by Roy “Futureman” Wooten
In my weekly blog series, I outline some of the pivotal musical inspirations and influences that go back and forth between Black culture and Classical music.
In this blog, I want to talk about stories. A good story has a beginning, middle and end. A famous philosopher named Georg Hegel described a type of story path called the “Hegelian Dialetic,” where you have a thesis set against an anti-thesis that eventually merges through conflict and union to create a new synthesis. The numerous stories of bi-racial children blending the different cultural influences of their parents and achieving greatness represented a “new synthesis” for humanity, born out of a Hegelian merging of differences.
The union of Classical music and Black history goes all the way back to the many mixed race children of the global slave trade between Africa and Europe and a pivotal slave ship captain who embraced the Negro and Negro melody, well before Antonin Dvorak,
Kurt Weil, Dmitry Shostakovich, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky and other European composers began to feature Black music in their master works.
This blog series is focused on connecting the historical dots of many constellations of Classical music and Black history emerging during history’s epic struggle for an age of enlightenment…
When I look at history, I always find that music seems to lead the way. Music seems to enable a change or inspiration that would otherwise never happen… from the classical sound track of the 18th century Struggle for Enlightenment, to the 20th century Civil Rights Movement and its relationship to African American music.
At any given point in any piece of music, there are many dialogues happening between the different instruments, players and the individual parts that make up the entire work. The individual players, instruments and parts, must perform cohesively in order to reach a unity beyond themselves, and thus become a part of a larger unlimited idea of music.
I want to take a look at the “dialectic” or dialogue process by which innovation, evolution, change and growth emerges in music and civilization. The Hegelian Dialectic is a philosophy introduced by the philosopher Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that speaks on the process of two different sides merging through a variety of ways to introduce a new synthesis.
The Hegelian Dialectic expresses the idea that tragedies in the world are not simply conflicts between right versus wrong, but conflicts that can also arise between more than one right. The philosophy expresses the idea that the “absolute” truth (or the solution to the problem) is found neither wholly in the thesis nor the anti-thesis but in the relationship of an emerging synthesis, which reconciles the two sides.
The relationship between Classical music and the Black experience showcases the emerging new synthesis of multi-cultural children individually and collectively establishing a “new synthesis” reconciliation of cultural differences.
I just watched an excellent movie called “RACE,” which is about Negro track star Jessie Owens who won 4 gold medals at the Berlin Olympics just before Adolph Hitler started his bombing attacks that began World War II. Jessie Owen’s unprecedented accomplishments of winning 4 gold medals at those Olympic games defied and contradicted Adolph Hitler and his minister Josef Goebels “Entarte” propaganda campaign of negative racist views against Jewish people and Negroes.
This film allowed the audience to experience the racial pressures that accompanied the great achievements of Jessie Owens, and I submit that Classical films in the future will also include the racial pressures underlying the great achievements of people of color. Overcoming racism at home and abroad, Owens seizes the opportunity to show Berlin and the world that he’s the fastest man alive.
Jesse Owens’ quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history thrusts him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics, where he faces off against Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy.
I appreciated the accurate story telling in this film that allowed the audience to witness the racial pressures of the times. The film showed how even after winning four gold medals and being received by a welcome home American parade of a million people cheering him in the streets, Jessie Owens, due to segregation rules, was not allowed to enter through the front door of the hotel hosting a special event being held in his honor. Owens was forced to enter through the kitchen side door and treated the same way Duke Ellington, and many other black and bi-racial celebrities of history were treated.
I also appreciated the historical movie named “42,” which told the story of America’s first Negro baseball player to integrate the all white game of major league baseball. The player’s name was Jackie Robinson, and his story is another great example of historical storytelling that also captures the racial pressures of the times. The racial pressures and challenges faced by Jackie Robinson are similar to the racial pressures faced by the Chevalier Saint Georges, who was the first person of color to achieve greatness in many arenas from fencing to freemasonry, to military leadership and music.
The story of “Belle” brings us to the year 1760 , when England was a global power and major slave empire. The film shows the racial tensions underscoring the Age of Enlightenment and revolutions. It depicts the life and pressures of a mixed race daughter of a White Navy Admiral, who gets placed in the white family of an aristocratic Great Uncle. The Uncle later becomes the Judge to decide the “Zong” case controversy between slave traders who threw slaves overboard in order to collect insurance money and their protesting insurance company. This was a very high profile case that gave abolitionist William Wilberforce one last great chance to make his case to abolish the slave trade. The story of “Belle” captures the racial pressures of being a bi-racial individual in a very segregated society. The story of Belle also reveals the racial tensions occupying the same time when Franz Joseph Haydn, Chevalier Saint Georges, George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower and Ludwig Van Beethoven were each establishing their legacies.
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Hadyn, Saint Georges, Beethoven and Bridgetower each established a “new synthesis” of multi-cultural greatness in classical music. They were all referred to as moors, creoles or mulatto in their own time because of their mixed race status.
At the age of twenty-eight Haydn composed his first symphony. Soon after this, he attracted the attention of Prince Esterhazy, whose entire family has become known in the history of music as generous maecenases of the art. Prince Esterhazy, who paid Haydn handsomely, referred to him as the Moor when he hired the composer and forced him to eat in the kitchen with the servants. It is interesting to note that it was in the kitchen that Hadyn discovered the young mixed race violin virtuoso Bridgetower– who would later befriend Beethoven and follow in the footsteps of Saint Georges to become a superior violin virtuoso.
It is also interesting to note that Saint Georges was sent to pay Haydn– more than he had ever been paid by Prince Esterhazy– to write new music for a huge, “Olympique” Orchestra that would become known as the “Paris Symphonies.”
Classical music has played a significant role in the history and politics of race relations. Saint George’s brilliant rehearsals and the premier of Haydn’s new “Paris Symphonies” established that he was not only the greatest fencer and violinist, but also the greatest conductor of all of Europe. When we take note of the racial pressures of the times, we can see that great achievements have shaped Classical music and played a significant role in the politics of race relations and the soundtrack of change.
Wilberforce gave a prolific four hour speech that would convince lawmakers to legally end the slave trade. His life is portrayed in the film “Amazing Grace,” which is also the name of a famous hymn.
The Amazing Grace Hymn is based on the “common meter” structure that slave ship Captain John Newton heard from his African slave captives. Thus, Newton’s popular hymn may be considered an 18th century homage to the “Negro melody” that Dvorak and many other European composers would later emphasize in the 19th century.
A key point to absorb is that Black sacred music was being sung during the same as the “Age of Enlightenment” when Haydn, Chevalier Saint Georges, Mozart, Bridgetower and Beethoven were writing and performing their great masterworks. Another key point to absorb is that all of the above named composers wrote and performed their music during an era that was at the height of a global slave trade.
As I finish up this blog, I am reminded that the ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood, are living principles that will always inspire idealistic composers and revolutions throughout the ages. Thus, I see the Chevalier Saint Georges’ and Mozart’s enthusiasm for freemasonry as a special (albeit secret) bond that connected them as fraternity brothers in a sincere quest for those three living principles.
Liberty (or freedom), egalite (or equality) and fraternity (or brotherhood) represented the ideals for masonry and the French Revolution, which spun out of control and beyond the reach of Enlightenment. I believe that part of the reason that Mozart’s and Chevalier Saint George’s music has such a similar energy and sound is their similar personal enthusiasm to make real the unrealized ideals of the French Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment.
Music is a Force of change and social justice that can outlast dictatorships and soothe the savage beasts of racist doctrines of “degenerate” propaganda.
All the world is a stage and a great many actors played their parts in the unsettling age of Franz Joseph Haydn, Chevalier Saint Georges, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Beethoven, Bridgetower, Ben Franklin, James Madison, Napoleon, Alexander Dumas, Toussaint Overture, Madam Pompadour & King Louis the XV, le Comte de Saint Germaine, Marie Antoinette & King Louis the XVI, Jean Jaques-Rosseau, Voltaire, William Wilberforce, Willie Lynch, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, etc.
Classical music is the soundtrack to this epic age of MAKE UP, WIGS AND FASHION. Revolutions and declarations mask the impact of the slave trade and the slave songs.
The Age of Enlightenment is stained in the blood of DUELS, REVOLUTIONS AND GUILLOTINES.
In my next blog I will show examples of the (Hegelian) Dialectic process unfolding in the “new synthesis” artistic creations between Classical music and Black culture and its role in race relations.