It’s an unjustly neglected repertoire of music, likely obscured, at least in part, because of racism. Friday evening, one organist will bring some of this music to light in a concert benefiting a project to update the church building of one of Columbus’ oldest African American congregations.
Anthony Williams, associate professor of music and university organist at Nashville’s Fisk University, will perform a recital of music by black composers Friday, May 17 at 7 p.m. at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbus.
Admission is free, though freewill offerings will help defray the costs of updating the accessible ramp leading into the church's historic East Long Street building.
The concert’s program features music by African American composers John W. Work III, Ralph Simpson, Mark Fax and Florence Price, as well as selections by the Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Fela Sowande, a Nigerian-born composer who served on the faculty of Kent State University.
Some of the works on Williams’ May 17 recital still exist only in manuscript form. But thanks to Williams – who completed his doctoral dissertation on the keyboard music of John W. Work III and is currently editing some of Work's music – and other musicians, more and more organ music by black composers has been coming to light in published editions and public performances.
“In the past, a lot of these composers had difficulties – because of their race – having publishers publish their music,” Williams said in a recent phone interview. “Many times, (publishers) would ignore them and refuse to publish.”
The correspondence of John W. Work III is a painful record of one African American composer’s efforts to bring his work before the public.
“Work was a very avid letter writer,” Williams said, “and I found a letter to a publisher where he was submitting a manuscript. And with the manuscript, he also gave them money for return postage and asked them if they choose not to publish the manuscript, to please return it, and made a statement to the effect that he was used to rejection in this manner.”
Hear Williams talk in my interview with him above about the music by Work and the other composers of color on his May 17 organ recital.
Williams’ recital is the third concert in St. Paul AME’s five-part concert series The Music History of the African American Church. St. Paul congregant Toni Cross created the series to offer the community performances that display the varied musical styles of the African American church.
"I thought a series could and should be of interest to those not affiliated with the African American church or any church at all," Cross wrote in an email message.
At 3 p.m. May 17, choirs from various churches will perform a program of hymns and spirituals in a concert presented by the Harmony Force Shape Note Singers. The church will present Spirituals and Anthems Sunday, May 19 at 5 p.m., and “Gospel – The ‘Devil’s’ Music Comes to Church” on Sunday, July 14 at 3 p.m.
The congregation of St. Paul AME Church was established around 1823 as Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and has been worshipping on East Long Street since 1839. According to the church’s website, at least two Columbus history books identify St. Paul AME Church as Columbus’ first African American church.
The church's current building, at 639 E. Long Street, was built in 1906. St. Paul AME Church has an accessible ramp. But according to James Clay, vice president of the church's board of trustees, the Ohio Department of Transportation's forthcoming construction near the church will necessitate the relocation of the ramp from the east side of the church to the front.
"The front of the church is going to have to be, to a certain extent, redesigned in order to make it look still like it is a historical buiding," Clay said in a phone interview.
Clay chairs the committee that is coordinating the church's primary initiative to raise funds for the ramp update.
Said Clay, "We simply want to keep St. Paul as a valued member of the community."
Anthony Williams performs King of Instruments – The Pipe Organ, featuring a program of music by black composers, Friday, May 17 at 7 p.m. in St. Paul’s AME Church. Admission is free.
Editor's Note: The concert on Sunday, May 19 was originally reported to start at 3 p.m. The start time has since been changed to 5 p.m. by St. Paul's AME Church.