ONE OF THOSE dubious little milestones of our society's history came when Jose White - a Cuban-born, Paris-bred violinist, composer and bon vivant - made his debut with the New York Philharmonic on Dec. 11, 1875. He played the Mendelssohn Concerto and is believed to have been the first black person ever to appear with the Philarmonic.
But if the post-Civil War Philharmonic was finally ready to engage a black soloist, it and other American orchestras of the day showed little, if any, interest in the works of black symphonic composers. And until quite recently, this has largely continued to be the case.
Thus it is not inappropriate that White's own Violin Concerto will be on the opening orchestral program of this week's festival in New York called "Celebration of Black Composers: Spanning Two Centuries of Music." Nor is it inappropriate that the orchestra performing the White Concerto and all the other symphonic music during the festivals is the New York Philharmonic.
The Philharmonic is the world's second-oldest orchestra (1842) and, in many ways, the most adventurous of the major ensembles. But until now it has done little for the black composer. This week the Philharmonic will take a step toward rectifying this neglect by sponsoring five concerts in five days, starting Monday, of music by contemporary blacks and of works composed by 18th-and 19th-century blacks that had fallen into almost total obscurity until musicologists recently became interested in this field. There will be three orchestral programs, a piano recital and a song recital.
A mere glance at the orchestral programs, chosen to give an overview of what the sponsors regard as the best of black composers, gives a measure of the extent of their neglect. Of 12 compositions, seven are New York premeires and one is a world premeire. It is apparently the largest and most comprehensive festival of black music staged by any institution - much lin style from the elegance of an 18th-century symphony by Chevalier de Saint Georges, who came from Guadeloupe and made his career in Paris, to the stark atonalism of Hale Smith, now associate professor at the University of Connecticut.
The festival represents a sort of culmination of a 10-year effort by Paul Freeman, conductor-in-residence of the Detroit Symphony, to put music by black composers on the musical map. Freeman will conduct two of the New York concerts.
His undertaking began in 1967 when he shared the podium with Robert Shaw while the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra spent several days in residence at Spellman College engaging in sightreading sessions of works by Southeastern composers. Several pieces by blacks piqued Freeman's interest (Freeman, a black himself, acknowledges that he knew little about the 18th-and 19th-century works by blacks until after that time).
He set out explore this repertoire, which was no easy task given that most of it was then so obscure that one didn't just walk into the Library of Congress and check them out. He soon found that racial bias had created "conditions that encourage us and the general public to regard black symphonic composers as insignificant." Much fine music was languishing in dusty archives out of apparent indifference. And Freeman's research, done in collaboration with musicologist Dominique-Rene de Lerma, was further complicated by the fact that most of those archives were not in this country - a result of the necessity that black symphonic composers before this century practice their craft abroad.
"I had to make 16 phone calls before I could track down Nunes Garcia's 'Requiem,'" a reference to a lovely work, clearly influenced by the Mozart "Requiem," by the Brazilian, Jose Mauricio Nunes Garcia (1767-1830).
After digging up the music, Freeman faced the additional problem of getting it, as well as music by living composers, before the public, and he and others worked through several successive organizations to do this. A grant from the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation of Columbus, Ind., financed the research and negotiations with record companies.
The turning point came when Freeman reached agreement in 1973 with Columbia Records to produce its ambitious Black Composers Series, with Freeman conducting the orchestral works. Though it was hardly the sort of thing to make a lot of money, Columbia agreed to absorb recording, circulation and publicity costs if Freeman and the foundations with which he worked paid the rest.
Eight records have released, introducing a wide range of works, many of which otherwise might never have come to light. Virtually every composer in the Philharmonic's festival has been represented on the series. And a ninth record, introducing the Piano Concerto of the distinguished Washington-born George Walker, will come out in a few months (that concerto will also be performed at the festival).
Freeman says "at the beginning there was a great deal of skepticism about restricting the work to black composers - isolating them, in effect. Why not open it to all deserving composers who were not getting attention?But the ultimate decision was that with isolation we would have more impact, and as a result lead to more performances of works by blacks on regular symphony programs."
From the beginning, critical response was sufficiently enthusiastic as to diminish any taint of possible tokenism or esoterica. As Kenneth Furie wrote in High Fidelity magazine about the simultaneous release of the first four discs: "Mixing sociology and art is a risky business . . . Does a piece of music warrant attention merely because it was written by a black?The question remains, but the quality of music on these four discs renders it inoperative. Everything deserved to be recorded."
Another Freeman initiative was a series of seminars on black music held annually in association with symphony orchestras around the country, starting with the Baltimore Symphony in 1973. At that event and at subsequent ones in Houston, Minneapolis and Detroit, most performances were sighreadings, rather than the fully rehearsed concert versions.
But when negotiations began a year and a half ago with the New York Philharmonic for such an event, a full-scale festival began to take shape, aiming at a broad audience and performing (at least in the orchestral concerts) at Avery Fisher Hall, and with full rehearsal. Except for small grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, the Philharmonic will pick up the tab.
The plans were worked out by Freeman and his friend from childhood in Richmond, Leon Thompson, who is the Philharmonic's director of educational activities, and who will conduct the third orchestral concert. Several works from the Columbia recordings are programmed - including the Saint Georges, White and Nunes-Garcia pieces mentioned before. The festival ends with the world premiere of Hale Smith's "Innerflexions".
The orchestral concerts are Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; the song recital is Wednesday and the piano recital, by Leon Bates, opens the festival on Monday. On Wednesday a symposium is scheduled on "The Afro-American Influence on American Music."