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Classical Sprouts: The Harlem Renaissance

From left: William Grant Still, Margaret Bonds and Langston Huges
From left: William Grant Still, Margaret Bonds and Langston Huges

The Harlem Renaissance, which manifested in early 20th century Harlem, was a rich period for Black culture and artistry.

It came after an upheaval known as "The Great Migration," when many Black people were moving from southern cities to northern ones.

New York City's Harlem neighborhood welcomed these migrants and became a Black cultural center where people could collaborate in a community of artists.

This was largely a new experience for Black artists who often spent their careers making art for white audiences.

Even famed jazz composer, musician and bandleader Duke Ellington became popular playing at the Cotton Club, which only allowed white patrons.

You might have heard of famous Black writers who lived and worked during the Harlem Renaissance, like Sterling Brown, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, but composers and musicians were very active during this period, too - sometimes in collaboration with writers like these!

One important work that came out of the Harlem Renaissance was actually a musical!

Shuffle Along, whose music was written by pianist and composer Eubie Blake, was a landmark musical because it was the first created and performed entirely by Black artists.

People were so excited about the show, a comedy about two friends thwarted in their attempts to run for mayor, that there were traffic jams in Times Square before showtimes!

We mentioned collaborations between composers and other types of artists, and Langston Hughes and Margaret Bonds are a great example.

Margaret Bonds was a Black composer who moved to New York City from Chicago to go to Juilliard.

She set many of Langston Hughes poems, including "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and "I, Too, Sing America," to music, giving the words even deeper meaning.

Composer William Grant Still also collaborated with artists of different disciplines.

He wrote a suite with movements inspired by two sculptures and a painting, all by Black artists.

Harlem Renaissance composers had a massive cultural impact, so much so that the 1939 World's Fair commissioned sculptor Augusta Savage to create a sculpture symbolizing their musical contributions.

Here's an image of the resulting sculpture called "The Harp" or "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

A souvenir version of Savage's 1939 sculpture The Harp, which was inspired by "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
1939 World's Fair Committee
A recreation of Savage's 1939 sculpture, "The Harp," which was inspired by "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

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Classical Sprouts is produced by Emily Duncan Wilson. Kacie Brown is the digital content manager.

Kate Botello is a host and producer at Classical IPR.
Emily Duncan Wilson is IPR's digital content manager and is the producer of "Classical Sprouts" and "Kids Commute".