Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

American novelist Toni Morrison passed away on the night of August 5, aged 88, after a short illness. A novelist, essayist, editor, and professor, the Pulitzer- and Nobel-prized author is best known for writing the 1987 book Beloved. Inspired by the story of Margaret Garner, a slave who murdered her infant daughter rather than let her live in bondage, the book was widely acclaimed. In 1998, it was adapted into a film starring Oprah Winfrey. Toni would then go on to write other short novels, short stories, and even experiments with new art forms.

Morrison followed Beloved with Jazz, a 1992 historical novel. Set in 1920s Harlem, as the title’s book suggests, the characters improvise their compositions throughout the novel, with the tone shifting from ragtime to blues. Call and response is also used throughout Toni’s story by allowing the reader to look at the same events through different lenses. An antiphony between the speaker’s statements (“calls”) reinforced by listener responses, the style is heard in jazz, with its origins derived in African-American spirituals and gospels.

Toni later incorporated the musical tradition of spirituals when she began writing her libretto, Margaret Garner. Toni’s first venture into the genre, the opera premiered in 2005. Loosely based on actual events of Morrison’s muse, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves took on the title role. Garner also featured a large cast of African-American and Caucasian choruses to represent the dynamic voices of slaves and slave-holders. To date, it remains one of the few operas written about the lives of African-Americans – the two notable operas being George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha.

Toni Morrison used the power of music to tell tales and shine a light on stories and experiences often hidden within American history. She also demonstrated the continued legacy of oral history and its influence in music as a tool to give back voices to the forgotten.

A career spanning nearly 50 years, Morrison continued publishing works up until her death. Undoubtedly, her legacy of novels and essays will keep pushing current and future generations to tell untold stories.

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