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King-Dorset, who teaches black British history and performance at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London, is an actor, playwright, choreographer and filmmaker. He has written studies for McFarland on Black Dance in London 1730-1850 and Black British Theatre Pioneers.

That his latest discursive effort is not by a classical music specialist is underlined by a reference to ‘Benjamin Britain’. Still, it is worthwhile in its advocacy for such African-American pianists and composers as Florence Price (1887-1953) and Margaret Bonds (1913-1972). Among piano works, Price’s Sonata in E minor (1932) and Bonds’ Troubled Water express profound dignity and lyricism.

Canadian-born Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) created works that gallop as jauntily as anything by Gottschalk. ‘Dance (Juba)’ from Dett’s In the Bottoms (1913), inspired by African-American life on low-lying riverside land in the South, was performed by the virtuoso Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler and recorded repeatedly by Percy Grainger (APR).

King-Dorset reasonably asserts that the story of Scott Joplin (1868-1917) was the ‘most tragic’ among these composers. Joplin’s gladsome rags, recorded in 1970 by the American pianist Joshua Rifkin (Nonesuch and Warner Classics) with unsurpassed candour and immediacy, belie a life marred by syphilitic dementia. In the throes of illness, Joplin claimed that Irving Berlin had plagiarised his music to create the tune ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, an obsession convincingly discounted by biographers of Joplin and Berlin. King-Dorset oddly implies that the question remains open whether Berlin, George Gershwin, Darius Milhaud and even Arthur Sullivan may have lifted from Joplin.

Equally off-base, without the excuse of syphilis, was the later career of William Grant Still (1895-1978), married to the pianist Verna Arvey. Praised early on by his fellow composers Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein and Leonard Bernstein – all Jewish gay leftists – Still’s later works were criticised by the same coterie. He reacted with public denunciations of them in McCarthyite America as Communists, tacitly alluding to other minority groups to which they evidently belonged. This unfortunate episode, recounted by Still’s biographer Catherine Parsons Smith (University of California Press), speaks of the constant trauma of life, let alone creative pianistic life, in a bigoted society.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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