For much of the history of classical music, European men dominated the compositional world. And the few women or people of color who did break through, like Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a contemporary of Mozart, have been often marginalized or forgotten.
But with the rise of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, orchestras and individual musicians are making greater efforts to address this inequity, and overlooked composers are beginning to get a second look.
High on the list of musical creators who deserve to be better-known is Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, so believes Katinka Kleijn, a cello in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble. “I’m just so incredibly moved by his music,” she said. “It’s really amazing.”
Kleijn is one of four CSO members performing Perkinson’s String Quartet No. 1 (Calvary) during the Nov. 12 episode of CSO Sessions, a weekly series of small-ensemble virtual concerts.
She first played Perkinson’s music as part of the CSO’s Virtual Day of Music on June 21. Although the International Contemporary Ensemble showcases repertoire by under-represented composers, the cellist realized there was an urgent need to supplement her knowledge of this repertoire by studying non-living composers as well.
With that in mind, she was determined to play a work by a composer of color for the June 21 event. She previously heard cellist Seth Parker Woods, an artist-in-residence at the University of Chicago, in a performance of the Calvary ostinato from Perkinson’s Lamentations: Black Folk Song Suite for Solo Cello. “I remembered him playing this piece and really loving it, so I dove into it,” Kleijn said. She calls the work an “overdue personal discovery.”
Perkinson was named after Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), a biracial composer and conductor, whose mother was English and his father, a Creole from Sierra Leone. In England, he was a well-respected composer who received early support from Edward Elgar. In part because of the success of The Song of Hiawatha, a trilogy of cantatas, Coleridge-Taylor made three tours to the United States. In 1904, he was received at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt.
According to Johann Buis, associate professor of musicology at Wheaton College, Coleridge-Taylor became something of a “cult figure” on the African-American classical-music scene. For much of the early 20th century, non-white classical musicians were largely segregated from the mainstream classical realm. But so revered was Coleridge-Taylor that choral societies named for him cropped up in major cities across the United States.
Perkinson’s mother, who had moved from North Carolina and was a piano teacher and church organist in the Bronx, was clearly influenced by the popularity of the British musician, naming her son after him in 1932. Something of a piano prodigy, Perkinson soon demonstrated that his name was no fluke.
After graduating from New York’s High School of Music and Art (later the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts), where he befriended cellist and fellow student Lynn Harrell, Perkinson briefly studied education at New York University and then transferred to the Manhattan School of Music. There he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, pursuing composition with Vittorio Giannini and Hugh Ross. While serving on the faculty of Brooklyn College in 1959-1962, he spent three summers studying conducting in the Netherlands with African-American expatriate Dean Dixon and Franco Ferrera, and then part of a summer at the Mozarteum in Salzburg.
Besides writing chamber and choral works and other concert music and co-founding New York’s Symphony of the New World in 1965, Perkinson extended his career in other directions as well. He worked as music director for several dance and theatrical companies, including the Jerome Robbins’ American Theater Lab and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, composing a ballet for Ailey titled For Bird, With Love. He also wrote scores for several films, including “A Warm December” (1973), a romantic drama directed by and starring Sidney Poitier; toured with famed jazz drummer Max Roach, and did arrangements for popular singers such as Marvin Gaye and Harry Belafonte.
Some of these career choices were forced on “Perk,” as he was known to friends, because of discrimination. Buis was an office mate of the composer at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, where Perkinson worked from 1998 until his death in 2004. He served as coordinator of performance activities there in 1998 and, a year later, became music director of the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble.
Buis recalls a conversation in which Perkinson described getting a phone call from Dixon, who had seen him on Japanese television with Roach. Perkinson told Buis, “I could not really explain to Dean Dixon that no orchestra, no ensemble, no opportunities would come my way in the United States. The phone rang, and it was Max Roach on the line: ‘Perk, I’m booked for a tour to Japan, and I need a pianist. Would you come?’ His phone call came when I was broke and I needed to eat, and I went on this tour. The fact was that I did not or could not make headway in the United States and when opportunities did come my way, and they discovered that I was Black, these opportunities were withdrawn or modified.”
Buis sees Perkinson as one of the “really remarkable composers” of the late 20th century with a natural voice that was “unhindered by convention.” Kleijn agrees, describing him as “craftful and soulful.” His music “has a lot of message and substance and essence and beauty and grit,” she said. “I just feel like his abilities are unbelievable.”
Although never a strict serialist, Perkinson was more forward-looking than better-known African-American counterparts like Florence Price and William Grant Still. His music falls into what Buis calls a kind of “in-between category,” with a constant tension between the pull of atonality and a sophisticated, never faddish use of jazz idioms. “So here he is using a kind of modernistic language with a fairly strong image of dissonance, yet he also uses a jazz through-line that constantly informs a rhythmic vitality in his work that was extremely attractive,” Buis said. In addition, Perkinson was a first-rate contrapuntalist, inspired by composers as diverse as Bach and Bartók, with an affinity for instrumental color, a quality particularly evident in his arrangements.
The String Quartet No. 1 ranks among Perkinson’s best-known chamber pieces. “This is a fascinating work, because it is subtitled with the name of a spiritual,” Buis said. “He uses that tune as conceptional raw material but disguises it in a fascinating way.” According to a Nov. 4, 1956, review in the New York Times, its premiere was given by the Cumbo Quartet at Carnegie Hall’s Lyceum stage as part of a memorial tribute to H.T. “Harry” Burleigh, a noted African-American baritone and composer.
The critic, only credited with the initials J.S., was enthusiastic about the work: “Mr. Perkinson is an artist who has something to say. Although his idiom is unmistakably contemporary, it is not warmed-over atonality of the Viennese school. Jazz idioms are used fluently and without self-consciousness. The quartet has great rhythmic vitality, an aspect in which contemporary music is often deficient.”
Buis is convinced that Perkinson’s star will rise as more listeners discover him: “Audiences are going to say, ‘We need Black concert music 2.0. Where is it?’ And Perkinson will be right there, absolutely.”