17 Black Composers of Classical Music

I love classical music, but like many of you, I have only learned about Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. But there are many Black  Composers we have never heard of who have made significant contributions to classical music.

I remember a few years ago, during Black History Month, I heard some classical music on a Sirius XM radio station. Later that night, I researched the composer and was surprised  that he was black. That night I also found out that approximately 1.8% of musicians in American Orchestras are Black, according to a 2014 study by the League of American Orchestras. And, I realized in most cases, these black composers are only played during Black History month.

I have since discovered many other Black Composers that I enjoy immensely.

Today I am sharing 17 of those composers for you to explore and enjoy throughout the year and not only during Black History Month.

Florence B. Prince (1887-1953)

Florence Price was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra (her Symphony in E minor was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933). Price was born in Arkansas to a music teacher, mother, and dentist father.

Following encouragement from her mother, she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music. Even though her training was steeped in the European tradition, Price’s music consists mainly of the American idiom and reveals her Southern roots. Being deeply religious, she frequently used the music of the African-American church as material for her arrangements.

Dorothy Rudd Moore (1940-)

Dorothy Rudd Moore was born in New Castle, Delaware. As a young child, she knew she wanted to become a composer. She made up her songs, took piano lessons, and learned to play the clarinet so that she could join the previously all-male band in high school. She went on to study at Howard University with Dean Warner Lawson, Mark Fax, and Thomas Kerr, among others. After graduating from Howard in 1963, she received the Lucy Moten Fellowship to study in France with Nadia Boulanger.

In 1965 she returned to New York to study with Chou Wen-Chung, and in 1968 she became a co-founder of the Society of Black Composers in New York City. Her work includes orchestral music, song cycles, chamber pieces, and an opera. Two of her works, Dirge and Deliverance and Songs from the Dark Tower, were released by Performance Records in 1981, and her opera Frederick Douglass was premiered in New York City in 1985. Her featured recording on this blog is the art song cycle Songs from the Dark Tower, performed by Gwendolyn Brown.

Bio courtesy of composers.com and photo courtesy of Bert Andrews from ACA archives

Wynton Marsalis (1961-)

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is one of the biggest stars in jazz. Still, his inventive and infectious jazz, gospel, and spiritual-infused compositions have become some of the most important new works to hit classical concert halls.

In 1997, Marsalis became the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music with his oratorio Blood on the Fields.

And it’s his violin concerto, a work composed for violinist Nicola Benedetti, that’s been making waves in 2019. Nicola has been championing this work around the world and with a recently released recording. She recently came to Classic FM and told us all about the concerto’s extraordinary first movement.

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

Still’s career is a story of firsts: dubbed ‘The Dean’ of African-American composers, he was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have an opera produced by a major opera company (the New York City Opera), the first to have a symphony (his First Symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, and the first to have an opera performed on national TV.

Still composed more than 150 works in his lifetime, including five symphonies and eight operas, the most famous of which is his ‘Afro-American’ Symphony No. 1. He also found time to moonlight as an oboist, conductor and jazz arranger.

Joseph Bologne “Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799)

Dubbed ‘le Mozart noir’ (‘Black Mozart’), the Chevalier de Saint-Georges is remembered as the first classical composer of African origins.

Born to a wealthy plantation owner and his African slave, Saint-Georges was a prolific composer who wrote string quartets, symphonies and concertos in the late 18th century. He also led one of the best orchestras in Europe – Le Concert des Amateurs – and former US president John Adams judged him “the most accomplished man in Europe”.

Mozart, who at the time of Saint-Georges’ success was struggling to make his own music heard, envied him. There is a popular theory that Mozart, as well as swiping one of Saint-Georges’ ideas in his Sinfonia Concertante, used his jealousy to fuel the creation of the villainous black character Monostatos, who appears in his opera The Magic Flute.

Margaret Bonds (1913-1972)

Margaret Allison Bonds was an American composer, pianist, arranger, and teacher. One of the first Black composers and performers to gain recognition in the United States, she is best remembered today for her popular arrangements of African-American spirituals and frequent collaborations with Langston Hughes.

Julia Perry (1924-1979)

Born in Kentucky, Julia Perry was a composer and teacher who combined European classical and neo-classical training with her African-American heritage. She began her studies at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, then was later tutored by Nadia Boulanger (the foremost teacher of composition in the 20th century) in Paris, during which time she was awarded the Boulanger Grand Prix for her Viola Sonata. Perry also wrote two operas and an opera ballet as well as 12 symphonies. In 1973, Perry suffered a series of strokes which left her right side paralysed. She taught herself how to write with her left hand so she could continue to compose. Unfortunately, her music has not been widely recorded.

Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

Dubbed the ‘King of Ragtime’, Scott Joplin was one of the most important and influential composers at the turn of the 20th century. His ideas around harmony, as well as his complex bass patterns and sporadic syncopation, are still imitated by composers today.

Joplin’s untimely death, caused by syphilis which descended into dementia, marked the end of ragtime and a sad lapse in interest around his music. But his compositions were rediscovered and rose to popularity again in the early 1970s, when Joshua Rifkin released an extremely successful album of his pieces. This was followed by the Academy Award-winning 1973 film The Sting that used several of Joplin’s compositions, including ‘The Entertainer’ and ‘Solace’.

George Bridgetower (1780-1860)

The son of African and German parents, Bridgetower was a child prodigy, growing up in England and giving violin concerts in Paris, London, Bath, and Bristol by the age of 11.  He later joined the retinue of the Prince of Wales (later George IV), who arranged music studies with established musicians.  In 1802 Bridgetower obtained permission to travel to the Continent to visit his mother. 

In the Spring of 1803 he met Beethoven, who composed the Op. 47 Violin Sonata for him. Beethoven played the piano and Bridgetower played the violin at the work’s successful premiere in Vienna on May 24, 1803, but before the work was published, the two men had a disagreement. Beethoven angrily replaced Bridgetower’s name on the manuscript with that of Rodolphe Kreutzer. Bridgetower composed works for keyboard, solo voice, and other instruments.

Francis “Frank” Johnson (1792-1844)

Johnson was a virtuoso of the violin and keyed Kent bugle, an accomplished composer who introduced the concert of promenade concerts to the United States in the Antebellum period. Johnson was the first African American composer to have his works published as sheet music and to give public concerts.

He also was the first African American to give public concerts and the first to participate in racially integrated concerts in the United States. He wrote more than two hundred compositions of various styles: operatic airs, Ethiopian minstrel songs, patriotic marches, ballads, cotillions, quadrilles, quicksteps and other dances, but few survive today.

George Walker (1922-2018)

George Walker was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music (in 1996, for his song cycle Lilacs). His biography is a series of firsts: the first black graduate of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (1945), the first black musician to play New York’s Town Hall (also 1945), the first black recipient of a doctorate from the Eastman School (1955), the first black tenured faculty member at Smith College (1961) to name a few.

Many of his nearly 100 compositions have been recorded, ranging from symphonic works and concertos to intimate songs and solo piano pieces. Tom Service writes: “While there are traces of Walker’s musical heroes – such as Hindemith and Stravinsky – in his musical language, he has created a distinctive world that is modernist and multifaceted yet richly communicative.”

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

Edward Kennedy Ellington, American pianist who was the greatest jazz composer and bandleader of his time. One of the originators of big-band jazz, Ellington led his band for more than half a century, composed thousands of scores, and created one of the most distinctive ensemble sounds in all of Western music. 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer, conductor and political activist. His father began teaching him the violin at a young age, and he studied at the Royal College of Music, composing under the guidance of Charles Stanford. Incorporating black traditional music with concert music – with compositions such as African Suite, African Romances and Twenty Four Negro Melodies – he was a progressive writer of his time.

Despite the black community’s ongoing battle against racism, his piece Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was so popular that he embarked on three tours of the United States, and was invited by President Theodore Roosevelt to visit the White House. Coleridge-Taylor was only 37 when he died of pneumonia.

Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989)

Undine Smith Moore, the ‘Dean of Black Women Composers’, was a composer, music professor and co-founder of the Black Music Center at Virginia State College, which aimed to educate members about the ‘contributions of black people to the music of the United States and the world’. Her output includes over 100 pieces, only 26 of which were published during her lifetime.

Her most significant work, Scenes from the Life of a Martyr (based on the life of Martin Luther King) premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1981 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She said: “One of the most evil effects of racism in my time was the limits it placed upon the aspirations of blacks, so that though I have been ‘making up’ and creating music all my life, in my childhood or even in college I would not have thought of calling myself a composer or aspiring to be one.”

Julius Eastman (1940-1990)

Julius Eastman was an American composer, pianist, vocalist and dancer, whose music plays a vital part in the emergence of post-minimalism. His pieces addressed his status as a black gay composer in a white-dominated musical elite, in composition titles such as Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla.

During his lifetime he achieved more notoriety as a performer than as a composer, touring with Meredith Monk and performing at Lincoln Center with Pierre Boulez. In his later years, he got caught up in drugs or mental illness or both. He was evicted from his home and made no attempt to recover recordings of his own music, which had been dumped on the street by his old landlord. Eastman died homeless and alone in New York, and his death was unreported until eight months later, which was when his friends and colleagues got the news.

Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908)

Now regarded as an “autistic sawant,” Wiggins was an American slave who was a classical pianist of prodigious talent and a composer of popular songs. Blind at birth, he learned to play piano by ear at age four. His talent was exploited by slave owners his entire life, who kept control of Wiggins and the huge income he made touring as a soloist (by some accounts, Wiggins was the highest-grossing pianist of the 19th century).

José Silverstre White (1835-1918)

Praised by composers such as Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Gioacchino Rossini, José Silvestre White was an Afro-Cuban violinist who studied at the Paris Conservatory and later served as a professor there for many years. White was an accomplished soloist, performing twice with the New York Philharmonic under Theodore Thomas during the 1875-1876 season. 

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