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Schuyler, Philippa Duke (1931–1967)

Schuyler, Philippa Duke (1931–1967)

African-American pianist and composer whose well-known compositions include "Manhattan Nocturne" (1943), "Rhapsody of Youth" (1948), and "Nile Fantasy" (1965). Name variations: Felipa Monterro y Schuyler; Felipa Monterro. Born in 1931 in Harlem, New York; died on May 9, 1967, in a helicopter crash in Vietnam; daughter of Josephine "Jody" Cogdell Schuyler (an artist and writer who used maiden name Josephine Cogdell) and George Schuyler (a journalist); privately educated in New York.

Selected writings:

Adventures in Black and White (1960); Who Killed the Congo? (1962); Jungle Saints (1963); (with Josephine Cogdell) Kingdom of Dreams (1966); a fifth book, Good Men Die, was published posthumously (1968).

Philippa Schuyler was born in Harlem in 1931 to interracial parents who were convinced that their differing racial backgrounds would produce an extraordinary child. Josephine Cogdell , a white writer, and George Schuyler, a prominent African-American journalist, encouraged and directed Philippa's life from an early age. As a child, she received acclaim for her music from audiences of all races; once she became an adult, however, she felt she did not fit in on either side of America's racially divided society. Indeed, despite Schuyler's gift in music and her impressively high IQ (tested at 185 by New York University and others), America in the 1950s was not ready for an adult interracial artist. Schuyler left the United States and toured throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, but was never able to feel at home anywhere.

Philippa Duke Schuyler was the product of parents who planned to make her an example of the excellence that could be attained through a mulatto race as a solution to America's troubled race problem. Their high expectations were evident even in her name, "Philippa," referring to Philip of Macedonia and Philip Schuyler, the Revolutionary War general, and she did not disappoint. Schuyler's childhood was spent under the watchful eye of her mother, who served as her business manager, best friend, and director. Educated by private tutors, she was isolated from other children, and her diet was strictly controlled by Josephine. Throughout her life, Schuyler would maintain a regimented diet which did not permit artificial products such as sodas, nor alcohol, sugar, meat, cooked foods and most fats. Philippa was reading and writing at age two, composing music at age four, and performing Mozart in front of audiences at age five.

By age ten, Schuyler was nationally recognized and celebrated as the brightest young composer in America. She was invited to become a member of the National Association of American Composers and Conductors, and won several prizes for her compositions and performances. Biographical articles on her appeared in the New York Herald Tribune, The New Yorker, Look, Time, and her father's employer, the Pittsburgh Courier, due in large part to his visibility as a journalist and his active campaigning on her behalf.

In 1946, Schuyler made her debut as a composer and pianist with the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra in New York City, before an audience of 12,000. As a young pianist, her reviews by both black and white critics were uniformly exceptional. Her compositions, although the efforts of a young mind, were also judged to be extraordinary. Composing seemed to come as naturally to Schuyler as seeing and hearing. She would visit a toy shop with her mother and then sit down to write "The Toy Maker's Ball," with the clacking of tiny mechanical figures beating steadily in the background.

Despite Schuyler's success as a child prodigy, her appeal to white America faded as soon as she entered young adulthood. She was no longer an intriguing phenomenon, and soon her mother could book only concerts backed by African-American organizations. Schuyler became aware for the first time of the racial prejudice from which she had been shielded throughout her childhood. "It was a ruthless shock to me that, at first, made the walls of my self-confidence crumble," she wrote. "It horrified, humiliated me."

Schuyler's response to American racism was to flee the country for Latin America, where mixed races were more prevalent. Never again would she settle permanently in the United States, choosing instead a voluntary exile of traveling and performing in more than 80 countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe. In Haiti, she played at the inauguration of three successive presidents. In Africa, she performed for such notables as Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, King George of Toro, King Kalonji of the Baluba tribe, at Independence Day celebrations for Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasavubu of the Congo and President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and for Albert Schweitzer in his isolated leper colony in Lamberéné. But despite her tremendous international success, she was never invited to play before an American of note.

Schuyler's performances before distinguished audiences around the world failed to heal the deep wounds inflicted by America's rejection, and neither could they restore to her a stable sense of identity. She wrote bitterly of the isolation she felt: "I'm a beauty but I'm half colored, so I'm not to be accepted anyplace. I'm always destined to be an outsider, never, never part of anything. I hate my country and no one wants me in any other. I am emotionally part of nothing…. And that will always be my destiny."

As her concert schedule decreased in the early 1960s, Schuyler supplemented her limited performing income by writing about her travels. She published more than 100 newspaper and magazine articles in the United States and Europe, and was one of the few black writers to be syndicated by United Press International, the large newswire company. She also published four non-fiction books: Adventures in Black and White (a biography, 1960); Who Killed the Congo? (a summary of the Belgian Congo's fight for independence, 1962); Jungle Saints (a tribute to African missionaries, 1963); and Kingdom of Dreams (a quixotic study of scientific dream interpretation written with her mother, 1966). All her books tend to be provocative. An intrepid traveler and a quick-sketch artist of landscapes and people, she reported on the political scenes of the day. In Saigon, she visited an overcrowded and undermanned city hospital where the bug-ridden wards stank in the sweltering heat and patients might share a bed with a corpse for an entire day or more. In Africa, she saw the rioting in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). From her hotel window, she watched as the severed heads of rival tribesmen were paraded through the street on the spears of the victors. In Buenos Aires, caught in the midst of an uprising against the Peronistas, with revolution raging in the streets, she heard machine gun and mortar fire, saw bombs exploding, and passed dead bodies in the gutters.

Schuyler's most dramatic move in her quest for identity came in 1962 when she reinvented herself as "Felipa Monterro y Schuyler" in the hopes of re-entering the American music community as a Spanish musician. With this new persona, Schuyler tried to erase all the aspects of her life which had troubled her in the past, including her African-American ethnicity and her status as a former child prodigy. By the end of 1963, Schuyler had dropped "y Schuyler" to further cement a European identity and invented a whole new past for herself. Writing from Belgium to the American John Birch Society offering to join their lecture circuit on such topics as "The Red Menace in Africa," she described herself as a social worker, born and educated in Europe but working in Africa with the missionaries. She was so convincing that the society took her on as a lecturer, and she made a substantial sum on tours.

But the crowning objective of the Monterro gambit was to break into white America as a classical pianist. Both Schuyler and her mother hoped that if Monterro could establish a solid reputation in Europe, she could re-enter the American concert scene as a white and be able to perform for audiences thus far denied Philippa Schuyler. In April 1963, Felipa Monterro debuted in Switzerland. Her reviews, however, were mediocre, although the critics were impressed with her technical prowess. They seemed to be confused by the sudden appearance from nowhere of such an accomplished pianist.

Philippa Schuyler died on Tuesday, May 9, 1967, in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. She had gone there as a correspondent for William Loeb's Manchester Union Leader to perform for the troops, and in her unofficial capacity as lay missionary—evacuating young children, nuns, and priests from Hué to Da Nang. She was on her last "mission of mercy" when the helicopter in which she was riding crashed yards from shore. Schuyler was 35 years old. Ironically, she had visited a clairvoyant several days before and been told that on Tuesday, May 9, "her malefic period would be over and that she would emerge from the mouth of the Dragon." In her last letter home to her mother, she had written: "God, I can't wait to emerge from the Dragon's mouth."

sources:

Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

suggested reading:

Talalay, Kathryn. Composition in Black and White: The Life of Philippa Schuyler. NY: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Sally Cole-Misch , freelance writer, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

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