When one thinks of Jamaican music, reggae and ska come immediately to mind. Reggae, its predecessors and its offshoots are certainly wonderful contributions to world culture, but Jamaica also has a rich Western classical music tradition which also deserves honor and attention.
Classical Music from the Land of Reggae
Composer Eleanor Alberga is the greatest living torchbearer for Jamaican classical music. She was born in 1949 in Kingston, Jamaica. At the young age of five, Alberga decided she wanted to be a concert pianist and composer. “It was an inner compulsion that was brought out by my parents taking me to concerts and especially piano recitals,” Alberga said. These inspired me, and there it was. Probably if you look at most performers there is a moment when playing is revealed as being the thing one is at home with. It took much longer for the composer in me to be something I understood in the same way.”
What was it about classical music that appealed to a little girl born in Jamaica?
“What appeals to anyone?,” Alberga said. “Harmony, rhythm, melody and all of these things adding up to more than the sum of parts in a piece of music. There never was a contradiction in my loving classical music as I grew up. It was a natural subset of the cultural inheritance I had. I went to classical concerts, which was relatively easy to do. For what it’s worth, I don’t really hold with the idea of Western classical music being somehow geographically or culturally tied to anywhere. Like all true art it belongs to us all as a manifestation of our humanity, whatever its more specific cultural attachments.”
Alberga studied at the Jamaica School of Music and in 1970 won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London. After she graduated, Alberga embarked on a career as a concert pianist. In 2001, Alberga decided to devote herself full-time to composing.
From Bartók to the BBC
Even as a young girl, Alberga had a special attraction to certain composers.
The first big connection I made was with Béla Bartók, Alberga said. “I’m not sure I can answer why this was. I felt connected to this artist and his music, which inspired and excited me. I think I received the unflinching truthfulness of it. At an early age I also loved playing the classics – especially Beethoven. After that I would have special bonds with other composers like Bach, Prokofiev and Messiaen.”
Alberga has had great success as a composer, receiving important commissions from the London Symphony Orchestra, the B.B.C. National Orchestra of Wales and others. Her music draws on many influences, one of them being dance.
“Dance, as with all the music I grew up with, was part of my inheritance,” Alberga said. “The Jamaica I grew up in certainly had a less self-conscious attitude to moving than I found in London when I arrived there in the early 1970s. Having spent a great deal of time in the world of professional dance in the UK, as my calling to compose grew, I should acknowledge that dance was a big part of my early development as a composer.”
Some of Alberga’s music might be described as fusion, like her Trumpet Concerto, inspired by Caribbean and Latin American folk legends. But when discussing her musical influences, Alberga is very clear about the primary importance of Western classical music.
“Classical music is just as much a part of me as the Jamaican folk and pop I grew up hearing around me,” she said. “In fact it is more a part of me, as I was drawn to it and chose to study it. Music, if it’s anything, is simply itself. I don’t understand what is meant by ‘world music,’ beyond a crude commercial labeling. If my composition is a fusion, this certainly isn’t a project I am consciously trying to get done.”
Alberga speaks of “sparks” that jump-start her creativity. She finds inspiration in myriad sources.
“Among the things I draw on are: nature, emotions, Greek mythology, works of art from different disciplines,” Alberga said. “But most of all it is the need or drive to communicate where words are often inadequate. My music can only be what is inside me and to express it as honestly as I can is a natural thing – though not without its difficulties of course. As to how successfully, I’m not the one to judge.”
Alberga has written music for orchestras, chamber ensembles, vocalists, movies and plays.One of her biggest hits was her setting of Roald Dahl’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, commissioned by the Roald Dahl Foundation in 1994. In 2015, Alberga’s music was heard by an audience of millions when her “Arise Anthem!” opened the last night of the B.B.C. Proms. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 2020.
Keep going, keep going, keep going
Alberga continues to compose and she has some inspiring words for young composers: “If you know you’ve got something, learn as much from others as you can … then, keep going, keep going, keep going.”
Eleanor Alberga’s Wild Blue Yonder will be performed by NEXUS Chamber Music on August 30, 2023 at Guarneri Hall.