Adolphus Hailstork had already decided to become a composer when he arrived at Howard University as an undergraduate in 1959. He already had a wealth of experience from his time growing up in Albany, N.Y., courtesy of the city’s public schools — where he learned to play the violin and conducted two of his own pieces — and the Cathedral of All Saints, where he sang in the boys’ choir and learned piano and organ.
His mother, concerned about the tenuous nature of making a living in composition, tried to convince him to take courses that would qualify him to teach in public schools. But as soon as she dropped him at school and headed back to Albany, Hailstork began writing her a letter. “It said, ‘I’m sorry, [but] the thing I want most in life is to be a composer. And I’m going to take composition, straight composition,’” he recalled during a recent phone interview.
“Which was a contentious thing because, as a career path, I never thought I had to, you know, feed myself,” he went on. “I didn’t think in a practical way. I just wanted to be a composer.”
Which is exactly what he became, and at a time when prominent Black composers were often few and far between. Hailstork’s career began to take off around the time of the debate over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, in the 1980s, which drove an increase in interest in the music of African American composers.
Since then, “I’ve been played somewhere every year,” said Hailstork, an emeritus faculty member at Old Dominion University, where he’s taught since 2000. “And then it started picking up, maybe someplace every six months, or three months. And now it’s every two months and lately every month.”
Indeed, in Hailstork’s ninth decade, his music seems to be reaching an ever-wider audience. Last month the National Philharmonic Orchestra premiered “A Knee on the Neck,” a large-scale response to George Floyd’s murder for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Perhaps most notably, a band arrangement of “Fanfare on Amazing Grace” was performed at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, only the second performance of music by a contemporary African American composer at a presidential inauguration.
That piece, in its full orchestral version, is on a Boston Conservatory Orchestra program at Symphony Hall on Saturday celebrating Hailstork’s approaching 81st birthday. It will also feature his cantata “Crispus Attucks” and the world premiere of “Answering the Call,” a new orchestral piece about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, alongside works by Bill Banfield, professor emeritus of Africana Studies at the Berklee College of Music, and Boston Conservatory at Berklee alumnus Stefan Thompson.
Conductor Thomas Wilkins, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s artistic adviser for education and community engagement, has known Hailstork for more than 30 years. “I often refer to him (much to his embarrassment) as the Dean of African American composers,” Wilkins wrote in an email. “Adolphus is not only creative and clever, he’s also an excellent craftsman.”
Hailstork’s early music education owed much to the Anglican leanings of the Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints, and the composition course at Howard was, except for the study of spirituals, strictly in the European tradition. Gospel music was forbidden, and “you better not be caught playing it in the practice rooms,” he said.
It was only when he was in graduate school at Michigan State University, with the civil rights protests of the late 1960s roiling around him, that what he calls “the rising element of Black consciousness” began to work its way into his music.
The question of what role each of these facets played in the forging of his compositional voice is one that puzzled him for a long time, until he could come up with terms that spoke to the diversity of his influences. “Cultural hybridity” was one.
“My writing is sometimes strictly Euro-American — you won’t hear a single hint of anything coming out of the Black experience,” he said. In other works, material such as the blues or spirituals is front and center. “And sometimes in the same piece, I will juxtapose the two, and sometimes I will blend the two. I work both sides of the street. And that’s my voice. And it puzzles everybody when they say, what’s your style, and I just say, my style is diverse.”
One thing Hailstork was always sure of was that the strands of modernism that were in vogue when he was in graduate school — at the Manhattan School of Music and then at Michigan State — were not for him. His works fall within the broad tradition of tonal music, and many have a tonal and lyrical warmth reminiscent of the composers he trained under, David Diamond in particular. Serialism was never of serious interest.
“I had to work my way through tone rows,” he said. “I rendered unto Caesar that which had to be rendered unto Caesar when I was taking classes. But when I paid attention to what I loved and what I wanted to do, I had no problem with being tonal.”
His list of works in progress includes two piano concertos, his fifth symphony, a setting of part of John F. Kennedy’s final speech, an organ work, and the orchestration of a set of songs written many years ago. Asked whether he thinks his music has gotten the attention it deserves, he made it clear that for him, the work itself is the more important reward.
“It’s been good enough,” he said. “You might yearn for more of it, but why bother yearning? You waste your time and energy on that. I count my blessings and I thank the conductors and the performers who have invested their time and their energy into learning what I put down. I’ve had a sufficient recognition to be satisfied. I can’t complain.
“You have to love writing,” he said. “The first thing is loving the process. If you’re going to do the process so you would get noticed, you’re in the wrong field. You’ve got to love doing it.”
Boston Conservatory Orchestra
At: Symphony Hall, Saturday, 2 p.m. Tickets: $17. 888-266-1200, bostonconservatory.berklee.edu/events/boston-conservatory-orchestra-april-2022
David Weininger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.