I have always found solace in music. While I love many, many different types of music from all over the world quite dearly, Western classical holds a very special place in my heart.
How I – a South Asian immigrant – became obsessed with a style of music that I have barely any representation in (I know of exactly three South Asian professional Western classical musicians) is a long story for another day. Suffice to say, it is a world I’ve been immersed in for over two decades. As to why, well, I have already written about that, to some extent.
One of the first pieces I turned to as I tried to bury all my sorrows and anger and frustrations, was the third movement of Prokofiev’s first violin concerto. I can’t put it into words, but somehow I found tremendous consolation in this piece. I still do.
Prokofiev was a complicated person, as so many are, and he experienced great tragedy in his life under Stalin . Yet his music was never quite so blatant in its rage and its grief as that of his contemporary Shostakovich. But rage, grief and, most of all, desolation are all still there, simmering below a contained surface. In retrospect, perhaps, that was exactly what appealed to me.
I have gone to Shostakovich in my most broken moments, when life itself feels unbearably hopeless. When despair is so all-encompassing that no words could possibly capture the far reaches of its depths.
When I was looking for emotional release, music was a means to riding out the chaos whirling both around and inside me. Long before I ever put this specific playlist together, I had my go-to pieces and movements to soothe my soul in a way truly nothing else could. Can, really.
At some point, I began to wonder what it means that I rely on the music of a bunch of old, dead cis white men, many of whom were blatantly racist and sexist, to process my emotions. This question has nagged at me for many, many years. But for nearly as many years, a combination of convenience and familiarity kept me from doing the work I knew I should do. I knew there had to be non-white composers who had been written out of the Western classical cannon. A handful of half-hearted attempts turned up few recordings, and I didn’t pursue it.
But this summer, as I turned to my most-beloved genre once again as a means of coping with the many crises unfolding around us all, I really could not set that question aside any longer. I never had a legitimate excuse. I certainly did not have one now.
And then, circumstance introduced me to Florence Price. She was incredible. The first Black woman to have a symphony played by one of the major American orchestras in 1933. At the height of the Jim Crow era, in an industry that still refuses to confront its anti-Blackness and racism more generally, Florence Price’s music was so undeniably remarkable even the racists couldn’t keep her out.
There’s been a recent revival of her music, and yet so much of it remains unrecorded. This stunning movement from her String Quartet in G Major, for instance, isn’t available on Spotify because the piece hasn’t been recorded on a label.
Florence Price became my entry point into the world of Black Western classical composers. There are so many gems here that I have only begun to familiarize myself with. George Walker. Margaret Bonds. Joseph Bologne. Valerie Capers. William Grant Still. I know I’ve only just scratched the surface.
Friends, there is barely a month until the US election (32 days, to be exact!). I couldn’t even list out all the many devastating things that have happened in the last month, alone, if I wanted to. I hope you find some solace in these tunes, like I do. Oh, certainly there is some despair and some grief — there is no solace without those, as Górecki so masterfully demonstrates in his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs — but most of all this is a playlist that aims to soothe. I hope it serves you in the weeks to come.