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The Harlem Renaissance and American Music

Mike Oppenheim By

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The Harlem Renaissance and the "New Negro"

One of the most significant intellectual and artistic trends of twentieth century American history, the Harlem Renaissance impacted art, literature, and music in a manner that forever altered the American cultural landscape. The Harlem Renaissance was a movement in the 1920s through which African-American writers, artists, musicians, and thinkers sought to embrace black heritage and culture in American life. This shift towards a more politically assertive and self-confident conception of identity and racial pride led to the establishment of the concept of the "New Negro," coined by Alain Locke.

While describing the "New Negro," Locke referred to a renewed intellectual curiosity in the study of black culture and history among the African-American population. This evaluation of identity required an honest representation of the African-American experience. The adoption of serious portrayals of black American life in art, as opposed to the caricatures provided through minstrelsy and vaudeville, was a necessary step in the cultivation of the Harlem Renaissance ideals. To Locke, the black artist's objective was to "repair a damaged group psychology and reshape a warped social perspective" (1968:10). Significantly, these goals were most immediately attainable through the "revaluation by white and black alike of the Negro in terms of his artistic endowments and cultural contributions, past and prospective" (ibid.:15). For the thinkers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, the way to achieve this revaluation was through incorporating themes of black identity and history into their works.

The perception of Africans and African-Americans as essential cultural contributors became significant in the social struggles black Americans faced in the twentieth century. Using the concept of the "New Negro," artists of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond sought to bring black culture from the status of folk art to a position of sophistication and dignity.

William Grant Still, the most prominent African-American art music composer of the time, was greatly influenced by the concept of the "New Negro," a theme frequently evident in his concert works. Duke Ellington, a renowned jazz artist, began to reflect the "New Negro" in his music, particularly in the jazz suite Black, Brown, and Beige . The Harlem Renaissance prompted a renewed interest in black culture that was even reflected in the work of white artists, the most well known example being George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Through applying the concept of the "New Negro," the depiction of African-Americans in American art music shifted from a misrepresentative stereotype to a depiction of people of African descent as significant contributors to the American cultural landscape.

William Grant Still: Tone Poems and Operas

The composer most often associated with the Harlem Renaissance and African-American art music is William Grant Still, a prominent figure musically, socially, and politically. A major factor contributing to the birth of the Harlem Renaissance was the emergence of an educated black middle-class, to which William Grant Still belonged. Still began studying music at Wilberforce University in 1911 with the goal of composing concert music and opera. Still produced several instrumental works, choral works, and operas during his career, often championing black culture and sometimes overtly criticizing American society (such as in the 1940 choral work And They Lynched Him on a Tree).

The values introduced by the Harlem Renaissance are clearly discernible in Still's Afro-American Symphony, composed in 1930, and heavily based on the blues "to prove that the Negro musical idiom is an important part of the world's musical culture" (Murchison 2000:52). Still incorporated the blues scale and blue notes (flat third and flat seventh), call-and-response structure, and descending melodic contours typical of the blues into the art music genre of a symphony, merging black culture and "high art."

Additionally, the Afro-American Symphony is a programmatic work, or tone poem, intended to be an emotional or psychological portrait of the African-American experience. In this representation of black America, Still aimed to express emotional longing, sorrow, and the aspirations of the "Old Negro," themes overcome through hope and prayer in his later tone poems. This series of tone poems presents Still's conception of the history, culture, and psychology of African-Americans; in his representation black Americans rise up from a history of slavery and sorrow to a position of self-empowerment and triumph.

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