It has been nearly five years since Elijah Wirth (BM ’99, Tuba; MM ’02, Wind Conducting and Music Education), chair of winds, brass, percussion, and music theory at Peabody Preparatory, set out on an audacious quest — to recover, arrange, and disseminate the finest works of musical luminaries who, because of gender, race, or ethnicity, never made it into the musical canon. His ultimate goal: to revolutionize the country’s high school music curriculum. “It was after the Freddie Gray uprising, because it had such a powerful impact on the city and the students I care about,” says Wirth, who is director of the Peabody Preparatory Wind Orchestra and helps run Peabody’s Tuned-In program for gifted musicians from Baltimore City’s public schools. “I felt so powerless and wanted to do something, even if it was a small something, to bring about change,” he says. “And, on a personal level, my wife, who works as a lawyer in D.C., is Dominican, and she’d be out pushing our baby — who looks very white, and she does not — in the stroller, and people would ask if she was the nanny. So, I wanted to do something to counter the ignorance out there.” Wirth found his inspiration in his Preparatory Wind Orchestra students, including the Tuned-In members. “Looking at them, I realized I had to diversify my programming,” he says. “And then Aaron Dworkin came to speak.” Dworkin is a Peabody Preparatory alumnus and MacArthur Fellow who founded the Sphinx Organization to promote diversity in the arts. “Someone asked him about Black composers, and he said, ‘They’re out there, they’re just not being performed.’ So I thought, ‘Okay, if they’re out there, let’s go find them.’” Wirth scoured the internet, pored over repertoire lists, and devoured biographies of African American composers. “Then I stumbled on the fact that Scott Joplin, the ragtime pianist, also wrote operas, and 6
‘Let’s Go Find Them’
I thought, ‘Wow, there’s got to be something in there I can arrange for my Preparatory Wind Orchestra.’” There was, and he did. It was Joplin’s vibrant overture to Treemonisha, the tale of the adopted daughter of former slaves Ned and Monisha, who is named Treemonisha because she was found under a tree. It was the first opera about life, post-slavery, by a Black composer, and is just one of a growing list (16 to date) of works by Black and female composers Wirth has already arranged and edited for his students, and one of eight they have recorded. Jonah Lassiter, a talented flute player and Tuned-In alumnus who recently graduated from the Baltimore School for the Arts, says it was “amazing to record those pieces. As an African American musician, I am so proud of [Wirth] for wanting to change the music we play by bringing out these Black and female composers and giving them the credit and recognition they deserve, but haven’t always received.” In the beginning, Wirth did most of his research online, often with the help of kind librarians who would send him scores to download. But in 2017 he applied for his first Dean’s
Incentive Grant and was awarded a $5,000 stipend from Peabody that allowed him to travel to places like the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University and The British Library in London, where he spent long days photographing rare scores by some of the most influential African American composers of the early part of the 20th century. These included W.C. Handy, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Florence Price, and James Reese Europe, whose band was the first to play ragtime in Europe and who was so iconic a musician that Fats Waller kept a huge photograph of him above his piano. Isolating with his family at home because of the pandemic and inspired by the worldwide uprisings that resulted from the murder of George Floyd, Wirth started making all of the edited scores and recordings available online, beginning with Europe’s triumphant “Castle Walk” and followed quickly by the Joplin overture, Coleridge-Taylor’s “Danse Nègre,” and works by female composers, including Louise Farrenc’s Overture No. 2. As more arrangements and recordings are produced, they will be added to this rich and readily accessible cache.