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La Société Philharmonique and the Roots of Jazz


June 6, 2014 by Gina Costello

By Michael Taylor, Assistant Curator of Books, LSU Libraries Special Collections

In 1877, James M. Trotter, the mixed-race son of a Mississippi planter and one of his female slaves, published a book of biographical sketches of distinguished African-American musicians. Titled Music and Some Highly Musical People, it profiled “remarkable musicians of the colored race” who had made an impact on American musical culture from New England to New Orleans. Although not covered until the end of the book, the Crescent City received more attention than any other, and for good reason.

“The colored people of New Orleans have long been remarked for their love of and proficiency in music and other elegant arts,” Trotter wrote. In the nineteenth century, visitors to the “Paris of America” were surprised to find African Americans among the crowds at theaters and music halls. Even on the streets, black laborers could be heard singing arias from French and Italian operas. Free people of color, perhaps in part to emphasize and embrace their European ancestry, were especially fond of what we now call “classical” music. Those who could afford it sent their children to the North or Europe for music instruction; others hired professional musicians as tutors. “Indeed, as regards the exhibition of this ambitious musical spirit, this yearning for a higher education and a higher life,” Trotter observed, free people of color “often exceed those of fairer complexions…”

New Orleans was also home to an amateur African-American musical association called the Philharmonic Society or La Société Philharmonique. Active at least as early as 1840, it may have had as many as one hundred musicians, and, according to James Trotter, “liberal-minded native and foreign gentlemen of the other race were always glad to come and play with them.” More research is needed on the Society’s members and repertoire, but a recording published by the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2011 gives us a taste of what one of their concerts might have sounded like.

Presented by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and grant partner The Historic New Orleans Collection and titled Identity, History, Legacy: La Société Philharmonique, the recording features music by leading European composers of the mid-nineteenth century. Although modern listeners accustomed to pop music and jazz may not find some of the tracks on this CD to be as thrilling as people did 150 years ago, the music’s historical impact was significant, especially for Louisiana. It was through performing classical music, after all, that the “inventors” of jazz around the turn of the twentieth century acquired their high-level of technical proficiency and knowledge of harmony. This was then combined with African and other musical traditions to create a distinctly American art form.

The recording also contains rarely heard music by two free people of color. A tenor aria titled “Rappelle-toi” was written by Samuel Snaer, a New Orleans musician of African, French, and German ancestry. Edmond Dédé, born in New Orleans to West Indian parents, studied in his hometown before leaving for Mexico and eventually France, where he worked as a violinist, music director, and composer. His “Chicago Waltz” (track eight on this CD) was an attempt to convey the feel of a bustling young American city to Old World audiences.

Attendees at the Société Philharmonique’s concerts also would have heard dramatic readings. This CD contains a poem, “La Retour de Napoléon,” that might have been used for such a purpose. Its author, Victor Sejour, was a mixed-race New Orleanian who, like Edmond Dédé, ended his life as an American expatriate in France. Originally published in France, the poem was reprinted in New Orleans in 1845 in Les Cenelles, an anthology of verse by free people of color.

“How much, how very much, has been lost to art in this country through that fell spirit which for more than two hundred years has animated the majority of its people against a struggling and an unoffending minority,” James Trotter lamented in Music and Some Highly Musical People. “[L]et us turn quickly our weeping eyes from those terrible days, now gone… toward that brighter prospect which opens before our delighted vision: let us joyfully look upon what is, and think of what may be.” Although he could not have known it at the time of his writing in 1877, he would be glad to know that the seeds sown by musicians such as the members of the Société Philharmonique would eventually flower into one of the world’s great art forms – jazz.

Sound clip: La Traviata, Fantasy for Violin and Piano, op. 38, by Jean-Delphin Alard (1815-1888). Alard, a French violinist, composer, and teacher, is said to have impressed the legendary violinist Niccolo Paganini with one of his performances. The New Orleans-born free person of color Edmond Dédé (1827-1901) was one of his pupils. Through Alard, Dédé could trace his musical lineage back to Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), a pivotal figure in the history of the violin and one of the most influential composers of all time.


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