9 Black composers who changed the course of classical music history
4 June 2020, 10:56 | Updated: 6 October 2020, 15:47
From Scott Joplin to Florence Price, the music of these brilliant composers has too long been neglected in Western classical music tradition.
Following countless others, the shocking and tragic death of African American man George Floyd at the hands of police has sparked a worldwide uprising against racial inequality, and protests calling for the unfailing protection of Black lives from police and system brutality.
The music industry and wider communities took a stand on Tuesday 2 June 2020 with Blackout Tuesday – a vow to silence an industry propped up by Black history and culture on social media and across airwaves for a day, with time to pause and reflect, and take a moment to plan effective, lasting and truly uniting change in the fight to end discrimination on grounds of race.
In classical music’s corner of this, there are brilliant composers that have too long been neglected in the Western tradition, and here we celebrate some of the most famous and influential Black composers in classical music history. Black lives matter now, and absolutely always.
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.
Florence Price (1887 – 1953)
Florence Price was the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra – in 1933. A music critic from the Chicago Daily News heard the work, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and declared it “a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion… worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertoire.”
Born in Arkansas in 1887, Price was a deeply religious person, and brought the music of the African-American church into her music – as well as influences from the likes of Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and other European Romantic composers. Hear some of her songs here and here, and the Concerto in One Movement here.
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 (1778 – 1860)
George Bridgetower was an Afro-European virtuoso violinist and composer whose name you might recognise from Immortal Beloved. He is described in the film as ‘the famous virtuoso from Africa’ – but his father was probably from the West Indes.
In the scene, he plays Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Violin Sonata No. 9, a piece that Beethoven formally dedicated to Bridgetower. The scene recounts their real-life falling-out, which culminated in Beethoven withdrawing his dedication over an off-colour remark Bridgetower made about a lady Beethoven knew. Outraged, Beethoven opted instead to name his sonata after Rodolphe Kreutzer, the great French violinist.
Bridgetower’s name soon got lost in history, and he died in poverty in Peckham, his name forgotten. So next time you hear a performance of the Kreutzer Sonata, spare a thought for the man after whom it should really be named…
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.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 1912)
Referred to by white New York musicians as the ‘African Mahler’, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (not to be confused with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Romantic poet) fought against racial prejudice all his short life.
He skilfully married African-American folk music with concert music, composing pieces like his African Suite, African Romances and Twenty-Four Negro Melodies. He is particularly known for his three cantatas based on the epic poem, Song of Hiawatha.
Coleridge-Taylor was given a well-deserved foot in the door by Edward Elgar who recommended him to the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester, where his Ballade in A minor was eventually premiered. Elgar woke up to Taylor’s talent thanks to August Jaeger, a highly influential music critic and editor of publisher Novello, who advised the composer that Taylor was ‘a genius’.
George Walker (1922 – 2018)
Walker was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. He received it for his work Lilacs in 1996.
But not only that; Walker was also the first black graduate of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia in 1945, the first black musician to play New York’s Town Hall in the same year, the first black recipient of a doctorate from the Eastman School in 1955, and the first black faculty member to receive tenure at Smith College in 1961.
Walker died on 23 August 2018, and his most famous and performed work remains his Lyric for Strings (1946), a beautifully moving work for string orchestra. He also brought the Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ legacy to our attention in 2010, honouring him in his Foils for Orchestra (Homage à Saint George).
Francis Johnson (1792-1844)
Francis ‘Frank’ Johnson was a celebrated and widely-published Philadelphia composer, known for being the first African American composer to have his works printed as sheet music.
He played the violin and keyed bugle, and wrote over 200 pieces – including Ethiopian songs, operatic airs and marches.
A contemporaneous account by Philadelphia resident, John Cromwell, remembers Johnson’s influential work and pioneering brass band, which was “the leading military band at all the famous parades and fashionable functions.”
Wynton Marsalis (born 1961)
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is one of the biggest stars in jazz, but 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.