The Soul is unbound

Livingston Platt’s costume design for the ballet “The Dance in Place Congo” (1918), by Henry F. Gilbert (1868 – 1928) — Met Archives

Ever since we have been traveling this globe, our exposure to the exotic or merely to the other (individual, culture, tradition, belief), has left us impressed, influenced, at least touched.

Henry F. Gilbert was born 1868 in Somerville, a town in the Boston metropolitan area where I lived in the mid 1980s. He attended the New England Conservatory, studied composition, and violin but went into business after graduation. At the age of 32, after hearing Gustave Charpentier’s opera “Louise”, he was inspired to return to music.

His interest was the “American” folklore, and soon began focusing on that of the blacks. In 1908 he completed “The Dance in Place Congo” which was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in 1918, after having been rejected in Boston by Karl Muck, as “niggah music”. Composed firstly as program music, based on Creole themes, it was performed at the Met as the first “American” ballet.

Gilbert, as soul or as creative physical man — whichever you wish — was inspired as a white Bostonian by the music and life of the blacks. One hundred years after his birth, Shirley Verrett went the other way, performing the European white music as a black woman at the New York Metropolitan Opera. She performed at La Scala so well that the demanding Milan audience praised her as the Black Callas.

The soul can not be contained.

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