Thursday, February 3, 2011

Black History Month: Hallelujah! and Treemonisha

By J9 of J9's MusicLife

To celebrate Black History month, through February check out a series of features acknowledging parts of black history as it relates to music.

Hallelujah!, One of the First All-Black Movies

Hallelujah! is a 1929 MGM musical directed by an American, King Vidor.  It was one of the first all-black "talkie" movie from a major studio.  Vidor directed it without pay when MGM thought white audiences wouldn't see a movie with black actors in lead roles. Filmed in Tennessee and Arkansas, most of it was shot silent with sound added later in the studio. 

It contained both spiritual (Go Down Moses (Let My People Go), Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child) and jazz numbers (Swanee Shuffle, as seen in the clip below).  Vidor wanted to show the role religion and music played in the South, a place he grew up in himself.

By combining sex, murder, religion, and of course music, Hallelujah! tells the story of Zeke, a poor cotton farmer who struggles with religion and his relationship with a seductive jazz singer named Chick. 

To read more and find out what the film was all about, click here.

Treemonisha, a Black Jazz-Folk Opera

Treemonisha, an opera by African-American composer Scott Joplin in 1910, is considered to be the most American opera ever composed.  His goal was to inspire African-Americans during that time and pose the idea that education would create racial equality.  Published in 1911, Joplin sent a copy of the score to the American Musician and Art Journal, who's review called the opera an "entirely new phase of musical art and... a thoroughly American opera (style)."

Although many label Treemonisha a ragtime opera, Joplin wanted his piece to have the seriousness found in the Metropolitan Opera and other European companies as well as the entertaining elements of ragtime.  He called this a grand opera with an overture, instrumental prelude, solo arias, duets, ensemble pieces, and recitative.  It contained forms of rag, barbershop quartet, sentimental ballad, waltz, march, and ensemble finales.  Songs were made up of black folk and dances, pre-blues music, spirituals, and a call-and-response style.

To read more and view a clip of the opera, click here.

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