Parnassus Records releases Black Swans, early African American classical recordings

Leslie Gerber

Among black intellectuals and musicians of the post-Reconstruction period, there were two trains of thought about how African-Americans trained in music should use their talents. Some composers, including Scott Joplin and Will Marion Cook, applied their classical training to evolving a black musical identity based on the rising popularity of ragtime, with the syncopated, or “ragged” rhythms, derived from African polyrhythms, that later contributed to the development of jazz.

Educator James Monroe Trotter was among those thinkers who felt it was more worthwhile to concentrate on the classical European repertoire, proving that black musicians were just as capable as white musicians and disproving the lie of racial inferiority. There were few opportunities for African-Americans to make classical recordings in the early 1900s, but now the handful we know of have been compiled, their quality improved, and the music reissued in a CD entitled Black Swans, produced by Woodstock resident Leslie Gerber’s Parnassus Records.

The recordings showcase the talents of black musicians, including the sublime coloratura of Florence Cole-Talbert singing “The Bell Song” from Lakme, Roland Hayes’s moving “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci, a precise and impossibly fast piano barcarolle composed and played R. Nathaniel Dett, and 22 other performances. They have been transferred from 78 rpm records made in the late nineteen teens and early 1920s, with digital audio clean-up by sound engineer, record collector, and former Catskills resident Steve Smolian, who provided several of the tracks. “In a couple of cases,” said Gerber, “Steve spent three eight-hour days working on one side of a record.”

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The initial inspiration for the project was Lost Sounds, a CD of rare recordings compiled by radio and TV historian Tim Brooks, who has worked on major restoration projects for the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution. Included on Lost Sounds were several pieces from a set of Broome Special Phonograph records Brooks bought at an auction. 

“I heard the Broome sides on Lost Sounds 12 years ago,” said Gerber, “and thought of putting together a whole CD of music like this. Then I thought that was crazy. It would take forever to locate the material. Last year I listened to the set again and decided to give it a shot.” With the help of Brooks and Smolian, it took him only a week to find enough recordings to fill out the CD.

George W. Broome made a living promoting the concerts and tours of black musicians. He started the first black-owned record company in 1919, putting out a series of recordings by his clients before the firm folded four years later. 

Broome had worked briefly with Roland Hayes, who had been inspired to become an opera singer by listening to a recording of Enrico Caruso. When concert promoters and record companies refused to hire Hayes because he was black, he arranged his own recitals and paid for a series of 78s to be issued by Columbia Records’ custom recording service in 1917 and 1918. He sold the records at concerts or by mail, but the small income did not justify further recording ventures. Hayes, who went on to have a successful career in the less racially divided concert halls of Europe, sings seven songs on the Black Swans CD, including “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” 

Another source of recordings was the Black Swan record company, named after 19th century pre-Civil War African-American concert singer Elizabeth Greenfield, who was nicknamed “the Black Swan,” a play on soprano Jenny Lind’s title, “the Swedish Nightingale.” The company’s greatest success came from recording jazz and blues artists in the 1920s, but its early issues included songs on the current CD by Cole-Talbert and alto Hattie King Reavis.

Trotter and others in the late 1800s considered spirituals a primitive folk form and an unpleasant reminder of slavery, and musicians were discouraged from singing them. However, activist and author W.E.B. Du Bois saw what he called the  “sorrow songs” as ennobling, with the potential to serve as the basis of a modern expression of racial identity, particularly if elevated to high art through classical arrangements. The Black Swans CD contains many examples of such compositions, including Edward H.S. Boatner singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and Cole-Talbert’s moving version of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” 

Du Bois’s view of spirituals was shared by Czech composer Antonin DvoŘák, who told the New York Herald in 1893, “In the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” DvoŘák was brought from Prague to direct and teach at the National Conservatory of Music in New York from 1892 to 1895. Jeannette Meyers Thurber, the conservatory’s wealthy and idealistic founder, established the unprecedented policy of “seeking out and encouraging female, minority and physically disabled students on the basis of talent alone,” according to an article in the journal American Music. 

At the conservatory, DvoŘák became friends with a black student, Harry T. Burleigh, who taught him slave songs learned from his grandfather, a former slave who bought his freedom in the 1830s. DvoŘák was so inspired by the spirituals, he incorporated their forms into some of his work. In 1894, Burleigh became a soloist for the all-white St. George’s Episcopal church in New York, over the opposition of a group of parishioners. It was church member J.P. Morgan whose vote allowed Burleigh to take the post, which he held for 52 years. He also sang as a soloist for 25 years with Temple Emanu-El. Burleigh’s rendition of “Go Down, Moses,” sung to his own piano arrangement, is the first track on the CD. For the final track, Smolian located a recording of Burleigh singing a hymn on New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s radio program.

Ironically, ragtime and jazz became the music that brought black artists popularity with both white and black audiences, while African-American classical musicians were, for the most part, forced to sing only for black audiences at the time these recordings were made. The high caliber of the music on Black Swans suggests that if society had been more progressive, talented singers like Cole-Talbert and Hayes might have become American opera superstars.

Parnassus Records has been issuing CDs, mostly of classical historical recordings, since 1996. The catalog, including Black Swans, is available at http://www.parnassusrecords.com.

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