John Thomas Douglass

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John Thomas Douglass (1847–1886) was an American composer, virtuoso violinist, conductor and teacher. He is best known for composing Virginia's Ball (1868), which is generally regarded as the first opera written by a black composer. The work is now lost, however, and his only extant composition is The Pilgrim: Grand Overture (1878) for piano. His biography from James Monroe Trotter's Music and Some Highly Musical People (1878)—from which The Pilgrim survives—suggests that he wrote many now lost pieces for piano, orchestra and particularly guitar, which he was known to play.

A highly regarded violinist, he led a solo career and traveled with various groups, including the Hyers Sisters. He taught David Mannes in his youth; Mannes would found the Colored Music Settlement School in his memory.

John Thomas Douglass was born in New York in 1847. Virtually nothing else is known about his early life, though it is thought that during his youth—due to a wealthy patron—he was able to study in Europe.

He settled in New York by the late 1860s. His 3-act opera Virginia's Ball premiered in New York, at the Stuyvesant Institute on Broadway; the music is now lost. The work was registered with the United States Copyright Office in 1868, and had presumably been performed the same year.

In the 1870s he began performing widely, because, as musicologist Eileen Southern explains, "like many concert artists of the time, Douglass could not earn a living solely with his violin." As such, he toured with different Georgia Minstrels and the Hyers Sisters. With the Hyers Sisters, the sisters's father, Samuel B. Hyers, organized a company which included, Douglass, tenor Wallace King, John W. Luca and pianist Alexander C. Taylor. He returned to New York in the 1880s, where he conducted a music studio and a string ensemble, the latter of which played for various public entertainments, such as dances.

Contemporary sources describe Douglass as "very justly ranked with the best musicians of [the United States]"; "the master violinist"; and "one of the greatest musicians of the race". The Encyclopedia of African American Music (2010) notes that Douglass, along with his contemporaries Walter F. Craig and Joseph Douglass—all active in New York—joined Edmond Dédé in the pantheon of major black violinists of the time. Craig and Douglass in particular obtained a "high level of virtuosity". He was also known to have played guitar.

Douglass also managed a teaching studio, where he taught violin to David Mannes (1866–1959) in his youth.[1] Mannes was later a violinist and then concertmaster of the New York Symphony Orchestra, founding the Colored Music Settlement School in 1916 in the memory of Douglass. Douglass did not live to see the creation of the school and died in 1886.

He has a short biography in James Monroe Trotter's Music and Some Highly Musical People (1878), written while Douglass was in his thirties.

Only two works of Douglass's are known, Virginia's Ball and The Pilgrim: Grand Overture—the former is lost, while the latter has survived. He is thought to have written many other works; in Music and Some Highly Musical People (1878), Trotter says "He has also composed many fine pieces for orchestras and for piano." Trotter also reports that arranged and composed a "great deal of music" for guitar.

The lack of surviving works for black composers of the time is not uncommon.  Like Douglass, Frederick Elliott Lewis [scores] (1846–18?) and Jacob J. Sawyer [scores] (1856–1885) only have a single surviving keyboard work, all published in Music and Some Highly Musical People.

Virginia's Ball was an opera in 3 acts by John Thomas Douglass. It was premiered in 1868 at the Stuyvesant Institute on Broadway and is only known to have been performed once; it is now lost. Douglass's authorship of Virginia's Ball makes it generally considered to be the first opera by a black composer. However, Southern notes that the Harry Lawrence Freeman may be considered the first significant black composer of opera, as he wrote fourteen and had five performed from 1893 to 1947 during his lifetime. Throughout the 20th century, Freeman was thought to be the first black composer to write an opera, until Southern's The Music of Black Americans: A History (1971) revealed Douglass's contribution.

Musicologists Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby note that at this time African Americans were working to associate themselves with the "lavish forms of entertainment" in the vein of Mozart, Rossini and Verdi. The monetary profit from works like Virginia's Ball was likely miniscule.

Douglass's only surviving work is The Pilgrim: Grand Overture for piano.[8] It was published in Trotter's Music and Some Highly Musical People by Lee and Shepard in 1878, though Trotter records that Douglass wrote the piece earlier, in his 20s (1867–1876).  The piece is in cut time (cut time), E minor and marked Andante initially, but has many tempo changes throughout: Andante, Allegro Vivace, Adagio, Allegro,Lento and Allegro. The continuous use of scales, tremolos and embellishments evokes the sense of a piano transcription from an orchestral score.



Sources for this article include:
•  Southern, Eileen (1997) [1971]. The Music of Black Americans: A History
  • Bean, Annemarie; Hatch, James V.; Brooks, McNamara, eds. (1996). Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy.
  • Martin, Sherrill (1988). Feel the Spirit: Studies in Nineteenth-century Afro-American Music.

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    Last modified: Monday, 25 March 2024