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The Harlem Renaissance and American Music

By Published: March 3, 2013
The 1939 opera Troubled Island, a collaborative effort between William Grant Still and the poet Langston Hughes, features an even more attentive representation of black cultural history than Still's tone poems. Hughes' libretto is based on his 1928 play Drums of Haiti. The opera is about the rise and fall of Haiti's first emperor, Jean Jacques Dessalines. Dessalines leads the Haitian revolt against French colonials and installs himself in power, yet as the emperor, he laments his own illiteracy and ignorance when requested to provide a teacher for one of his villages. The opera concludes with Dessalines death at the hands of a revolting population.

Dessalines rise to power represents the elevation of the African-Americans, paralleling the rise from slavery depicted in Still's tone poems. The themes of sorrow and ignorance are again presented to contrast with the concept of the educated and hopeful "New Negro." Troubled Island challenges the viewer to contemplate the importance of history, education, and the cultural contributions of black America to American culture in general.

William Grant Still's music exemplifies the incorporation of Harlem Renaissance ideals into art music through expressing African-American heritage in his music. In addition to championing black culture as a composer, Still broke several racial barriers in the American music scene. His Afro-American Symphony was the first symphony composed by an African-American and performed by a major orchestra, and he was the first black American to conduct a white radio orchestra (Deep River Hour, 1932), conduct a major orchestra (the Los Angeles PO in 1936), or receive a series of commissions from major American orchestras.


Duke Ellington: Beyond the "Jungle Sound"

Duke Ellington provides an interesting contrast to his contemporary, William Grant Still. While both are among the most prominent composers of the Harlem Renaissance, they came from strikingly different backgrounds. Ellington was never formally trained in music; he began studying piano at age seven, taught himself harmony at the piano, and learned orchestration through experimentation with his band. Ellington is best known as a big band leader and arranger, as a songwriter, and as the voice of "jungle music." In the 1920s and early 1930s Ellington's band was the house band for Harlem's Cotton Club. Far from sophistication, the Cotton Club gigs often featured jungle decor and elaborate costumes to accompany the "jungle sound," intended to imply the "exotic" music of Africa.

Despite Ellington's early involvement with the Cotton Club he eventually embraced the beliefs of Alain Locke and sought to present black music as high art, most notably achieved when his suite Black, Brown, and Beige debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1943. In 1930, Ellington expressed the desire to compose a work that would serve as a musical history of the black experience; beginning in Africa, progressing through Southern slavery, and finally to Harlem (Tucker 2002: 69). This framework eventually became Black, Brown, and Beige, though it was not composed for over a decade after its conception. However, during this period Ellington did compose several pieces dealing with African-American themes including Symphony in Black in 1934, Jump for Joy in 1941, and the unfinished opera Boola.

Black, Brown, and Beige was Ellington's conception of a "tone-parallel," illustrating the history of black Americans. The composition is accompanied by poetry penned by Ellington, depicting the scenes that the music is meant to evoke. The overall work is divided into three sections, which are further divided into songs. The first section, Black, first depicts blacks in Africa and proceeds to give a narrative of life as a Southern slave. Black consists of "Work Song," "Come Sunday," and "Light;" these songs and poems represent the ideas of the sorrow of slavery, the redemption of faith, and the hope for a better future. Brown depicts the triumph of blacks over the oppression of slavery in the song "Emancipation Proclamation." The work ends with Beige, which celebrates Harlem and depicts African-Americans as a community characterized by pride and knowledge.

Composed with the goal of racial advancement, Black, Brown, and Beige expresses racial pride and history, the celebration of African-American identity, and the social progress of black Americans in the twentieth century. The structure of the work emphasized the continuity of black history from slavery to the present. Brown deals with the sacrifices made by black soldiers in the Revolutionary War and connects it to the black soldiers participating in the Second World War; clearly marking African- Americans as loyal and dedicated American citizens. Ellington aimed to correct "the common misconception of the Negro which has left a confused impression of his true character and abilities," through his portrayal of modern black America (DeVeaux 1993:129


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