Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Classical aspirations (Philippa - an opera, blog 8)

Continuing my series of blogs on the development of the opera Philippa, based on the life of Philippa Duke Schuyler, the Harlem-born concert pianist (daughter of African-American journalist George S. Schuyler and white Texan Josephine Cogdell), who died in Vietnam in 1967 rescuing 'the orphans', the children of US servicemen and Vietnamese women...

So much of Philippa's angst was due to a feeling of being between cultures. The child of an African-American journalist and wealthy white Texan, she had difficulty working out where she belonged. It tormented her. I have long felt that the music she played might have dramatised her split. Here she was growing up in Harlem, the daughter of a prominent African-American, devoted to playing European classics - Schubert, Mussorgsky, not jazz, nothing more syncopated than Rhapsody in Blue.

Yet now I read in When Harlem Was in Vogue, the study of Harlem in the 1920s, that, "Afro-American music had always been a source of embarrassment to the Afro-American elite....upper-crust Afro-Americans still mostly recoiled in disgust from music as vulgarly explosive as the outlaw speakeasies and cathouses that spawned it."

David Levering Lewis, the author of this book, speaks of how "Fletcher Henderson's Rainbow Orchestra symbolized...the debut of jazz as a product for national consumption....the national jazz sound was the swinging syncopation of Henderson's orchestra...with the Cotton Club orchestra of Duke Ellington (even smoother and 'whiter') placing a close second."

Duke Ellington playing at the Hurricane Club, New York May 1943. Photograph: Gordon Parks, Farm Security Administration

And yet, despite the smoothing out and blanching of Henderson's and Ellington's sounds, Lewis says, 'No doubt [NAACP president] Du Bois, who was an occasional celebrant at the Savoy [ballroom], would have preferred that Henderson devote all his talents to the Harlem Symphony (Henderson was an active member)."

Excelling in classical music must have been a widespread aim. Lewis mentions also how Black Swan records - "The Only Genuine Colored Record - Others Are Only Passing for Colored" brought out some "corking good Blues songs" in its 1922 catalogue, but an ad in a May issue of The Crisis gave pride of place to two operatic numbers it had recorded by Antoinette Garnes, "The Only Colored Member of the Chicago Grand Opera Company".

Clearly a drama cannot go into all the footnotes but this issue is more nuanced than I started out thinking.

This is the eighth in my series of blogs charting the development of this opera. For ease of reference the others have been:

1. - 16 Sep 2012 - an account of my initial thoughts on Philippa, when I was attempting to convey a more comprehensive trajectory of her life

2. - 18 Sep 2012 - containing Act I of a revised scenario, beginning the action in Vietnam
3. - 25 Sep 2012 - containing my revised scenario
4. - 7 Oct 2012 - containing a one-page synopsis, to make sure such a story can fit into "two hours' traffic on the stage"
5. - Becoming a Harlemite, Vietnamese and Catholic 10 Oct, 2012 - detailing some of the research I'll be doing
6. - A Harlem Tradition? 20 Oct 2012 - detailing Harlem interest in white culture
7. - Sacrifice? 21 Oct 2012 - considering the nature of Philippa's death and whether it was self-sacrifice

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