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Feb. 18: Chamber Music Series

Photo by Master Sgt. Brian Rust

Dvořák’s Dream Deferred

14 Feb 2024 | GySgt Landres Bryant United States Marine Band

The Marine Chamber Music Series continues at 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 18, with homages to the all-black “Harlem Hellfighters,” the regiment that took Jazz to Paris during World War I, the ensuing “hot jazz” craze and the Harlem Renaissance, as well as a nod to the Marine Band’s trip to Prague in 2022. Coordinated by tuba player Gunnery Sgt. Landres Bryant, the performance will take place in John Philip Sousa Band Hall, online and in person at the Marine Barracks Annex in southeast Washington, D.C. It will also be available online.

Bryant offered the following on the program:

When queried by Mozart about the language and cultural barriers he might face in London, Joseph Haydn is said to have remarked, “My language is understood throughout the world!” What would such a statement look like in a very different world? How would such statements be met? This concert explores these questions by beginning with Haydn’s Trio No. 1 in C from Hob. IV:1.

The Haydn will be followed by Andy Akiho’s to wALK Or ruN in wEst harlem. With Akiho’s work neighboring the Haydn, I intend to recall the arrival of the Harlem Hellfighters in Europe and their swaggering clash with European high-culture.

“Up the wide avenue, they swung. Their smiles outshone the golden sunlight. In every line proud chests expanded beneath the medals valor had won. The impassioned cheering of the crowds massed along the way drowned the blaring cadence of their former jazz band. The old 15th was on parade and New York turned out to tender its dark-skinned heroes a New York welcome.”

So read the newspapers on Feb. 18, 1919, when the Harlem Hellfighters–the storied and decorated black unit, credited with introducing jazz to Europe–returned home. The Drum Major of the band reported wryly thinking to himself, “Colonel Hayward has brought his band over here and started ‘ragtimitis’ in France… [W]hen the band had finished, and the people were roaring with laughter, their faces wreathed in smiles, I was forced to say that this is just what France needs at this critical moment.”

The first half of the concert ends with a work from Erwin Schulhoff, a composer who caught the Hellfighters’ “ragtimitis” and proceeded to synthesize jazz and other traditions with the Austro-Germanic classical tradition. Schulhoff’s aspirations were dangerous in interwar-Germany. He regularly found himself at odds with government censors, but thumbed his nose at authorities and continued composing under pseudonyms when he was blacklisted.  While certainly avant-garde, I would invite the audience to hear Bassnachtigal as Schulhoff hoping to urgently mock some sense into anyone who might hear.

The second half of this performance opens by chronicling the life and career of Josephine Baker: international spy, fashion icon, actress, dancer, recipient of the Croix de Guerre, and owner of a pet cheetah. The last work on the concert is more of a postscript. In planning today’s concert, I initially set out to retrace the band’s historic 2022 tour of Europe. As I began coordinating those chamber works, I kept returning to my thoughts from that summer in Prague.

In 1893 Antonín Dvořák took up his pen, not to compose, but to fervently implore advancing American classical music by integrating contributions of Black Americans and Native Americans--dreams and ambitions for a “great and noble school” of classical music. The idea was mocked quite viciously. More poignantly, history began dealing a series of heavy blows beginning with the outbreak of World War I.

Not long before the U.S. Marine Band made its historic journey to Prague, fresh attention to Dvořák’s efforts was brought on by a wave of publications and docu-series by music critic and historian, Joseph Horowitz. Also fresh in the air were the accomplishments, and late recognition, of the Harlem Hellfighters.

All of these ideas on my first trip across the Atlantic as a professional musician (a black military musician) were stewing as we played those historic concerts in Prague–where Dvořák rests in Vyšehrad cemetery. I was simultaneously full of awe and what-ifs about what could have been had history not been so unkind.

The concert will close with Jan Koetsier’s variations on the Vyšehrad theme.  Smetana said of his composition, “The harps of the bards begin; a bard sings of the events that have taken place on Vyšehrad, of the glory, splendor, tournaments and battles, and ultimate decay.”

The concert is free and open to the public; no tickets required. The Marine Barracks Annex is located at 1053 7th Street SE in Washington, DC, and free parking is available in the gated lot beneath the bridge on 7th Street. Please allow extra time for ID checks and security at the gate.