talalay (ISBN0195113934)
2. Jet magazine online archives via Vieille Annonce & Flickr
3. Philippa Schuyler Collection, Syracuse University online resources
4. Private collection of Norma McLaughlin Nelson, Shaker Heights, Ohio
* A spread sheet prepared by the conductor's son and kindly made available to me shows Everett Lee's concets accompanying Philippa as including the following: Buenos Aires Philharmonic 1955, Buenos Aires Radio Orchestra 1955, Cordoba Symphony 1955, Barcelona Symphony 1956 and Madrid Philharmonic in 1956.
* Music manuscripts in Philippa Schuyler Collection, Syracuse University by location:
Oversize 4 - Manhattan Nocturne 1945 - full score, parts, loose parts, and envelope with notes written on it
Oversize 5 - Nile Fantasia 1946 - full score, another full score, and piano parts for movements 2, 3, and 4
Oversize 5 - Rumpelstiltsken circa 1947 - full score, another full score, and loose parts in an envelope
Oversize 6 - Rumpelstiltsken photostat sheets circa 1947
Box 6 - Published 1938-1955
Contains Three Little Pieces by Philippa Schuyler, 1938 (The Wolf, Autumn Rain, The Jolly Pig); Eight Little Pieces by Philippa Schuyler, 3rd edition circa 1940 (The Wolf, Autumn Rain, The Jolly Pig, At the Circus, Farewell, Song of the Machine, Morning Miniature, Postscript); Rumpelstiltsken para Piano, 1955 (3 copies).
* Photo sources from top downwards:
1. Vieilles Annonces via Flickr
3. Beinecke Library Yale
5. Vieilles Annonce via Flickr
6. Vieilles Annonce via Flickr
7. Vieille Annonce via Flickr
10. Beinecke Library Yale
* In 2004 rumours of a Philippa Schuyler biographical movie based on Kathryn Talalay's biography circulated. Associated Press reported bi-racial singer-songwriter Alicia Keys would make her acting debut playing Philippa Schuyler with the movie produced by Halle Berry, who acquired the film rights for the biography, and Marc Platt. But that path leads no further and it must be assumed that the film option has long since expired.
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