Composer and Concert Violinist Clarence Cameron White

A. Kori Hill

Clarence Cameron White (1879/80–1960) loved the violin. His mom, Jeannie White, played it and his grandad played it. So, he was really excited to hear one of the most popular violinists of his time: Will Marion Cook. Cook was the last performer on a recital in Washington D.C. Clarence did his best to stay alert, but he couldn’t keep his eyes open and when he woke up, Mr. Cook was taking a bow! 

Clarence was so upset he started to cry. He made so much noise, Cook wanted to know why the little boy was upset. A few days later, he located White and his mother and offered the young man violin lessons. Clarence said “yes!” It was because of those summer lessons, Clarence recalled, that he realized he wanted to be a violinist.  

Clarence Cameron White went on to become a performer, composer, and teacher. He could count Cook, Joseph Douglass (one of Frederick Douglass’ grandsons), Frederick Dolittle (who also taught Cook), Franz Micki, Mikhail Zacharewitsch, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Raoul Laparra among his teachers, studying in the United States, London, and Paris. 

He taught at the Washington Conservatory of Music–a D.C. school for Black students founded by Oberlin graduate, Harriet Gibbs Marshall–West Virginia Institute (now West Virginia State), and Hampton Institute, where he succeeded R. Nathaniel Dett as head of the music department. White also served as president for the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), a professional organization for Black classical musicians and composers founded in 1919. 

He also fell in love. Clarence married pianist Beatrice Warrick in 1905 and toured and performed with her for years. They had two kids, but both died before their parents. When Beatrice passed away in 1942, Clarence fell in love again: this time with the librarian, educator, and puppeteer Pura Belpré. They married in 1943 and were together until Clarence passed away in 1960. 

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Clarence gave recitals across the United States: Louisville, Cleveland, Atlanta, New York City, Port-au-Prince. He wrote compositions that drew upon African American and Diasporic music. One of his most popular is Levee Dance, Op. 27, no. 2 (1927) (sometimes labeled as no. 4). It’s for violin and piano and was recorded by Jascha Heifetz, who also played it on his recitals. The work is inspired by the music of dockworkers in the South and the spiritual “Go Down Moses.” 

Bandana Sketches, Op. 12 (1918) is also for violin and piano. It has four movements, each based on a spiritual with original material by Clarence woven with it: No. 1. “Chant” (“Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen”), No. 2. “Lament” (“I’m Troubled in Mind”), No. 3. “Slave Song” (“Many Thousand Gone”), and No. 4. “Negro Dance” (“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”). Fritz Kreisler recorded No. 1 “Chant” in 1919 for the Victor label. 

He also wrote an opera, Ouanga! (1932) with librettist and fellow West Virginia Institute teacher John Matheus. White and Matheus visited Haiti for research, hosted by White’s former boss, Harriet Gibbs Marshall, where they crafted a story on the rise and fall of Haiti’s first emperor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines. 

Clarence Cameron White lived a rich, exciting life. Though not without challenges, he made a career as performer, composer, teacher, and administrator. He found a network of folks that did similar work so that they could support each other. And all because he made enough noise that his idol decided to give him a shot.