English Art Song and Black Heritage in Early Twentieth-Century London
This talk focuses on a little-known figure in the history of English song and London musical life in the early twentieth century: the black British opera singer, voice teacher and composer, Amanda Ira Aldridge (1866-1956), who produced a substantial body of popular songs and piano pieces under the pseudonym “Montague Ring”. The daughter of renowned Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, Amanda was well-connected with London’s Pan-African community and gained a reputation as an influential teacher of African American classical singers, counting Roland Hayes, Marion Anderson and Paul Robeson among her students. As a composer, she wrote primarily within the once fashionable genre of the drawing room ballad, a genre that has long been associated with “inferior” aesthetic tropes of sentimentality, femininity and amateurism.
This much-maligned genre warrants renewed scholarly attention today – I argue – precisely because it occupied a middle ground between an emergent canon of English-language art song on the one hand, and the growth of transatlantic and imperial popular culture on the other. Beginning with Aldridge’s entry into an abundant sheet music market, I will address her response to the complex legacy of blackface minstrelsy in Britain, before turning to her middlebrow art songs and their programming by Hayes and Robeson. Drawing on collections held in the US and the UK, I also want to foreground the material traces of Aldridge’s musical life, including her dual agency as both subject and creator of her family archive. In doing so, my talk will reflect more broadly on the concept of recovery and the value of “minor” musical figures and repertoires as agents of cultural history and transatlantic exchange.
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