The Howard University Orchestra in 1940 (taken from Dial M for Musicology)
It's 6 am and my brain is up and I (Kira) have about an hour to write this before I pack up my bags and fly to Vienna for the weekend. My brain was thinking (against my will at 5 am) about the article we posted on facebook (follow us on facebook, y'all!) listing that less than 2% of orchestral musicians are black and that only 1.5% of the music on an orchestra program is by a woman.
For the sake of time, I'd like to focus on that first number: 2% of orchestra musicians are black. This doesn't mean I don't care about the problems other underrepresented groups face in classical music, or the crazy-ass sexism women face in classical music, either. It's because it's 6 am and I need to get this post done in under an hour.
I think we like having this narrative of progress in our lives. We might look at that first number and think, my goodness! If only 2% of orchestra musicians are black today, how terrible was that number in the past?
And this is where we might consider checking ourselves before we wreck ourselves. Because here's my suspicion, based on my research in different American and European archives: counting for population growth and all that jazz, I suspect that the number of African Americans in the world of classical music has either not budged over the last 100 years or has actually declined.
It's going to take me several years to find the data on this, and it can't happen until after I publish my first book. But here's what pops into my head when I hear conversations about representation in classical music today:
* The Italian tenor Eduardo Ferrari-Fontana asking in 1925 if there were any black women who could sing the part of Aida for the Met, only to have over 250 singers request an audition.
* The formation of several "National Negro Symphony Orchestra" projects in the 1930s and 40s (prior to projects like the Sphinx Orchestra or Chineke Orchestra today!)
* The number of black students from the 1890s-1950s studying classical music not only at places like the New England Conservatory of Eastman but also HBCU's like Fisk University, Howard University, Spelman College, and even the Tuskegee Institute for crying out loud (my own personal records).
* The number of African American opera singers, opera companies, and opera-related projects from the early 1900s until the 1970s/80s. In the postwar period, the Vienna Staatsoper had more African American than white American opera singers performing there. Think about that for a hot minute. More African American than white American opera singers performed at the Staatsoper in 1950s and 60s Vienna than white American singers.
* The number of black conductors with permanent positions with orchestras in Europe (but not in the States!)
Outside of the world of elite concert music, there were tons of black piano teachers, music educators, etc. since the 1870s as well.
I've been calling the 1920s through the 1960s the "golden age" of classical music in African American life, and I think other books and articles that I've been reading lately would probably back me up on that claim.
If I'm right, if my suspicion eventually gets confirmed, then what does that tell us about diversity in classical music education today? Being a historian, of course I'm going to say this: we need to look to the past to see where/when/why African Americans began to move away from classical music. Above all, we must acknowledge black agency in all of this as well as the greater systemic problems they faced trying to perform the music they loved.
Some, like Nina Simone and Will Marion Cook, got pushed out of classical music and ended up in popular music. Many went to Europe and never came back (that's my project!).
African American opera singer Anne Brown, who moved to Norway in the 1930s and later became a Norwegian citizen
In the world of opera, many were (and still are!) frustrated by the lack of roles available to them, being told all the time that they'd make an excellent Bess (Porgy and Bess) or a fabulous Othello, even when the person is a light Mozartian tenor. Um, what?
Others began to question the popular notion at the time (1930s and 40s) that performing classical music uplifted the black race and showed their advancement as people of color in America. Langston Hughes, for example, became critical of African American involvement in classical music for this reason.
The Ways of White Folks (1934) is pretty critical of black performances of classical music.
Outside of the professional world, black musicians also faced economic challenges. Over the past several decades, the erosion of public and private funding for music education has led to fewer full-time music teacher gigs. Becoming a music teacher became a less secure way to entering and then maintaining a comfortable middle class lifestyle, no? There's a decline in general of the full-time piano teacher who can support his or herself through that kind of work. Working as a K-12 music teacher anywhere has also become a less financially rewarding (and more frustrating!) career. Church organist jobs have also declined over the years.
So. Instead of thinking about diversity in classical music as a contemporary phenomenon, instead of doing this weird victim-blaming thing ("why don't underrepresented groups like classical music? Why can't they appreciate it?"), let's look for its origins in the past. Let's find ways to celebrate amazing black talent who sang Verdi or performed Buxtehude during a long history of Jim Crow while also thinking more seriously about the long-term repercussions of this unique history of racism and discrimination. Which pathways were open for black talent and which ones were not? If you're a talented young pianist in 1940s Ohio, what do you do with the choices that you have?
I need to go pack. But I'll be thinking about this later. What might it mean if the number of African Americans in classical music hasn't really changed or might have actually grown smaller? How might this knowledge change how we talk about diversity in classical music today?