Pianist Michelle Cann showcases music by women of Chicago Black Renaissance

Kimberly Nicoletti
Special to The Aspen Times
Pianist Michelle Cann debuts in Aspen Aug. 7 with music by women of Chicago's Black Renaissance.
Courtesy photo

The Harlem Renaissance attracted a lot of attention, but the Chicago Black Renaissance, which rippled throughout the 1930s to 1950s, remains mostly forgotten — along with some of the most prominent and talented Black women composers of the time period.

Pianist Michelle Cann is in Aspen Aug. 7 performing music by women of Chicago’s Black Renaissance. The Renaissance women were all either discovered or mentored by composer Florence Price, the first Black woman to have one of her compositions performed by a major American orchestra.

“This is a name that should have come up,” she said, noting how history filtered Price’s and other Black composers’ names from their books.

Cann discovered Price after reading “The Heart of a Woman,” a biography of the composer by Rae Linda Brown, published by University of Illinois Press. Impressed by Price’s more than 200 compositions, Cann figured more Black women composers must exist. So she continued to research and found Chicago musicians Margaret Bonds, the first Black to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Irene Britton Smith and Betty Jackson King.

“We talk about the Harlem Renaissance, but Chicago had it, too. Chicago was an important one — not just for jazz, but for classical music also,” Cann said.

Born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Price was the oldest of the four musicians she will highlight in her recital at Harris Concert Hall.

Price mentored Smith, who wrote her a fan letter and gained Price’s praise and encouragement. Meanwhile, Bonds was one of Price’s best friends, even though Bonds was much younger (born in 1913). All four women belonged to the National Association of Negro Musicians, and some held prominent positions; at one time, King was president of the association.

Monday’s recital will include two pieces by Price, “Fantasie Negre No. 1 in E minor” and “Fantasie Negre No. 2 in G minor,” as well as Bond’s “Spiritual Suite,” Smith’s “Variations on a Theme by MacDowell,” and King’s “Four Seasonal Sketches.”

Ragtime, spirituals, and jazz-influenced music predominantly characterize Price, King, and Bond’s work, which is what audiences will mostly hear in Cann’s recital. Smith’s composition is the only piece in the program based more in the European classical world.

Cann wants to showcase it all, without becoming stereotyped into the narrow biases the four women composers faced.

“There was an underlying racist ideology — if you were a Black composer, they expected Black music from you. There was a pressure that they bring into Black music idioms in their writing — writing the style we expect you to,” she said. “I identify as a concert pianist that happens to be Black. Obviously, I’m not just allowed to play Black music. I love performing Florence Price’s music, and I’m proud of it, but I also struggle that I do not get put into one little box. They naturally liked bringing in their style — it’s not like they were forced (to write that way), but it was also frustrating when they didn’t want to.”

That’s why Cann will present Smith’s work.

“There’s no hint of African American dance songs. It’s as European classical as it gets,” Cann said. “This was powerful to say, ‘No, I want to write that.'”

That said, she also loves the spirituals the other women wrote.

“There’s a familiarity to this music for me and for everyone. Each one of them is using this sort of familiar landscape but yet putting their very unique stamp on it,” she said. “It’s familiar, yet completely transformed (depending) on whose hands are on it. Through the dances, the melodies, and the style, you’re going to connect to it as American people, but then you’re going to get that unique individuality.”

One of the main things Cann hopes audiences experience during the recital is a deep appreciation for the music, beyond just the stories of the composers’ lives. She wants to share the works, hoping pianists learn it “because it’s great music, not because a school is telling them to play music from black composers.”

She champions music from composers who weren’t widely recognized publicly and historically to “undo those wrongs because their music was great, then and now.”

“I just want to see the classical music world embracing all music because that is a responsibility of our country,” she said. “I do it because everyone deserves a voice and because it’s good music.”

If you go…

What: Music by Women of Chicago’s Black Renaissance with pianist Michelle Cann

When: 6 p.m., Aug. 7 (note: this is a date change from the previously scheduled Aug. 8 recital)

Where: Harris Concert Hall

Tickets: $55

Note: Colorado Public Radio will carry this live, so you can tune in from anywhere.

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