Most people tend to slow down when they enter their golden years—but that’s hardly the case for world-renown composer Adolphus Hailstork, who recently retired from his teaching position at Old Dominion University. At age 80, the Virginia Beach resident is busier than ever, working on several pieces simultaneously. The most anticipated is A Knee on the Neck, a requiem for George Floyd, which he agreed to write after his friend Herbert Martin wrote a libretto within a week of Floyd’s death.
Working on the requiem, which will receive its premiere next spring in Baltimore, has been an intensely emotional experience for Hailstork, who is African-American. “It’s not my biggest piece,” he told me during a recent Zoom conversation, “but it’s one of my heaviest.” At the same time, he said, it’s not a “Black stylistic piece in terms of the music.” Like most of his other work, it reflects his lifelong immersion in the European classical tradition.
That doesn’t surprise JoAnn Falletta, longtime conductor of the Virginia Symphony, who has performed and recorded a number of Hailstork’s compositions.
“He has such an impeccable pedigree of study and an astonishing understanding of classical music,” Falletta told me. “He has managed to take that traditional knowledge and blend it in a seamless and effortless way with his own background as an African-American. I think that gives an integrity and strength to everything he’s written.” Above all, she added, what shines through is his “warmth and humanity.”
“We’re so fortunate to have him here,” she said.
Hailstork didn’t grow up here. He was raised in Albany, New York, then went on to study music at Howard University and, subsequently, at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. He has, however, been a resident of Coastal Virginia since 1977, when he moved here for a teaching job at Norfolk State. In that time, he has written a number of pieces about the area, including An American Port of Call, Church Street Serenade, and To Those Who Serve, a tribute to the military.
During our conversation, we talked about all of this and more. Following are some excerpts of the exchange.
Tom Robotham: I’m looking forward to talking about your latest work—the piece about George Floyd. But before we get to that, I wonder if you could share some recollections of your formative years as a musician.
Adolphus Hailstork: Well, I remember taking a music aptitude test in the third grade and doing well on it. Soon afterwards, I began taking violin lessons, and eventually I also started singing in the Cathedral of All Saints choir in Albany, as well as in the public school system. At the cathedral I learned to read music and play the piano and organ. When I got to high school, I had a truly great orchestra teacher who found out that I was interested in writing music, and she said, ‘Hailstork, if you compose it, we’ll play it.’ So that’s how I had my first orchestra pieces done, back in 1958 and ’59. And I decided that this was the way for me, since I wasn’t that crazy about practicing scales and arpeggios on piano, and I wasn’t really good at violin.
At the time you were coming up, there was a strong emphasis on avant-garde music. Your music doesn’t reflect that at all. I wonder if you could comment on this.
I never was interested in that. I studied it all, and I can do it, but that’s not where my heart ever lay. For one thing, I came up as a choral person, and choirs don’t usually sing in 12-tone technique. It’s true that it was almost a mandatory requirement of education when I came along, but I decided I didn’t want to become a famous avant-gardist. I just wanted to compose music for the joy of writing. I write from the heart.
Some of your pieces incorporate African-American spirituals. To what extent did the music of the Black church influence you?
You’re asking a very complex question. I didn’t grow up in Black church. I have an Anglo-Roman background, as far as church is concerned. I was, however, exposed to spirituals at Howard University. And I love them. To me they’re the foundation of African-American music. I wanted to help keep them alive, and they wound up in many of my orchestra pieces. They’re great melodies. But that was a learned skill. They’re not as naturally in my ear as the music I grew up with, which is Beethoven and Mozart and the English masters, like (Ralph) Vaughan Williams. If I had to do a balance chart on it, I’d say I’m about 70% Euro oriented and 30% Afro. I like to tell people I’m a cultural hybrid.
How did the requiem for George Floyd come about?
My librettist, Herbert Martin, was infuriated by the murder he saw—and so was I. If you’ve got any kind of heart, any kind of soul, you cannot watch a person being murdered without being affected by it—especially if that could have been you. (As an African-American, I know that) every time I step out the door there’s no guarantee I’m going to come back. That’s a freaky way to have to live. But it’s a true way for many if not most African-Americans. Especially men. So I am taken with the problems of being an African-American in this country. They are unique, torturous problems.
Anyway, without my asking him to, he sent me a complete libretto for this thing a week later. When he gets passionate about something it goes down on paper. I asked him, ‘Did you send this to me because you want me to set it to music?’ and he said, ‘Yes, please.’ So I’ve been working on that for a year now.
It begins with a Black mother’s commandment: Essentially, when you go out into the world, these are the rules so that you can survive. That is the famous ‘talk’ that all Black parents have to give their sons because of the reality of the culture we’re living in.
And I have to say, my attitude has darkened as I’ve watched—week after week, month after month, year after year—people getting killed. You know—seven bullets in the back for a guy who’s just trying to get in his car? This upsets me. But it’s not just about Black men and cops. I wrote a piece last year called Wounded Children. We put children in cages! It’s one of those, what is going on here moments! It’s hard for me to get energized with a sense of gleeful hopefulness right now.
Was the George Floyd murder the turning point in your outlook, or did you start to feel this way before that?
Oh, before that. I mean, the young man who got killed in Ferguson. They let him lie there for four hourswithout tending to his body? This is the culture we live in? It’s fear inducing. As I said, if I step out the door, who knows what’s going to happen. A couple of years ago my license sticker had expired and I’d forgotten—and I got stopped. The first thing I did after I stopped the car is put both arms out the window to show that I had no weapon, and I was totally at their mercy. Now that’s the way that’s recommended for anyone with brown skin. And it’s depressing. So that’s been reflected in my work lately.
Are there notes of hope in A Knee on the Neck, given that the murder gave rise to an outpouring of protests?
That’s an interesting question. Herbert wrote the text before the BLM protests became full-fledged in the summer. He did not see that flowering at the time, but he did have the wisdom to put a hymn at the end of his text that states, ‘We shall abide together.’ I wrote the music for that part more as a folk song. For some reason it took me back to the ’60s when the folk song was very big. But yes, in the end he provided that sense of let us work together to make things better.