Biographies and Memoirs

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Biographies and Memoirs

Jul 4, 2023, 9:12 pm

George Walker was part of the wave of American classical composers who came to prominence in the mid-20th Century (approximately 1920-1980). He moved in the same academic and institutional worlds, competed (successfully) for the same commissions, and is best seen against that backdrop (which comparatively few people are familiar with these days).

In his autobiography, Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist, Walker is eloquent on the subject of being an African-American composer: How there is pride in that while at the same time, expectations from all sides (“You play jazz, right?”) can be frustrating and limiting.

But here’s the thing: He only rarely uses black musical sources. This was the case with most of the composers featured, as he was, in Columbia’s excellent Black Composers series of LPs in the Seventies.

Rediscoveries of black or female classical composers are inevitably going to register most sharply with those who are already intense classical fans with a taste for the offbeat. There is seldom any way that their “identities” would be obvious from the music itself - this is in noticeable distinction to literature, film, popular music, or the visual arts, where material related to identity is much more likely to emerge.

Jul 18, 2023, 11:50 am

The pioneering African-American film-maker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) suffered from racism, of course, but he also wanted his own people to be harder on themselves; he had no patience for excuses. This disdain for the unambitious is related to W.E.B. Du Bois’ idea of the “Talented Tenth” (which I have always found attractive, but then I’m an unabashed elitist 🙂 ). Micheaux emerges as a complex and inspiring figure in Patrick McGilligan’s excellent biography Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only. Unlike those who become icons of this or that * , he does lend himself to simplification, and this is probably why he is not famous.

* Icons are not always to blame for their own iconography - some self-promote in that way, some don’t. But something about them allows the public to retain a simple image, which is the only sort of concept the public mind can handle.