Born on this day (Aug 17) in 1879 or 1880, Clarence Cameron White was a violinist and composer quite active in the first half of the 20th century.
The story of how he came to study violin with Will Marion Cook is a colorful one. White’s mother had graduated from Oberlin College, and his grandfather was an abolitionist active in Oberlin, which was the last stop on the Underground Railroad. Clarence lived with his grandparents following the death of his father at a young age. When he was 6, his mother persuaded his grandfather to give young Clarence his violin, as she was convinced of her son’s musical ear. Her father agreed, with the caveat that if he ever played music in a dance band, he would take it back. By the time he was 11, White had moved to Washington with his mother and her new husband, and it was here that he learned of Will Marion Cook, Dvorak’s former student and a violinist himself. White writes “Washington wrought many changes in my young life. One evening my mother took me to hear the pupils of Mrs. Alice Strange Davis, the most renowned piano teacher in Washington at that time among colored people. I was especially anxious to hear Will Marion Cook play the violin....by the time for Cook's number I had fallen asleep... I was awakened by a tremendous applause after his solo. When I was told that he had played I burst out crying and made such a fuss that my mother had to hustle me out of the concert and I went home in disgrace. This rather unusual carrying on at the concert prompted Cook to inquire who the little boy was, and when he discovered the cause of my great disappointment, he came to see my parents and offered to give me violin lessons during the coming summer vacation period. Every lesson was one of pure joy, and it was during this period that I definitely made up my mind to be a violinist.”
White went on to attend Howard University then Oberlin, and one summer a lucky circumstance led him to the White House to play for President McKinley. This furthered his reputation and earned him enough paying concerts to help pay for his tuition at Oberlin; although in his fourth year he had to play at a dance band, despite his promise to his grandfather. Of that he said: “In order to ease my conscience, despite my boss’ protest, I refused to play first violin.”
He did not get a degree from Oberlin because he left for a position as a violin teacher in a school in Pittsburgh. When after a month at this job, the school stopped paying the faculty, he decided to continue his training on the violin. He did one year at the Hartford School of Music (later the Hartford Conservatory, a separate institution from the Hartt School) before finally settling in Boston for the next few years. In 1903 he was appointed head of the string department at the new Washington Conservatory in D.C., a position he held for four years. When White was at Oberlin as a student, he had struck up a correspondence with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and in 1908, after his time at the Conservatory, he moved to London to study composition with Coleridge-Taylor for a few years. He was devastated by his mentor’s early death, and eulogized him:
“Coleridge-Taylor will live as long as there is a boy or girl with Negro blood in his or her veins who has the “spirit of song” in his or her heart, and his life and achievement will be beacon of light to all who have the ambition to go on and accomplish great things in the art of which he was such a glorious star.”
White’s musical style initially was neo-romantic, but he began to incorporate African spirituals in his work, writing several operas, one of which titled “Ouanga” was based on Haitian music and the story of a slave who led a revolution and became emperor of Haiti. He composed a string quartet, several orchestral works, a ballet score, a cantata, works for solo cello, a few violin concertos, and many works for violin and piano. The work featured here is my arrangement for string quartet of "on the Bayou," from his Op. 18 “From the Cotton Fields” for violin and piano. #blackcomposers #songsofcomfort