Young, gifted and black but still forgotten
A child prodigy fêted by Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson, her music performed by five leading American orchestras while still a teenager, as a pianist accompanied by the New York Philharmonic at age 16, ranked alongside Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein as a composer, mourned with a Pontifical Requiem Mass in St Patrick's Cathedral, New York, and rumoured subject of a Hollywood biopic. That is the executive summary of a mercurial but forgotten American music legend.
Child prodigies, female composers and musicians of colour have become classical click bait fodder. But the story told in this post is still important. Because the forgotten figure was a woman who had a black father and white mother. It is also important because she experienced the barriers to musicians of colour that still linger on today away from the celebrity circus. But most importantly, despite acclaim in her lifetime just half a century ago, until an earlier version of this post was published in 2011 her music was 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, seen above, 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.
Her 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 changed 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 popular appeal remained 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 classical ghetto of the "Colored American night at the Pops". Philippa later wrote that it was in the late 1940s that she became truly aware of America's racial prejudice. Her insecurity was further fuelled by the 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. During her visit to England she formed a lasting friendship with the black Guyanese conductor Rudolph Dunbar, and 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 as to whether Philippa was really a genius or just a misguided 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 to form a vital contribution to my story. And that was what John, bless him, agreed to do.
Sadly we will not be able to hear Manhattan Nocturne or any of her other orchestral works. But we can 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 of whether Philippa is really a forgotten genius. I am very grateful to John McLaughlin Williams for his contribution which follows below. His priceless recordings of Philippa's piano music made exclusively for this article can be heard on YouTube below. (Readers receiving this post via RSS may find the embedded YouTube link deleted. In that case access the post via this link).
John McLaughlin Williams writes: 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 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.Huge respect goes to John McLaughlin Williams and to his mother Norma McLaughlin Nelson for making this project possible. As a result of his contribution John was invited to contribute to a 2011 BBC Radio documentary on Philippa Schuyler which was based on my articles.
+ Philippa Schuyler - August 2, 1931 to May 9, 1967 +
* Sources include:* John McLaughlin Williams 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.
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.
* 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.
* Copyright of images 1 and 9 lies with Norma McLaughlin Nelson. Copyright of the audio recording lies with John McLaughlin Williams.
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