By Aaron Keebaugh
On December 29, 1922, John Powell walked on stage in Boston’s Symphony Hall with conductor Pierre Monteux to offer the local premiere of his Rhapsodie Nègre with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. By that time, the composer and pianist had established a reputation as one of America’s leading musicians, and the Rhapsodie, an eighteen-minute work for piano and orchestra, stood as his most successful composition.
Composed in March 1918 for the Russian Symphony Orchestra, the Rhapsodie had gone on to receive performances from by orchestras across America, all with its composer as soloist. Historian John Tasker Howard recorded that it received more than fifty performances in New York City alone by the end of the 1920s.
Attractive for its blazing difficulty, the Rhapsodie Nègre also struck a nerve with audiences and fellow composers for its mix of European classical and African-American vernacular elements. An advertisement in the New York Herald prior to its world premiere in 1918 treated the Rhapsodie as part musical experience and part social project – in bluntly racial terms:
In the work, Mr. Powell has attempted to show the development of the negro since the days when he was first brought to this country from his native home—Africa. The composer has made a study of the colored people, especially their emotional and musical side, and it is his purpose to give full vent to the negro’s feelings and characteristics through music.
Powell’s contemporaries praised him for what he had achieved. After the Rhapsodie was performed at the Norfolk Festival, Henry F. Gilbert, a composer who strove throughout his career to thread African-American elements in his music, found himself ‘profoundly moved’ and commented that Powell ‘was realizing a mission that he himself had been unable to realize’.
But for audiences inside of Symphony Hall that December night in Boston, Powell offered a political message. His program note – written under his pen name, Richard Brockwell – provided a disturbing depiction of the African-American as an individual:
In the case of negro music, there is, over and above such qualities as those mentioned, an additional spirit which leads a peculiar and heightened interest. This interest comes from the fact that the negro not merely occupies a subordinate position in the political and social organization of America, but is, au fond, in spite of his surface polish and restraints imposed by close contact with Caucasian civilization, a genuine primitive […] In addition, to this there is still another stronger characteristic of negro music: The negro is the child among the peoples, and his music shows the unconscious unbound gaiety of the child, as well as the child’s humor; sometimes Aesopian, often, unfortunately too often, Rabelaisian.
To close this pointed and shocking description in the program booklet for that Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, Powell listed himself, unabashedly, as the founder of the Society for the Preservation of Racial Integrity at the University of Virginia – his alma mater – in 1916.
His point wasn’t lost on critics. Donald Francis Tovey even remarked, apologetically, that ‘Mr. Powell has the profoundest sympathy for the negro as an artist and as a human being. But profound sympathy is very different from the facile dangers that threaten two races of widely different stages of evolution that try to live together’.
For much of his adult life, John Powell held to the then prominent view that the United States was a de facto white nation. In an interview published in the Musical Courier, the composer remarked: ‘To write about the negro […] one must know about the negro; to paint him in pictures one must paint him as he is, or, rather, not as he is but as he was, as he racially was, and as he might be if he were free to develop upon his own roots, free from white cultural influence.’ He went on to say: ‘The pessimistic view of my Negro Rhapsody is no more than recognition of the gloomy outlook for the negro’s racial development in a white country.’
Yet in spite of the success of Rhapsodie Nègre, Powell broke with the thinking of Antonin Dvorák, who argued that American music could break free from European models if composers drew upon African-American and Native American folk sources. ‘Do I think that negro music will serve as a basis for an American school of composition?,’ Powell asked in the same interview. ‘No. I do not think so, for the same reasons that I think Indian music cannot be used. Why? Because neither is American. The whole civilization of the United States is European.’
The issue of race so occupied Powell’s thoughts that it became a leitmotif of his life’s work. In 1924, Powell was invited to present two lectures and a piano recital as part of the Rice Institute, where he articulated his vision of American music – one based upon Anglo-Saxon folk melodies – and what the United States could do about immigration and African-American ‘problems’.
Race so occupied the composer’s thoughts that his friend and fellow composer Daniel Gregory Mason recorded that:
[John] will gladly sit up all night with you, if you let him, discussing music, or just gossiping—for he has an unappeasable appetite for personalia, especially when spiced with a little friendly malice—or declaiming some of his pet fanaticisms such as the horrible dangers of intermarriage between Negroes and whites, or the supreme virtues of Anglo-Saxon folk songs.
John Powell was born on September 6, 1882 in Richmond, Virginia. His father was headmaster of a private girls school, his mother a staff member there. While young, Powell showed a keen interest in music. He studied piano with his elder sister, and later with former Liszt pupil Frederick Charles Hahr. After graduating from the University of Virginia, he ventured to Vienna to study piano and composition. An interest in wrestling he developed as a student in Virginia carried over to his Viennese circles, where he joined the ‘Turnverein’ – an athletic club for young men whose purpose was to exercise the body as well as the mind.
Music, though, remained his focus, and he made his recital debut in Berlin in 1907. He lived for a time in London, and developed friendships with Lord and Lady Plymouth, Arthur Balfour, the Virginia-born Lady Astor, and the writer Joseph Conrad.
Here Powell co-founded the Fresh Air Society in 1913. Like the Turnverein, this promoted the development of a sound body as well as a sound mind. Members viewed art and life as progressing along an evolutionary path for the betterment of both. They eschewed impressionism, atonality, and other current avant-garde developments in the arts. Writing about the Society, Powell said that ‘it is necessary for the welfare of art that the artist, before deciding to flood the world with strange forms and original confections, to be very sure that the substance of his creation be genuine, sanitary, and worthy’.
Powell’s compositions up to this time reveal a conservative, post-Romantic style. His Sonate Psychologique of 1905 bears the impressions of Liszt and Richard Strauss, while the hour-long Sonata Teutonica encapsulates the Society’s themes of progress and oneness in sound.
Less cumbersome is the Sonata Noble, a work that takes Sidney Lanier’s poem The Symphony as its inspiration. And though Powell would later state that his use of African-American music was mere ‘character music’, he incorporated black folk songs in his In the South Suite and Sonata Virginianesque for violin and piano.
Powell’s views on race emanated from his experiences growing up in the American South, and like many of the white elite there, he believed that the United States was based first and foremost upon Anglo-Saxon heritage. The U.S. government observed and passed laws that fit well within that ideology. ‘Plessy v. Ferguson’ legalized segregation of public venues on the basis of race in 1896. In 1924 Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, which restricted immigration of Irish, Italians, Slavs, and other ‘non-white’ Europeans.
Powell was also a proponent of eugenics, the early-twentieth century science of human breeding that was widely discussed by progressive intellectuals. The composer had read and absorbed Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, which couched the history of world peoples as a clash between races.
The State of Virginia, where Powell settled after his European ventures, set the stage for eugenicists in 1902 when the General Assembly passed a new constitution that left control to a small white elite. A series of Jim Crow Laws passed between 1900 and 1918 segregated railroads, streetcars, residential areas, and prisons, and thereby eliminated African-Americans as a political force.
But what elite whites like Powell feared most was racial amalgamation. Using census records collected between 1890 and 1910, eugenicists determined that some one hundred thousand people of mixed white and black race were passing as white, a problem Powell had claimed in his lecture Music and the Nation in 1924.
To counter this perceived threat, activists led by Powell and his newly formed Anglo Saxon Clubs drafted legislation for the Virginia Assembly that redefined what it meant to be white by classifying in the most meticulous way what it meant to be a ‘colored person’. A race code from 1866 in Virginia stated that ‘every persons having one-fourth or more negro blood shall be deemed a colored person’. The Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which Powell had a hand in drafting, imposed the so-called ‘one-drop rule’ – persons with one-sixteenth African heritage were then to be classified as ‘colored’.
To the audiences seated in Boston’s Symphony Hall that December night in 1922, Powell’s Rhapsodie Nègre offered a problem – now incredibly uncomfortable – on which to ponder.
Powell dedicated his Rhapsodie Nègre to the writer Joseph Conrad, whose novella The Heart of Darkness inspired its composition. Conrad’s story took aim at British imperialism and the cruel, even deadly treatment of indigenous Africans by one Mr. Kurtz. But Powell’s reading, as suggested by the Rhapsodie, seemed merely to depict the Africans as savage. Throughout his program note, the composer describes his character music with phrases such as ‘Voodoo orgy’ and ‘wild plaintive cry’. Powell also quotes two African-American spirituals: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and I Want to Be Ready, which tie the composition to a unpublished play that Powell wrote with his wife Louise Burleigh.
In Beatrice: A Tragedy in One Act, race is a constant theme. The eponymous character is a children’s nurse to the Nortons, a wealthy Richmond family. Beatrice is white in appearance and raised by a well-to-do white family, but Mrs. Norton clarifies to a friend that she is ‘only fifteen-sixteenths white’. Echoing the words of Madison Grant, she reminds her friend that ‘one drop, you know, makes the Negro.’ Powell further noted in his manuscript that the tune I Want to Be Ready is the device that ‘awakens’ Beatrice’s blackness.
And blackness, for Powell, was something to fear, for the Rhapsodie Négre depicts the African as forever untameable and wild. His choice of genre was telling. Rhapsodies involve loose form, exuberant expression and aspects of improvisation – suggesting that Africans are unable to control their impulses. In contrast, J. Lester Feder has noted that Powell’s only Symphony, written in 1947, is based entirely on Anglo-Saxon folk materials. There, frameworks such as sonata form control the content, suggesting that whites, possessing sound minds, are able to rise above their natural instincts.
Even in music, Powell was unable to ignore what he saw as the chief moral danger of his day. When discussing such innocuous subjects such as the combination of works with piano and orchestra, much like his Rhapsodie Négre, Powell cast his language in racial terms. ‘To my mind,’ he wrote to Daniel Gregory Mason, ‘and I speak too from practical experience, the piano concerto is a hybrid, and, like the Eurasian and Eurafrican, possesses few – and these suppressed – of the virtues, and all – and these emphasized – of the weaknesses of the two parents.’ His Rhapsodie Négre, then, was intended as a dire warning about racial mixture in American culture.
Seeking to understand the racist, however, doesn’t diminish the damage that the racist commits. Though heralded in his lifetime, Powell has been relegated into the proverbial dustbin of history. Virginia’s Radford University removed Powell’s name from its music building in 2010 after University officials learned of his white supremacist legacy. And save for recordings by Roy Hamlin Johnson and Nicholas Ross, the composer’s music is rarely performed in concerts, perhaps for good reason.
But, in the wake of resurgent ethno-nationalism as a reaction to globalism in the past decade, Powell is finding a new audience. In fall of 2017, Counter-Currents Publishing, a platform for the North American New Right, which like the ‘Alt-Right’ envisions a white ethno-state, posted an apologetic article about Powell. While mentioning his activities as a eugenicist, the author A. Graham equivocates, saying that ‘it is unlikely that [Powell] harbored prejudice’ against Europeans of Italian decent or even Africans, citing his friendship with the black separatist Marcus Garvey as evidence.
Graham goes on to embrace a vision of the arts’ place in society that may, on the surface, seem welcome to arts advocates who know little about Powell or his legacy:
Our quandary is that most of us as modern Americans are entirely deracinated and rootless. Powell at least grew up around folk music and could draw upon the culture of his home state, but folk songs are alien to most young white Americans and therefore their use in modern compositions is likely to be characterized by artificiality and insincerity. This can be counteracted first by activating a sensibility characteristic of our racial soul through perpetually immersing ourselves in great music and art; the challenge then is to create a musical language that gives authentic expression to this. Political change must necessarily be preceded by a revolution of a spiritual and cultural kind. Thus a future revitalization of American music could contribute to the awakening of our people.
John Powell, it seems, remains a man of his own time. But he is also a man of our potentially dangerous present.
Aaron Keebaugh teaches courses in Music History, World History, and American History at North Shore Community College in Danvers, Massachusetts. A musicologist and critic, he has published articles on music in British Post-Graduate Musicology, the Musical Times, and the Classical Review.