Revisiting Leontyne Price
—-By Frederick A. Hurst—-
I attended the February 18th Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s tribute to Leontyne Price and, as expected, I enjoyed it very much. It wasn’t my first visit to the Springfield Symphony Orchestra by far and it wasn’t my first opera. It was, however, my first live opera performance.
I occasionally listen to opera on New England Pubic Radio and I’ve seen Porgy and Bess several times, both live and on television. I doubt, however, that opera will grow on me as a favored musical genre and nor will classical music generally for the simple reason that I am not interested enough in either. I much prefer the music I grew up with along with its deep cultural roots in African and Black American history and in the Black struggle.
In our last issue, I wrote an article titled “A Shout Out to Leontyne Price” in which I encouraged African Americans to attend the February 18th concert. I pretty much knew how Black readers would respond. Most would have no interest but some, out of curiosity, would attend. And those who attended seemed to enjoy the evening as much as my wife and I did. But it would be fruitless to expect they will make the Springfield Symphony Orchestra a regular stop on their entertainment itinerary.
I had no idea that my article would receive the reaction it got from the White community. One White friend responded to my article with a critical question that actually summed up the responses I received from other White folks. He wanted to know why it is that he appreciates several serious forms of Black music as much as he enjoys classical music, including opera, and Black folks seem to reject his classical music.
I haven’t answered him yet but I’ll respond here. The simple fact is that White folks never invited us into their music or music venues until relatively recently! And before that, they actively kept us out. And, while they were keeping us out for a couple of centuries or more, we developed our own, sophisticated musical art forms as well as our preferences for them. Now that we are being inviting in, it’s not that we reject the music; it is simply low, if not the lowest, on the hierarchy of our musical preferences.
Leontyne Price is a special African-American who achieved great success in a music genre most Black folks didn’t grow up with. We grew up with freedom songs, Blues, Jazz, Spirituals, Rock and Roll, Rap and Hip Hop and more. And we always welcomed White folks to enjoy our music, which we began developing since the days of slavery. And we sent it out over the world even as America rejected our greatest artists and, instead, embraced White artists who often “appropriated” our musical forms and spread them among White folks as though they invented them, i.e. Elvis Presley, the Beatles, etc..
We got ripped off! But that was okay. Because what these White “appropriators” were affirming is what we already knew. Our music is “superior.” And, besides, today we have even learned how to stop White promoters and singers from using our music and musicians to appropriate the wealth generated by it. We have learned to capitalize on White folks’ love of our music to make millions and billions off of them. And, their youth have embraced our most recent musical inventions, Hip Hop and Rap, with an unrivaled passion along with all of the cultural accouterments. We invited them in and they came in droves.
I read many articles about Leontyne Price before I wrote my own. And they all referred to her as having been “discovered” by a rich white lady whom her mother worked for. It’s humbling enough to be working as a maid for a “rich white lady.” But to use a contextually condescending verb like “discovered” for a great voice like Price’s could be considered by Black folks as downright insulting. We Black folks might just as easily have replaced the word “discovered” with “diverted” because, by our musical standards, we could have made better use of that great voice.
We Black folks have not had any trouble “discovering” our own musical geniuses in our churches, especially, but also in our conclaves and self-made dives and on street corners where our “doo woppers” developed harmonious crooning that dominated the fifties and early sixties and in many more places. And no doubt Leontyne Price would have been “discovered” by us if she had not been “diverted” into a genre and venues made for the benefit of White folks who chose to exclude us. We will never know if Leontyne Price was misdirected and nor will she. But I can tell you one thing for certain. She missed out on a lot of fun.
All that having been said, things have changed and the doors to classical music and opera, ballet and, you name it, have now opened up. White folks have invited Black folks into their music and their music venues and seem nonplussed by our reticence, which they wrongly, but oh so subtly, attribute to our cultural shortcomings.
Nonsense! Our reticence to embrace “White” classical music, art, dance, you name it, is more appropriately attributable to a “cultural gap.” I think it was William Graham Sumner (maybe David Emile Durkheim or both) who said, “Frequent repetition of petty acts leads to habit in the individual and custom in the group.” Well, White folks developed the habit of not letting us in and Black folks developed the habit of not caring to go in. And Black folks developed their musical preferences and White folks theirs. Now Black folks are taking a second look at what White folks are now inviting us into. But it will take time for us to develop a taste for it, maybe generations.
But one thing is certain. No symphony orchestra anywhere will ever attract Black patrons by trying to sell them on the superiority of its music over Black music. Nor will any individual White person. It is a condescending approach that won’t work. Like Margaret Wolf Hungerford (“The Duchess”) wrote in Molly Bawn, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
As Sumner and Durkheim understood, it’s a cultural thing tied up in habit and custom and folkways and folklore. And what Black folks consider beauty, a mixture of their African genesis and their experiences in America, is just as legitimate as What White Americans consider beautiful.
So, if White folks could shed that all-too-typical superiority complex and promote their particular music as just another alternative art form and promote it to Black Americans accordingly in a manner that would provoke their curiosity, it might become more generally palatable to the masses of Black folks over time.
After all, some of it is really good stuff! ■