Texas Tech University

Researcher's Focus Shines a Light on Underrepresented Figures in Music

Amanda Castro-Crist

February 26, 2020

Doctoral student Nicole Cherry focuses her research on those who have made significant contributions within the Western musical world, but have remained relatively unknown.

In February, Texas Tech is once again highlighting the outstanding research being conducted by our talented and dedicated Red Raiders through our "TTU ❤️ Research" series. This year, we are pairing this effort with Black History Month in order to feature our influential black faculty and students who have had a tremendous impact through their research. This is the eighth in this series.

Violinist Nicole Cherry uses music to communicate with others and engage within the community. She has performed with numerous quartets and ensembles and has led music outreach programs, playing her violin in libraries, hospitals, schools, prisons and assisted-living facilities, among other places.

As a musical arts and violin performance doctoral student in the School of Music, housed within the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts, her research shines a light on figures who have made significant contributions within the Western musical world, but who have remained relatively unknown for one reason or another.

"I have wanted my doctorate since visiting my father's classes at Howard University at the age of 7," Cherry said. "I came to Texas Tech intending to work on the most challenging repertoire for the violin and focus on a research area meaningful to me. My adviser and private instructor, Annie Chalex Boyle, assigned one of the most challenging violin sonatas in the literature, Ludwig van Beethoven's Sonata No. 9 Op. 47."

The sonata's nickname, "Kreutzer," is a nod to the French violinist, Rudolphe Kreutzer. But Cherry's research confirmed that the piece was not originally written for Kreutzer, but for George Bridgetower, an Afro-European violin prodigy of the 19th century known as the "African Prince." Cherry said Bridgetower's reputation as a colleague of Beethoven's is mostly unknown.

"Though I had known this fact peripherally, I don't believe it became real to me that one of the greatest composers in history had written one of his most revolutionary works for a black man," Cherry said. "As the first interpreter of the piece and a close friend of Beethoven's, Bridgetower also may have assisted with the composition of the work. Beethoven did not finish the work for the premiere and notes in his diary that Bridgetower changed and improved some parts of the sonata.

"This exploration of George Bridgetower's life as a performer and composer, and his relationships with contemporary artists as seen through their correspondence and other primary source materials, examines his relationship with the culture of his time. Him being a biracial man may have marked him as 'other,' but his talent enabled his career as both a performer and composer, capable of befriending and collaborating with Beethoven, one of history's most notable musicians."

Cherry said this type of research, which can revise parts of history once thought to be accurate and complete, is a challenging exercise in relearning and keeping an open mind to all possibilities. While the research can take a good bit of time to complete, including visiting and examining places the subject worked and lived and examining the historical documentation that is available, the process is essential to preserving history.

"It is the responsibility of artist-scholars to trace those who have maintained records of their life experiences and those with which they interacted," Cherry said. "George Bridgetower is not an isolated incident, and it is vital to recognize this. Upon further researching classical music from this standpoint, I realized there was a strong prominence of study toward minority composers and their relationship in one way or another to the Western art canon.

"I began to find fascinating information, not only about the great contributions of composers such as Pulitzer Prize-winning 20th century composer George Walker and 19th century knighted composer Chevalier de Saint-Georges, but also about 18th- and 19th-century enslaved Africans around the world who contributed to vernacular fiddle music and, speculatively, the unaccompanied works of Johann Sebastian Bach."

Nicole Cherry
Nicole Cherry

As a black woman, Cherry said she has always questioned her place in the Western world of music and has found herself drawn to outreach and building stronger art communities. Her professional career and the research she is conducting has helped her address each of these and cultivate skills that carry through in other parts of her life.

"As a scholar, in many ways you become that journalist trying to get a great story to print," Cherry said. "There are times you dig for a fact and end up short, or you send an email and don't get a response. Sometimes you get a response in a tone you didn't expect. I have learned information will present itself eventually. There is no search in vain. I may be looking for one bit of information and through that search, find an even more intriguing fact. So I maintain an attitude of patience and intention as I research, remembering this is not always about a final goal, but the process is where gems are found. If I stay committed to the purpose of my research, I always come out with what I need."

Throughout her journey, Cherry said she has received support and influence from countless people around her, including her family and friends.

"If a child cannot follow their dreams, then it is very difficult to discover your purpose in life," she said. "Without question, my parents have always supported my dreams and passions, which in turn helped me to believe in myself. I am so grateful to them for that. My secondary interest in sociology came from my father. He was an outstanding social scientist and often brought me to his classes. His insight on teaching, research, music and relations amongst people became the foundation from which I exist as an artist."

Cherry said she also is grateful to all of her teachers and colleagues. She points to Chalex Boyle as a driving force behind her research and progress as a performer.

"Annie Chalex Boyle has been unswervingly supportive," Cherry said. "She assigned the piece of music that led to my research focus. Those who have experienced the doctoral journey know how much it challenges so much of yourself, and the success of that degree is highly dependent on your support system. My direct link to my research and violin playing is connected to Professor Boyle, and she has, without a doubt, been a significant force in my ability to get through the more challenging components of this degree."