An entire chapter in the history of black culture has been omitted from the records, says Eileen Southern, and she is doing her best to remedy the oversight. According to Southern, a professor of music at Harvard University, blacks have been composing classical music for about 150 years, but no one paid much attention until the civil rights movement and the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
When people think of black music, jazz, gospel and blues come to mind. Southern says that black classical, or what she terms "concert," compositions have only recently been acknowledged. "There's certainly much more available today than ever before, but I'm not saying a lot of space has been given to it."
The music, however, does not go unperformed. "A lot of this music is included in concerts even today. People are just not aware that blacks wrote it. And I guess that's really all right." There is a distinction between black and white concert music, Southern says. "Most black musicians get a start in the church in the first place. Then they play jazz for economic reasons. Then they begin to write concert music," she explains. "Gospel and jazz are reflected in their music. I can tell the difference because I know what I'm looking for."
Southern began her research in 1969 and subsequently published "The Music of Black Americans: A History," her first book. "My book was the first comprehensive book on black music," she says. " . . . I'm considered the leading scholar in the world. I feel like 42nd Street sometimes, people coming to me for information."
This Sunday, Southern is coming to Washington, to talk about individual composers and their music. The lecture is sponsored by the National Museum of American History's Program in Black American Culture and will be combined with performances, featuring a premiere of Frederick Tillis' "Spiritual Fantasy No. 7." The program, "Music of the Black American Composer," will be held at American History's Hall of Musical Instruments and is free.
This is the second annual program on black concert music, and D. Antoinette Handy, who performed last year, selected the works to be played. "I chose these particular compositions primarily for the diversity," she says. "It's all academic music, but it is distinctly different." One of the featured compositions is by Undine Smith Moore, recognized as a performer and composer of spirituals. Classical music by David Baker is also included. "People think of him as a jazz composer, but his compositions far exceed that," Handy says.
"Research within the last 10 years reveals that there is a wealth of published black music dating back to the early 19th century, which we would call academic music, notated music. I try to avoid the term classical music." Both Handy and Southern cite Frank Johnson, a black Philadelphian who published music in the 1830s and '40s, as the first such composer.
"I contend that as far as America is concerned, whatever was happening, blacks were also involved in the mainstream . . . And I rather resent this myth that blacks were doing things separately," says Handy. "One isn't at a loss finding black composers . . . For example, Thomas Greene (Blind Tom) Bethune was born a slave. And he was one of America's foremost composers at the time. He traveled in Europe as a concert pianist and was strictly in the style of Chopin."
The works, which will be performed by area musicians, are comparable to what white composers in America were doing at the same time, Southern says. "The mistake people often make is to compare Americans with Europeans . . . Many people are not aware of the contributions of black composers, and how great has been the input. My interest as a scholar is informing others . . . I guess I would appreciate an integrated audience."
Handy says she hopes this program, and others like it, will promote awareness of this aspect of black culture, which is slowly but steadily becoming known. "It's a thing that we have to constantly pursue. I would say that the neglect and oversight is not a racial thing anymore, but people just don't know about it . . . The tragedy is that our music history books haven't caught up with us. But that's getting changed. Programs like this have significance."