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Lecture highlights impact of African-American composers

Iloria+Phoenix+%28%E2%80%9918%29+prepares+to+perform+a+piece+by+composer+Harry+Burleigh.
Iloria Phoenix (’18) prepares to perform a piece by composer Harry Burleigh.

Iloria Phoenix (’18) prepares to perform a piece by composer Harry Burleigh.

Forrest Stewart ('19) I Chips

Forrest Stewart ('19) I Chips

Iloria Phoenix (’18) prepares to perform a piece by composer Harry Burleigh.

Forrest Stewart, Staff Writer

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Alumni Guest Lecturer in Music Evan Mitchell (’14) gave a lecture examining the lives and works of notable African-American classical music composers on March 20.

The lecture occurred jointly with a meeting of the diversity council which was open to all members of the public and sponsored by the Luther College Diversity Center. Mitchell’s presentation focused primarily on three African-American composers from the 20th century and featured student performances of musical pieces by each composer.

Mitchell said his decision to lecture on the topic came about from his own frustration about the overrepresentation of a relatively small group of well-known composers in both professional and collegiate musical repertoires.

“I wanted to find more music for students to sing for their studies,” Mitchell said. “I just kept finding myself in the same rut with the same composers I had seen before and music we had done before. I wanted to know what else we could do.”

Diversity council member Asha Aden (’20) attended the lecture and sees presentations like this one as an important way to combat what she perceives as unfair historical representation of black artists.

Forrest Stewart (’19) I Chips
Alumni Guest Lecturer in Music Evan Mitchell (’14) lectures on the importance of African American composers.

“I know for myself, growing up as an African-American woman, when you are in [school] and there aren’t any figures that you learn about that look like you it’s hard to think that you’ll ever achieve success,” Aden said. “When I was learning music in elementary school we only studied white artists so I thought that was only a white person’s job and that black people didn’t do that. I’m glad that they’re being highlighted so that younger people can have artists to look up to.”

Mitchell’s presentation focused on both the artistic qualities present in the music as well as the barriers the composers faced while producing and sharing work in a white supremacist society. Mitchell noted that these barriers took many forms from individual discrimination to complex societal and cultural racism. According to Mitchell, minstrelsy, the practice of performing negative racial stereotypes through performances, songs, and jokes, is one such example.

“There were certainly other musicians who were prejudiced against African-Americans and that’s just on a personal level,” Mitchell said. “There was also a cultural expectation that African-Americans were relegated to only perform music that was about African-Americans or at the expense of African-Americans. Minstrelsy was an example of a very limiting and stereotypically reinforced music choice that many African-Americans had to take because of their economic situation.”

Collin Zollinger (’20), who performed “I Dream a World” from William Grant Still’s opera Trouble Island as a part of the lecture believes that these barriers are still evident today in the ways that African-American composers do not receive as much historical appreciation as their white counterparts.

“I had to do a little bit of research on [‘I Dream a World’] for my voice seminar and I found it really difficult to find information on it,” Zollinger said. “I think [that difficulty] is really the whole reason of the lecture; these composers and musicians haven’t received enough credit for their work.”

Mitchell noted that there is tension inherent in being a white professor teaching about African-American history.

“I try to [embrace] that tension because I can’t have every answer as a white person,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know every struggle that someone feels as they sing spirituals that are written in Ebonic vernacular. But hopefully I can be a source that’s open to ask the questions or to have that conversation.”

Aden was pleased with how Mitchell navigated the issue.

“I think he did it justice,” Aden said. “At the beginning he talked about him being a white man and how his history is known and that people don’t know a lot about some of these black artists’ history. I think it was good for him to recognize that he’s a white man bringing this from his perspective.”

Mitchell says he hopes the lecture will inspire people to explore artists who have not been remembered as much as prominent white American composers.

“I hope people go and look up these composers’ names: Florence Price, William Grant Still, and Harry Burleigh,” Mitchell said. “I hope people seek out these opportunities to hear music like this from these composers and find these stories that don’t often get told.”

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