When we think of 19th-century classical music, our minds tend to turn first to the many great European composers and performers who graced the Romantic era. Americans did not really make their mark on classical music until the 20th century. And African-Americans lagged even farther behind—but it was not for lack of trying. After Emancipation, former slaves and the children of slaves participated, as composers and performers, in a rich cultural world that deserves to be studied and remembered.
In Music and Some Highly Musical People, written in 1878, James Monroe Trotter (1842-1892) brings this world to life, with biographical accounts of the notable African-American musicians of the day. Trotter explains his motive for writing the book in his Preface:
While grouping, as has here been done, the musical celebrities of a single race; while gathering from near and far these many fragments of musical history, and recording them in one book,—the writer yet earnestly disavows all motives of a distinctively clannish nature. But the haze of complexional prejudice has so much obscured the vision of many persons, that they cannot see (at least, there are many who affect not to see) that musical faculties, and power for their artistic development, are not in the exclusive possession of the fairer-skinned race, but are alike the beneficent gifts of the Creator to all his children.
Trotter himself had an interesting history. His mother was a Mississippi slave; his father was her white master. She escaped with Trotter and his brother via the Underground Railroad and settled in Ohio. Trotter became a teacher, and, during the Civil War, enlisted in the Union Army, becoming the first African-American to achieve the rank of Second Lieutenant. He later became the first African-American to be employed by the U.S. Post Office, but resigned in protest when discrimination prevented his promotion. In 1887, President Cleveland appointed Trotter to the office of Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, then the highest government position to be attained by an African-American.
In Music and Some Highly Musical People, Trotter subtly makes his point for equality through his generous portraits of a variety of musical artists. He describes in rich detail their humble beginnings, their perseverance in spite of poverty and prejudice, and their successes. Many of these musicians found a more welcoming home in Europe. The composer Lucien Lambert, for example, “grew restive under the restraints, that, on account of his complexion, were thrown around him in New Orleans. He longed to breathe the air of a free country, where he might have an equal chance with all others to develop his powers: and so, after a while, he went to France; and, continuing his studies in Paris under the best masters of the art, he rapidly attained to great skill in performance and in composition.”
A delightful feature of Trotter’s book is an Appendix containing 13 lovely compositions by some of the composers featured in the text. In Project Gutenberg’s edition, you can hear the music for each piece by clicking on the [Listen] link in the HTML version, and the pieces can be printed out as PDF sheet music.
Distributed Proofreaders posted this book to Project Gutenberg in celebration of Black History Month 2009.