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Inside the Music

Music with Purpose: A Conversation with Dr. Adolphus Hailstork

Contemporary American composer Dr. Adolphus Hailstork’s prolific career spans five decades and more than 250 works written for almost any iteration of musical ensemble imaginable: symphonies, operas, cantatas, concertos, chamber music and more. He has been commissioned and performed by top orchestras throughout North America, and on January 13-14, the Minnesota Orchestra performs one of his most celebrated works: Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed (In Memoriam Martin Luther King, Jr.). A native of upstate New York, he earned degrees in composition from Howard University, the Manhattan School of Music and Michigan State University. For nine weeks in the summer of 1963, he took a course of study with famed composer and pedagogue Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau in France. He currently resides in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and is professor emeritus of composition at Old Dominion University. 

Dr. Hailstork’s compositional voice has remained uniquely his own throughout his life. He resisted the avant-garde aesthetic and 12-tone serialism that was in vogue among some classical composers for parts of the 20th century, saying that his early experiences as a boy chorister in the Episcopal church helped him retain his distinct sense of style and use of tonal harmony. He was the second African American composer ever to be featured at a Presidential Inauguration when his Fanfare on Amazing Grace was performed as part of the prelude to Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021. The Minnesota Orchestra first played his piece, Celebration! in 1975 under Paul Douglas Freeman. His latest cantata, A Knee on the Neck, was written in commemoration of George Floyd’s murder and premiered in 2021.  

Dr. Hailstork recently took some time out of his packed composing schedule to chat with Michael Divino, the Orchestra’s communications and development writer, about his career, writing music with purpose and what he’s learning about Beethoven’s childhood.  

Michael Divino: Choral music was a big influence early on in your life. Would you be willing to talk about how that has influenced your works now? 

Adolphus Hailstork: I came up in an Episcopal cathedral, singing as a boy chorister. And then I noticed that some of my choices in my writing reflect the acoustics and the style of music that I sang as a youngster—some of the great English composers—and that influenced me. 

So now going on to Epitaph, which you wrote more than a decade after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. What was the impetus to create the piece? 

Well, at that time, Congress was wrestling with the idea of having a Martin Luther King holiday. And I said, “Well, I'd like to have a piece available for performance appropriate for that day,” so I wrote it. 

It seems that Epitaph, along with a lot of your other works are based on these pivotal, often violent events in American history… 

Oh, yes. 

...that sort of serve as monuments or as your way to commemorate these events that are often ignored or misunderstood in our modern society, like the Tulsa Race Massacre. What do you hope listeners take away from listening to your works? 

Determination to make a better culture. I mean, right? We're such a violent kind of insane culture right now. When I grew up, I didn't think it was going to be this way. But I guess it has happened over the course of history and [with] other cultures. But this constant shooting each other—I mean, every day, there's a shooting and when we start killing our school children…I think we're having a rough time right now. 

What do you believe is the potential of music to help narrate, interpret and lead to new understandings of our history? 

You know, music is comforting [for some] and [for] some [other] people it's awakening. I'm gonna have no interest in lulling people to sleep. I mean, after all, I'm a concert composer, which means you have to grab their attention, keep their attention and provide an ultimate goal that made it worth their while to sit there. I like to think that I encourage some people to think about, yes, the music there, or at least the subject. A lot of my music is program music [music meant to depict specific objects, people, events or scenes]. And so, they need to think about the program a little bit. “Art for art's sake” or “music for music’s sake” only, it's never been a big thing for me. You know, since I grew up as a boy in that cathedral and singing, every time you sang an anthem, there was a subject. You know, if you heard a sermon, there's a subject.  So, there's a point to this musical utterance, and what is the point? And can it influence you to think about things? 

What would you say to people who think that politics should be left out of the concert hall? What do you say to those people who say, “I just want to go and listen to Wagner?”, and ignore all the anti-Semitic things that he said and wrote, as just one example? 

Well, [if] that's what the fans want to do [with] their own minds, you know…that's not the way Beethoven thought…he wrote the Eroica Symphony, which was originally called the Bonaparte Symphony… 

Very political!  

…Extremely political! 


[chuckles] And so then, if you're working in the secular world, then you're probably going to touch on or hint at some aspect of how the culture is functioning. And that's going to include politics. 

And it goes a long way to say that nothing in our society exists in a vacuum. What gives you hope about the future of classical music, and what do you think should be improved? 

Well, something happening now, which I hope will continue on, is that orchestras and opera companies and chamber groups are rethinking their repertoire and trying to be more inclusive of lesser-known composers and performers. That's what I hope will continue. 

You've had a long and distinguished career, with your music being performed by top conductors and orchestras around the world. Is there anything else that you still hope to accomplish? Is there a piece yet that you're dreaming of that has yet to be written or a story that you have yet to tell? 

I've been doing a lot of commissions and so the people doing the commissioning set the agenda. I'm working on an organ piece which I hope to finish by the end of this month, called A Christmas Vigil. And I just like sometimes to write pieces like that—that are not commissioned by [anyone] just writ[ten] for the sake of, “I don't have any big projects on the horizon of my own.” I have a lot of big projects that other people have asked for. Jeffrey Biegel in New York has asked for a piano concerto. We're gonna write that. You know, [a] concerto for Lara Downes. And [I’m] working on a piece that is a setting of the last speech of John F. Kennedy that he did at Amherst. So, you know, my plate’s pretty full. 

When you're not composing—and it sounds like that’s not often—is there an activity that gives you peace or respite from the busyness of trying to get all those notes out onto the page? 

I read, or I listen to books. For instance, right now I’m actually listening to [Jan] Swafford’s biography of Beethoven…finding it very interesting to learn that he got into fistfights in the street with his brother. I thought that was funny. 

What Swafford did especially well in that book was to give the reader a good foundation of the kind of philosophical things that Beethoven was absorbing with his teacher when he was still in Bonn. Really giving a good sense of what the Masons believed and how that foundation of philosophy served Beethoven throughout the rest of his life. That especially became true in the Ninth Symphony. 

Yeah. I didn't realize that the “An die Freude” [the “Ode to Joy” poem Beethoven set in movement four] was a drinking song. [The poem] was set as a drinking song by many different composers and used and sung in bars. And, yeah, and then Beethoven knew about it. And finally, you know, when he did the Ninth Symphony, [he] decided to use it as his finale. 

That's interesting how these kinds of revered things always have very humble beginnings. 

Yeah! I was surprised. I said, “Ah, come on up, drink.” Yeah. You can see it now.  It makes more sense to me. In terms of the song itself. Yeah, I can hear that as a drinking song. 

To learn more about Dr. Hailstork, visit: www.adolphushailstork.com 

See Hailstork's Work Live