The violinist explains how he went about discovering neglected gems by several black composers - and the satisfaction he got from it

Augustin Hadelich

Augustin Hadelich

One of my favourite things about being a violinist is that you can never run out of great music to discover. It’s impossible to play all the music written for the violin, given the sheer volume of it. But why are some pieces played more often than others?

There are many reasons why good music can struggle to find its place in the repertoire, relating to historical events, what is fashionable at the time, and who championed it. Therefore, it is not uncommon for certain gems to be unjustly overlooked. I have to confess that before this summer, I had not realized the extent to which racism played a role in suppressing music by black composers. I decided to start an exploration of violin music by black composers, to find out what I might have missed! And I recorded and performed several in the past few months:

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) was a composer whose name I was familiar with (although I had not played his music before), and whose life story reads like the plot of a movie. Saint-Georges’ father was French, his mother was his father’s black slave, in the colony of Guadeloupe. Saint-Georges grew up in France and quickly established himself as both one of the greatest fencers and one of the greatest violinists in the country.

I chose his lovely second sonata for 2 violins in A Major to be the first of this series of ’quarantine videos’ and recorded both parts. More recently, I learnt his violin concerto in A Major, Op. 5 no. 2, a flamboyant, energetic and inspired piece. It was a thrill to perform it with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for their ’Live from Music Hall’ virtual concert series.

How is it possible that somebody so celebrated during his lifetime could be erased so completely from our history books? In music history class, I never learnt his name, though I remember seemingly memorizing the names of just about every Italian and French composer of the period. If Viotti and Clementi could find a spot in the Canon, why not Chevalier de Saint-Georges? Happily, Saint-Georges may finally get his long-overdue recognition, as his name appears on many programmes this year.

Through Rachel Barton Pine — who has long championed the works of black composers — I was introduced to Daniel Bernard Roumain, a Haitian-American violinist (born in 1971) whose music grows out of improvisation on the violin. His work ’Filter’, a 4-5 minute wild ride a bit reminiscent of a Jimi Hendrix solo, was my next quarantine recording project. Some of the effects he asked for (such as using vibrato to distort and smear the sound, like an electric guitar) were new to me and I found the work immensely effective.

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson was an African-American composer (1932-2004) who wrote a great deal of interesting solo violin music. Perkinson’s piece ’Louisiana Blues Strut: A Cakewalk’ has become my new favourite encore. It sounds as if Eugène Ysaÿe had composed in the blues style. It has to swing, which can be stylistically tricky to pull off for a classical musician.

Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960) was a prolific African-American composer and violinist. His short encore piece ’Levee Dance’, which was for a time one of Heifetz’s favorite encores, was my next project. I filmed a quarantine video of the piece with the pianist Joyce Yang in September.

Eddie South (1904-1962) was one of the 20th century’s greatest jazz violinists, but he started out as one its greatest classical prodigies. Due to the colour of his skin, he could not pursue a classical career, and made his living playing in jazz and vaudeville bands instead. He met Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in Paris (resulting in legendary recordings, including a wild jazz mashup of Bach’s double violin concerto!) Returning to the United States, he brought elements of Django’s ’gypsy jazz’ style back with him. He left us wonderful recordings and quite a few jazz-infused classical compositions. It could be said that Eddie South was the world’s first crossover artist. His piece ’Black Gypsy’, a soulful and capricious violin encore in the tradition of Kreisler with a jazzy twist, was next on my list.

While the sheet music of Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Roumain, Perkinson and White is available online for purchase, the copyright situation for Eddie South is unclear. Editions of many of his works were published in the 1930s but are almost impossible to find now, a problem which must be remedied urgently.

I thought it was important not only to champion great music but to inspire others to perform it as well, so I challenged my fellow violinists on instagram and facebook to learn an arrangement of ’Adoration’ by Florence Price (1887-1953) and send me their videos. I set a 10-day deadline, and grew nervous at a dearth of submissions after 9 days… but then I received almost 80 videos on the last day! I felt emotional and overwhelmed seeing all the professionals, students, and amateurs, young and old, who sent me beautiful, earnest renditions of this piece. I compiled their performances and accompanied them on the piano to produce the final video. It was my most meaningful project of the summer.

I would whole-heartedly recommend any of these works and composers, but I also know that I am still at the beginning of my exploration. On my desk at home are piles of scores that I want to look through next. It stunned me just how much good music I found in such a short time, music that has been there all my life, but that I didn’t know about, and which wasn’t part of the violinistic tradition. But it should have been, and I think we should all make sure, by learning, programming and performing it, that it is in the future.

Augustin Hadelich plays Eddie South - Black Gypsy

Florence Price - Adoration (Augustin Hadelich and 37 musicians)


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