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African American Conductors

Conducting, as we know it today is less than two centuries old. 1 On the other hand time beating; a way of holding players and/or singers together, has been around for several centuries. 1 In the absence of written notation, the leaders hands indicated the direction of the group. As polyphony entered the musical picture, it became essential that the beats be on target. Interpretation at the time was of no importance. It has been indicated through engravings that in addition to hands, leaders of instrumental and vocal forces utilized a foot, a stick, a pendulum, a handkerchief, or maybe even a piece of paper.

In the seventeenth century the element of interpretation entered the music scene, enhancing the role of the leader greatly. This freedom of interpretation increased the conductors responsibility, although no universal practices existed. Gradually the method of time beating approached uniformity; as meters became established, so did the conductors movements. 1 In the eighteenth century two conductors were often used for operas. 1 One conductor would direct the singers and the other conductor would direct the orchestra.

On occasion there were three directors. The principle or lead violinist would often be the lead director, followed by the keyboard player and a conductor. 1 Orchestras without conductors also existed during this period, a tradition still continued today in chamber orchestras. 1 Gradually the lead violinist director became more important than any other type of director transforming himself into lead conductor. 1 The violinist would lead the orchestra by using the violin bow to conduct in the same manner that the baton would be used later.

By the early period of the nineteenth century, about the time the size of the orchestra had expanded tremendously, a conductor had become a fixture. This paper will inform the reader on a brief history of conductors in general, the importance of a conductor, the history of black conductors, important and revolutionary black conductors, the future and popularity of black conductors, and how black conductors influenced the art of conducting. The art of conducting goes back centuries. It is hard to place an exact date and assign a specific person the honor of being the first conductor.

However, an Italian-born, French-educated Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) is generally designated as being the first important conductor in the history of music. 1 He was director of music for Louis the Fourteenth of France. Lully taught his men a uniform manner of bowing, developed orchestral discipline, and achieved a rhythmic precision unknown till then. 1 He became a model for all conductors of Europe to follow. German composer Christopher Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) is seen as being the first great modern conductor.

Johann Frederick Reichardt (1752-1814), German composer and conductor was believed to be the first to eliminate the keyboard and conduct standing up. 1 Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) often referred to as the first real conductor, fostered precision and exact realization of the composers score. 1 Franz Liszt (1811-1886), initiated interpretation by facial expressions and gestures. 1Finally Richard Wagner in 1869, wrote On Conducting, which was the first book devoted exclusively to the interpretive aspect of the art of conducting. 1

A conductor is an individual who guides a unique aggregation of instrumentalist. Requirements of a successful conductor are; enormous authority, mastery of conducting mechanics, extensive knowledge, uncanny powers of communication, and a profound perception of musics inner meaning. 1 A conductor is one who has the ability to communicate his ideas about a composition through his instrument, which is the orchestra. A conductor can do as he pleases as long as he justifies his actions. Also, the conductor illustrates a technical bond between himself and the orchestra.

Furthermore, the conductor is the most visible individual associated with the orchestra making his actions visible to all. Also the personality of the conductor plays a major role in how the orchestra is conducted. The conductor is a communicator of musical ideas, with the responsibility of serving the music. In all, a conductor must be a born leader who understands the responsibilities of leadership and is never deluded with a sense of absolute power. Black conductors have a very short history compared to the rest of the conducting world.

There are many reasons why this is. For one, black people were held to slavery and looked down upon until the late 1800s. Oral tradition was the common African tradition. They had little education and most of the music recorded was that of song bearing very few instruments if any. Classical music just wasnt part of their culture. Singers were the first to enter the music world. When slavery was abolished jazz, blues, and gospel became the major interest of most black folk. Entering the classical music society was expensive and risky.

For centuries white males had been conducting white orchestras. The thought of a black orchestrial musician much less conductor was abominable. Everything changed when Dean Dixon was born on January 10, 1915 in New York City. 2 At the age of three Deans mother, McClara Dean Ralston Dixon bought him a violin and scheduled classes three days a week. 2 He immediately began to love music. He attended Carnegie Hall Events at the age of five. 2 His teachers at school discouraged him to pursue a career in classical music, for the idea wasnt practical at the time.

In 1932, he graduated from high school and with the help of his music teacher he was admitted to The Julliard School based on his violin capabilities. 2 In 1936 he received his B. S. degree and went on to Columbia were he received his M. A. degree. 2 At the Julliard school he successfully auditioned for a graduate fellowship in conducting. 2 Also in 1932, he successfully conducted his first orchestra. In a short time the Dean Dixon Symphony Orchestra consisted of seventy musicians. 2 He taught private violin and piano lessons for money and in 1938 caught a break when he composed his first professional orchestra.

Soon after in 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt arranged a concert for his orchestra at Hecksher Theatre. 2 He drew a huge crowd and caught the attention of the music director of NBC. He was contracted shortly after to direct and conduct NBC Symphony Orchestra. 2 His career and persona became electrified. He had nation wide popularity, for he was the first black conductor in the history of classical music, and he had great talent. In the next few years he went on to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra, and The Boston Symphony Orchestra. 2 In 1949 he was invited to conduct concerts in Paris.

During the next few years he led 32 concerts in 9 countries. 2 In 1953, he became resident conductor of the Goteborg (Sweden) Symphony. 2He stayed in Sweden until 1961 when he moved to Germany to conduct the Hesse Radio Symphony Orchestra in Frankfurt. 2 In 1967, Dixon retired and came back to America. On November 4, 1976 Dean Dixon died of heart trouble. 2 He died with the achievement of four awards (Rosenwald Fellowship, ASCAP award, Newspaper Guild Page One Award, and the Alice M. Ditson Award as Outstanding Conductor of the Year, in 1948).

His orchestras were endorsed by such prominent musical personalities as Yedudi, Menuhin, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Bruno Walter, and Oscar Hammerstein. 2 Critics raved about him after his death. Almost every magazine and newspaper in the country had something good to say about him. He was a humble man who helped his community by teaching kids the importance of music, by giving to charity, and by doing free lessons. He opened a door no one ever thought possible; he showed the world a black man could be a magnificent musician and conductor. He paved the way for many to follow in his footsteps.

Another pioneer in the art of conducting was a man by the name of Henry Lewis. At the age of twenty-eight Lewis became the first black conductor to lead a major symphony orchestra in a home-based, regular subscription concert. 3 Lewis was born about the time Dixon graduated High School, October 16, 1932 in Los Angeles. Despite the age difference, Lewis practically matched Dixon with his impact on the music world. Lewis emerged as a trailblazer for black musicians, when at the age of sixteen he auditioned successfully for a double bass position in the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

He became the youngest and first black musician to join the ranks of such a prestigious group. Furthermore, he went on to be the first black music director of a professional American orchestra, and the first black conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. 4 Lewis grew up in a relatively poor environment. At the age of five he started piano lessons and went on to try many other orchestral instruments before turning to the double bass. 4 He was forced into playing the bass, for it was the only way he could play in his school orchestra.

He began conducting in junior high: performing Grand March from Aida on graduation day. 4 Lewiss bass talent stemmed from Herman Reinshagen, who came to Los Angeles after many years of playing for the New York Philharmonic. 4 Reinshagen guided Lewiss development as a virtuoso bass player and solo recitalist. After his success with the Los Angeles Philharmonic he received a scholarship to the University of Southern California. His success soared until he was drafted in 1955, into the Seventh Army Symphony as bass player and conductor.

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