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Lenny Henry: ‘I want people to hear the black composers forgotten by history’


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Lenny Henry says that because he’s black everyone assumes he’s a funk and soul music fan. “I don’t mind people thinking that,” the comedian tells i, “and I do like that music. But I also love classical.”

But for years he has been going to concerts wondering why almost everyone in the orchestra is white, and why the music they’re playing is by white composers. “I think about this every single time,” he says. He wants to know more about those black classical talents who have been left out in the cold. “There are seriously talented composers and musicians,” he says, “that history has forgotten.”

Of the 13 new pieces the BBC commissioned for the 2019 Proms season, one piece was by a black female composer – Errollyn Wallen – and one by a black male composer, Daniel Kidane. At a BBC Radio 3 conference on diversity in 2016, Eleanor Alberga, a Jamaican-born composer who has written for the Royal Philharmonic among other world-class orchestras, said the classical music world “is not very inclusive”.

So with that in mind, Henry, who has been ensconced in the UK arts scene since the 70s, has made a film about the black classical composers who were just as talented and important in their day as Debussy or Bach, but were marginalised over decades and centuries for being black.

Sir Lenny Henry and Suzy Klein in his documentary Black Classical Music: The Forgotten History on BBC Four

Reviving the history

In the documentary, which Henry made with his own production company, there are moving, rousing performances from Chineke! Orchestra – Europe’s first majority Black, Asian, and minority ethnic orchestra. They play pieces by black composers Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Florence Price. Henry also talks to historians about their lives. “We are trying to shine a light on them,” says Henry.

In 2019 a survey by the Royal Albert Hall revealed that the top 10 classical composers most recognised by people in the UK are all male and white. It’s no wonder. “History is written by the victors,” says Henry. “How many books are written about prog rock? How many books are there about The Beatles? About Nick Drake, about King Crimson? People are making sure they get remembered.

“Nobody is making sure black composer Florence Price, the first African American woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra, gets remembered. People aren’t writing about how she had to dye her hair and straighten it to pretend to be Latino to get into music school.

“Or what about black English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who achieved huge success in the early 20th century but had to fight hard against racial prejudice. A fellow pupil set his hair on fire at school because he was black.”

Important artists marginalised

Then there’s the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He composed string quartets, symphonies and concertos in the late 18th century, and he influenced Mozart in Paris. “He was asked to be director of Royal Opera House in Paris by Queen Marie Antoinette, and then three leading ladies in the orchestra said they felt uncomfortable taking orders from a black man. If he’d been a director it would have cemented his reputation, but he didn’t get the gig.”

It must have been tough for Henry to hear these stories. “It’s been heart-wrenching,” he says. “I was shocked at how moved to tears I was. If you think about the stories of exclusion we are living through in the present day and in the past, all of those artists have been marginalised and shoved to the outer space.”

What does Henry say to the traditionalists who say the classical music world is fine as it is? “I do hear people sometimes say: ‘Well, it’s a risk, to put something ‘new’ or ‘different’ on for an audience.’ That’s a total cop-out, and it’s lazy. John Cage has a piece where a 639-year-long organ piece changes chord after seven years. Music lovers sit and endure that.

“Why are we black people not included in the cannon of oddballs and geniuses? We can do weird stuff too!” The audience is there for more inclusive music, says Henry, they are just waiting to be directed to the people they should be listening to. “Talent will out but it does need a leg up sometimes.”

Sir Lenny Henry fears funding cuts in schools deprive poorer children of the chance to learn music – and become the composers of the future (Photo: BBC)

Why music in schools matters

Of course, getting a leg up in today’s world is hard. Not only is live music in a perilous situation due to Covid-19 restrictions, but also more generally due to cuts in state school music funding. “It’s all about opportunity,” says Henry. “If you give a kid an instrument and the appetite, they’ll not only play music from the cannon they’ll make up their own music and that’s why it’s important.”

Henry remembers his childhood friend having private piano lessons after school, while his own working-class background in Dudley meant his family couldn’t afford the five shillings per lesson.“If you cut the arts in schools the chances of happening upon a piano in your break is not going to happen anymore. Like state schools provide school dinners, they should also provide music.”

Change happens, says Henry, at “a glacial pace”, but he feels some hope. “I’ve made a documentary, I haven’t marched on Whitehall. But I feel that opening this extraordinary Pandora’s Box of musicians is a good start.”

Black composers: a playlist

George Theophilus Walker (1922-2018) was an American composer, pianist and organist. He was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Listen to: Lyric for Strings

Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953) was an American classical composer, pianist, organist and music teacher. Price is noted as the first African-American woman to be recognised as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra.

Listen to: Symphony No 1 or Adoration for Organs

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was an English composer and conductor of dual heritage. He was referred to by white musicians as the “African Mahler” when he toured the US in the early 1900s.

Listen to: Ballade in A minor

The Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) was a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn. He wrote symphonies, sonatas, concertos, opera and string quartets. He was a violin virtuoso and conducted one of Europe’s greatest orchestras, Le Concert des Amateurs.

Listen to: Symphony No 1 in G major



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