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15 May 2024

How apartheid shaped classical music

Four composers reveal the musical legacies of the regime – in South Africa and beyond.

By Samantha Ege and Leah Broad

On a warm May day in 1952, the composer Avril Coleridge-Taylor stepped onto the runway at Palmietfontein Airport. She was one of only two women on the inaugural Comet jet flight between Britain and South Africa, the fastest ever passenger service between the countries. South Africa seemed a world of promise to Coleridge-Taylor, aged 49 and eager for new adventures. While on board, she was so moved by the feeling of coming to a new life that she wrote an orchestral overture responding to it: the “Comet Prelude”. In a note on the score, she explained it was inspired by “the sight of the golden dawn breaking over the desert”, building to: “a note of triumph when the arrival of the comet is greeted by thousands”.

Coleridge-Taylor went to South Africa partly to escape the prejudice against women in music she had experienced in the UK. At first, it seemed that South Africa might be more open to a female musical creator and leader. While the BBC had repeatedly rejected her for conducting opportunities, within weeks of landing she had conducted the “Comet Prelude” premiere with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) symphony orchestra, and was booked with multiple other high-profile orchestras. Coleridge-Taylor was building the career she could only dream of in Britain.

Coleridge-Taylor’s rose-tinted view of South Africa was far from the reality. Four years before her arrival, white South Africans voted into power the National Party, which sided with Nazi Germany during the Second World War and ran on a platform of apartheid. The country’s black population began to anticipate a new era of white hegemony. In his book Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela explained that apartheid consolidated the “haphazard segregation of the past 300 years… into a monolithic system that was diabolical in its detail, inescapable in its reach and overwhelming in its power”.

As the daughter of the mixed-race black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and the white British singer Jessie Walmisley, Avril Coleridge-Taylor had been naive to think that she might leave South Africa’s embattled social landscape unscathed. She had always seen herself as British first and foremost. But in South Africa, she had had to choose whether she was black or white for the first time. Until then, she had always been both. So she accepted how others saw her and passed as white, even if it left her with, as she later put it in her unpublished memoir, “an awkward feeling that I was, in one sense, living a lie”.

Privately, Coleridge-Taylor hoped that defying apartheid might “do an enormous amount of good”: if she was accepted by white society, surely that would prove that the laws rested on false assumptions about race. But choosing to pass as white was not a straightforward act of resistance: there was a huge amount of privilege to be gained by being white. Her contemporary, the Afrikaner composer Hubert du Plessis, for example, was able to study music at both Stellenbosch and Rhodes universities, and he received a number of bursaries and commissions that funded him in writing ambitious, large-scale works. From the late 1950s he composed pieces for official occasions that reflected what he described in a postscript to one of his scores as “a growing consciousness of my deeply rooted inseparability from the land of my birth and Afrikaner heritage”. He incorporated Afrikaans poetry and folk music within a Western classical framework, positioning himself as the South African successor to canonical composers such as Bach, whom he especially admired. Pieces such as his nationalist choral and orchestral work South Africa: Night and Dawn, written for the 1966 Republic Festival, earned him a reputation as “the Afrikaans establishment composer”, as one of his colleagues put it. He was rewarded with a gold Order for Meritorious Service in 1992, and held a position as lecturer at Stellenbosch University from 1958 until 1987.

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If the advantages of being perceived as white weren’t immediately clear to Coleridge-Taylor, they became obvious after 1954, when her late father’s racial identity was discovered. All her professional bookings were withdrawn. In desperation she turned to the British high commissioner, who advised her to return to the UK, or “risk being sent to prison”. Coleridge-Taylor went from touring with the SABC symphony orchestra to unemployment almost overnight, struggling to find her way back to England with no income.

Upon returning, she felt such “shame over what had happened over the colour question” that she chose to keep it a secret. But her experiences left their mark on her music and her career, and she gradually found her way to a position of pan-African solidarity. She set up a choir exclusively for singers of colour called the New World Singers and arranged spirituals for them. When Ghana gained independence in 1957, she wrote a celebratory “Ceremonial March”, which would be broadcast on the BBC and performed in Ghana, including during Queen Elizabeth II’s visit in 1961. Still, her career never fully recovered and she died in East Sussex in 1998 almost completely unknown, the majority of her music unpublished and unrecorded.

For African Americans who experienced Jim Crow segregation, the brutalities of apartheid hit close to home. Coleridge-Taylor’s contemporary Undine Smith Moore was influenced by the black resistance she saw in the US, notably the Second World War “Double V” campaign for “victory abroad and victory at home” – in which black Americans demanded the same democracy they were fighting for overseas. Bombings, lynchings and other forms of state-sanctioned brutality in black neighbourhoods (in the US and South Africa) further galvanised her.

Moore was known in the African-American concert scene as the “dean of black women composers”, a title that referenced her standing as a respected educator in the male-dominated arts world. Born in Virginia, she was the child of working-class parents and enslaved grandparents, and a proud proponent of black history. She taught at Virginia State College from 1927 to 1972, and for the first decades of her career thought of herself as a teacher first and composer second.

The civil rights movement shifted Moore’s outlook. Composition became an important vehicle for her musical talent and her activism. She broke away from the gentle idioms of her earlier works and relished crunchy chords. She blended her love for Bach’s counterpoint with the dissonances that broke all the rules of said counterpoint. And she increasingly drew on black folk songs, reaching into her memories of the spirituals that her mother sang as she cooked and her father hummed around the house.

This culminated in a work titled “Before I’d Be a Slave” (1953) for solo piano. Its name comes from a spiritual: “Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be saved.” Moore imbued the piece with a restless, rageful and resilient spirit. The music historian Tammy L Kernodle suggests it is the first representation of black female anger in classical music.

After the 1976 Soweto Uprising, Moore wrote the three-movement Soweto for piano trio (1987). The scenes of bloodied black South African schoolchildren who protested the nation’s unjust racial regimes haunted her to the extent that, a decade on, she awoke from her sleep and heard the word “Soweto” echo in her mind. “There must have been deep internal turmoil to bring that word to me. I felt I did not choose the word. The word chose me,” she reflected. It was the last piece she wrote before her death in 1989. The first movement highlights Moore’s predilection for the baroque style, but she manipulates it, writing a disfigured bass in the cello part coupled with chaotic piano and angular violin melodies. The second movement takes “So-we-to” as a rhythmic motif, as if the music were screaming the name of the township. The third movement is a lament to be played, as she indicates, “with dignity – power”.

Contemporary Xhosa composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen calls Soweto a “moving testament to transatlantic solidarity within the global black community”. One of the most important post-apartheid classical voices, Ndodana-Breen has said, “Pre-1994 era and post-colonialism not only shaped my motivation to be a composer but guided the nature of the creative projects I produce.” Two such examples include “Safika: Three Tales of African Migration”for piano quintet (2011), which explores dispossession and migration in black South African life, and Winnie: The Opera (2011) – inspired by Winnie Mandela, and the first full-length opera by a black South African composer. Hubert du Plessis once claimed that in his country “the ‘black idiom’ is completely foreign to the Western musical tradition”: Ndodana-Breen’s blending of Xhosa and Zulu idioms with European conventions defies his assertion. Still, Du Plessis’s words show how apartheid’s proponents sought to segregate even the sonic realm.

Coleridge-Taylor, Du Plessis, Moore and Ndodana-Breen were all touched by apartheid; together they provide a window into the ways in which music has been used to support, resist and commemorate the regime. Their works are protests against oppression, dreams of liberation and expressions of profound uncertainty. As Moore once said, “The primary function of any artist in any period is to convey as honestly and sincerely as [they] can [their] personal vision of life.” These four figures embody music’s enduring capacity to explore the most discordant complexities of the world we live in.

[See also: Schumann and the arrival of spring]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink