Violinist Curtis Stewart: A Place for the Blues in Classical Music

June 15, 2023, 1:42 PM · When you don't find your voice in the music that's out there, then create it.

That was one of the messages of a lecture this spring by violinist Curtis Stewart at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at the Juilliard School. The lecture was called "A Place for the Blues in Classical Music," but it might also have been called "A Place for YOU in Classical Music."

Curtis Stewart
Violinist Curtis Stewart.

While explaining the origins of Blues and its influence on American classical music and music in general, Stewart also brought to life the idea of finding one's own authentic voice, starting here and now. Stewart is artistic director of the American Composers Orchestra and a faculty member at Juilliard, and his work has been nominated for three Grammy Awards.

Bringing one's authentic voice to classical music is not always easy, and sometimes it means standing up to resistance. While this wasn't a topic discussed in the lecture, Stewart himself stood in the eye of the storm several years ago, when his 2021 album Of POWER was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo. A small group of people started a public bruhaha over whether his music was "mis-categorized" as classical music. The Recording Academy stood behind his nomination, but Stewart had to stand up through a lot of ugliness.

Stewart has continued on the path of authentic expression, and this year came another Grammy nomination - as a member of the PUBLIQuartet, whose album What Is American was nominated for a 2023 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance. Just this month Stewart released a new album called of Love., dedicated to his mother, Elektra Kurtis-Stewart, who died after a long struggle with brain cancer on Sept. 7, 2021, at age 66. Kurtis-Stewart was a Greek jazz violinist; Stewart's father, Bob Stewart, is a jazz tuba player.

Stewart's idea of the "Blues" is more about the spirit of the Blues than a particular codified idea of existing Blues music. It's more like..."the air we're breathing," he told us.

The Blues has its roots in an African-American impulse to express something in music that couldn't find expression in other ways - to find a voice. It started in places like the songs of manual laborers singing in the fields about freedom from slavery or imprisonment, or in the church music that expressed a longing for spiritual freedom. The Blues has been foundational in all kinds of American music: jazz, rock 'n' roll, Appalachian music. In classical music, it has been incorporated by composers such as Copland, Bernstein, Adams, Reich, Gershwin, Ives, Cage, Barber, Glass and Montgomery. And this follows in the tradition of other classical composers who found inspiration in folk music, including Bartok, Mozart, Beethoven, Wieniawski, Sarasate, Lalo - and even Bach, with his dance suites.

In other words, by now the Blues - and the spirit of invention and defiance behind it - has evolved into an American form of expression, and an American way of expression.

Laurie Niles Curtis Stewart's Laurie Niles and violinist Curtis Stewart.

Stewart asked us to ponder the question: If you had a musical superpower, what would it be? Answers varied greatly. Personally, I wanted my superpower to be having so much fluency, that I could instantly play any music that pops into my head, on my violin, no matter how complicated. Other "superpowers" that people wanted: freedom; to be inspiring; to be able to wave a magic wand for students; to change the world with music. Stewart said that his own musical superpower was "determination and curiosity."

"I was always determined to find myself in the music," Stewart said. "I wanted to find something that makes me feel at home."

At this point Stewart played us his version of "Lift Every Voice and Sing." While the name of the song speaks to Stewart's point - that we should all find our voices and use them - it's a song of much deeper significance. In America it is considered the Black National Anthem, written in 1900 and sung frequently during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. A lot of Americans do not know this song - I didn't until I was in my 30s. (I'm grateful to my Unitarian Universalist Church for recognizing its importance and singing it, allowing me to learn it.)

Stewart's violin version was beautiful and breathtaking. In the moment, I just could not bring myself to "lift up my cell phone and film" - it was so alive, just one person, one violin, singing a song that speaks to the ages. I wanted to show it to you, so I found another live version (rather than the studio version, which adds more voices - you can find that here) - to me it was most powerful, fully a cappella:

You will notice a part of this where he goes way, way high on the violin. It's not just a rock 'n' roll high note - it helps to know the words here and which word lands on that note:

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.

The high note comes on "brought" - the idea of bringing hope and progress is literally raised high - to the highest note in the song. But a couple stanzas later are the words even more poignant - a powerful admonition that always chokes me up:

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee...

"Forget" - Lest we forget our God, forget ourselves, forget where we are and where we came from, forget the promise and responsibility of all that hope.... It ends:

Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand,
True to our God, True to our native land.

What a powerful song.

Stewart wrote down his arrangement, and an adapted version now appears in The Royal Conservatory of Music Violin Series, Technique, Etudes, and Musicianship Level 5-8 book. (For the original - message him...)

"What does classical music mean to us?" Stewart asked us. "Who is classical music for?"

Stewart said that, for example, what he played for "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was not improvised, "but there is a quality that sounds improvised. Some people hear something that sounds improvised and think it's not classical music."

He asked us to think about our own roots.

"For me the Blues is American classical music," Stewart said. He is not alone in that assessment - a recent book called Dvorak's Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music outlines a compelling history and argument for the importance of African-American music as a foundation of American classical music - starting with Dvorak's statement back in 1893: "I am now satisfied that the future music in this country must be founded upon what are called negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States."

Stewart asked us to consider: What is the last piece that you heard, that blew your mind? Answers varied wildly here: Fauré's Sonata for Violin; a work called "Songs of Eternity"; "A Silence Haunts Me," a vocal piece about Beethoven losing his hearing, in which by the end, the singers are only mouthing words; a piece by Jessie Montgomery...

"If we individually follow our own passions - that's the only thing we can do," Stewart said. As teachers (the audience was comprised of teachers), "you can talk to your students about their blues," Stewart said.

He then led a call and response, in which he would sing a phrase, then we sang it. Then he would play a phrase, and we would play it. As we did this, we could notice the relationship between violin and voice, bow and expression. There were subtleties to notice: places to use a little too much bow pressure to create a consonant, to feel the accents in a way that you feel it in speech, to use vibrato to soften rather than to intensify.

Stewart talked about using improvisation as a way to explore the spirit of a piece - and as a way to get into it.

"If I'm learning a piece, I can learn it better if I can improvise through it," Stewart said. "We want to honor this composer by playing his music - the spirit of Blues helps us find authenticity. As Americans, this is our superpower."

He showed us how he improvises his way through a piece in order to understand it, get to know it, and get inside of it. First he played part of Louisiana Blues Strut by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Then he played some of the Adagio from Bach's solo Sonata in G minor.

"We are classical music," Stewart said - the teachers, performers, composers, administrators - everyone involved. "The place for authenticity is in you," he said. "The moment we put that feeling aside - we are removing a place for 'Blues' in classical music."

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June 18, 2023 at 10:21 AM · In regard to "finding your own voice" in music aka improvising, I found an interesting snippet in Winnie Winston and Bill Keith's Pedal Steel Guitar method, originally published by Oak Publ., in the 70s.

To wit: "There was an interview with a top guitarist in a magazine several years ago. I don't recall his name, but his answer to one question was very revealing. He was asked how he developed his style. He said that when he started out, he played everything like the records -- note for note: Chuck Berry songs had "Chuck Berry " guitar, and B.B. King songs had "B.B. King" guitar.When he became confident in what he was doing, he began to put "B.B. King" lines in Chuck Berry songs. "Suddenly," he said, "I was playing like me!" " Pedal Steel Guitar, pg 75.

Very similar advice is found in other books in the Oak Publ., series, from bluegrass banjo and dobro and slide guitar; I haven't seen the fiddle or mandolin books. Rusty Young says something very similar in his method The Pedal Steel Handbook: "If I tried to concentrate on each and every note I was playing, which note was going to come next and how cleanly I was picking, I almost always made mistakes. But if I relaxed and let my hands go where they wanted and only guided them in a general manner (where to start and finish), I played much better." The Pedal Steel Handbook, pg 75.

I find improvising a melody from a scale study or the like, an enjoyable way to finish a practice session.

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