MARIA RYAN (Penn)
Title: "“Our people, I fear, are drifting too far away from the classics…”: singing race, class, and gender in Philadelphia 1912-1914"
Abstract: The Mendelssohn Chorus burned brightly but briefly. Founded in 1912, it was an amateur male-voice choir whose members were black clerks of the Philadelphia Post Office. The chorus performed regularly to great local acclaim, but disappeared from the archive after 1914. Although it existed for only three years, the traces of the Mendelssohn Chorus in the archive illuminate some of the complex negotiations that took place when European art music was listened to and performed by African Americans in the early twentieth century. The Mendelssohn Chorus was held to high standards by the Philadelphia Tribune’s music editor, often through language that emphasized to its readers the importance of classical music to the black community for cultural, political, and economic reasons.
In this paper, which is based on archival work with the Philadelphia Tribune and at the Library Company of Philadelphia, I argue that the Mendelssohn Chorus illustrates how middle-class black Philadelphians were performing broader issues of class, race, and gender through the performance of classical music, and in so doing, redefining dominant white ideas about what this music was, and who it was for. I look at the programs of the Mendelssohn Chorus to understand what was understood to be classical music, or “the classics,” in 1910s Philadelphia, as well as the reception of the director’s decision to program African American composers alongside European composers. Furthermore, the programs suggest how musical labor was gendered; a list of “patronesses” in one of the choir’s concert programs demands attention to the way that gender roles operated within, and structured, black classical music-making of this period. This work is in conversation with scholarship about racial uplift and the politics of respectability; I suggest that paying close attention to the intricacies of black amateur music making enriches and complicates the history of art music in the U.S.
Tuesday, April 10
Lerner Center Room 102