19 black musicians who have shaped the classical music world

9 June 2020, 13:22 | Updated: 9 June 2020, 13:26

Black musicians who were pioneers in the classical world
Black musicians who were pioneers in the classical world. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

We celebrate some of the most influential black voices the classical music world has known.

In a world that didn’t always welcome them with open arms, many of these wonderful singers, instrumentalists and conductors shattered racial barriers on the concert stage, and helped shape landmark moments in classical music.

From Nina Simone fusing the worlds of gospel and classical music, to tenor Roland Hayes becoming the first African American concert artist to win international fame, here are some of the most influential black voices in classical music history – from the 18th century to today.

  1. George Bridgetower (1778 – 1860)

    George Bridgetower, a once celebrated English violin virtuoso of Afro-European descent, was Beethoven’s protégé – for a short while. Impressed by his playing, Beethoven decided to formally dedicate his ‘Kreutzer’ Violin Sonata No. 9 to Bridgetower. But the pair had a spat, and Beethoven retracted his dedication – instead naming his sonata after French violinist, Rodolphe Kreutzer.

    George Bridgetower’s name soon got lost in history, and he died in poverty in Peckham, his name forgotten. Next time you hear a performance of the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, spare a thought for the man after whom it should really be named.

  2. Thomas ‘Blind Tom’ Wiggins (1849 - 1908)

    ‘Blind Tom’ was born the son of slaves. By the age of 10, he was the highest paid pianist of the 19th century. Wiggins was a musical prodigy, and travelled throughout North America performing music by Bach, Beethoven and his own works. He also wrote more than 100 piano compositions in a 19th-century parlour style.

    Crucially, ‘Blind Tom’ was one of the most celebrated black concert performers of the 19th century, but in comparison to contemporary virtuosos like Liszt and Rubinstein, he is virtually unknown today.

    Read more: 9 black composers who changed classical music history >

  3. Roland Hayes (1887 - 1977)

    Born in a plantation cabin in Georgia in 1887, lyric tenor and composer, Roland Hayes, was the first African American man to win international fame as a concert artist. Hayes’ voice caused a sensation throughout Europe and the US, and he became the first African American to perform with the great Boston Symphony Orchestra.

    In 1939 Hayes broke another extraordinary barrier, by recording with Columbia Records. It was the first time a black concert artist had been recorded classically – previously, record labels had only been after “vaudeville”-style singers.

  4. Marian Anderson (1897 - 1993)

    Opera singer Marian Anderson’s extraordinary musical range spread from lieder, to opera, to spirituals. When she was 58 she broke the colour barrier by making her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, playing Ulrica in Verdi’s A Masked Ball.

  5. Dean Dixon (1915 - 1976)

    In 1941 Dean Dixon, aged just 26, conducted the New York Philharmonic at a summer parks concert, making him the first African American to lead the orchestra. Over the next three years, both the Philadelphia and Boston Symphonies invited Dixon to their podiums.

  6. Camilla Williams (1919 - 2012)

    In 1946, soprano Camilla Williams became the first black woman to secure a contract with a major US opera company, making her debut as Cio-Cio-San in New York City Opera’s Madam Butterfly. In 1954 she became the first African American to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera.

    Read more: The life of Florence Price, the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra >

  7. Hazel Scott (1920 - 1981)

    Hazel Scott was a phenomenal jazz and classical pianist – and she used her influence to help make the arts a richer, more inclusive place for black Americans.

    As well as being the first person of African descent to host their own network TV show in America – The Hazel Scott Show – Scott was heavily involved in civil rights and she refused to take on film roles that cast her as a black stereotype.

    The Trinidadian-born star with West African heritage also became known for playing on two pianos simultaneously. Scott would sit on a single stool with a piano either side – for anyone who watched the 2019 Grammys, you might remember the moment Alicia Keys paid tribute to Scott with a beguiling self-duet on piano(s).

  8. Robert McFerrin (1921 - 2006)

    In January 1955, Robert McFerrin became the first black man to sing a leading role at the Met Opera, appearing as Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida. The great American baritone went on to perform in 10 operas over three seasons.

  9. Donald White (1925 - 2005)

    When he was hired as a cellist in the Cleveland Orchestra by George Szell in 1957, Donald White became the first black musician in a ‘Big Five’ US orchestra.

    But throughout his career, White faced racism and intolerance. During a southern tour in 1961, the manager at a concert hall in Birmingham, Alabama tried to bar him from going on stage. The orchestra declined to appear without White and Szell threatened to cancel the show, at which point the city’s mayor allowed White to play alongside his fellow musicians.

  10. Leontyne Price (1927-)

    American lyric soprano Leontyne Price, 93, is widely considered the first African American opera star to achieve international success. In May 1960, Price made her first appearance at Milan’s La Scala as Aida. She was the first African American to sing solo in the hallowed walls of Italy’s most prestigious opera house.

  11. Henry Lewis (1932 - 1996)

    The year was 1948 when Henry Lewis, a young double bass prodigy, joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic aged 16 and became the first African American instrumentalist in a major symphony orchestra.

    Lewis made another first, 20 years on, when he became the first black person to become music director of a major American orchestra after being hired to lead the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

  12. Nina Simone (1933 - 2003)

    A pianist with a remarkable contralto voice, Nina Simone was an artist like no other. She fused gospel and pop with classical music, and had a great passion for Bach.

    Simone is now recognised as one of America’s most iconic jazz artists – but she initially wanted a career as a classical pianist. As a young woman she enrolled in New York’s Juilliard School, then applied for a scholarship to study at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, where she was denied admission despite a great audition.

    The young pianist called out the Institute for racial discrimination. In 2003, just days before her death, they awarded her an honorary degree.

    Nina Simone fused pop, gospel and classical
    Nina Simone fused pop, gospel and classical. Picture: Getty
  13. James DePriest (1936 - 2013)

    When DePriest died seven years ago, the classical world lost one of the first African-American maestros to have taken to its main stage. DePriest was a pioneering conductor, National Medal of Arts winner and poet, who was at the helm of the Oregon Symphony for 25 years.

    The nephew of the pioneering contralto Marian Anderson (see above), DePreist told NPR that his aunt had provided great inspiration. “She knew that she was Marian Anderson,” DePreist said, “But my aunt was simultaneously the most humble person I ever met in my life and the most powerful. And it was a combination of her not needing to strut her strength, because it was just a natural part of her. To the extent that anything has rubbed off, then I’m grateful.”

    James DePriest conducting the Juilliard Orchestra in 2006
    James DePriest conducting the Juilliard Orchestra in 2006. Picture: Getty
  14. Martina Arroyo (1936-)

    Soprano Martina Arroyo, 84, whose major international opera career spanned from the 1960s to the 1980s, is considered a pioneer and instrumental voice of change in breaking down racial barriers for black opera singers.

    She was one of the first black opera stars of Puerto Rican descent to launch an international career, and the first black woman to play Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin.

  15. Sanford Allen (1939-)

    From when he joined in 1962, to when he left in 1977, violinist Sanford Allen was the only African American member of the New York Phil, in its (then) 133-year history.

    When he quit after 15 years, Allen said he was “simply tired of being a symbol”. Instead, he pursued a new career as a freelance violinist, and has since worked extensively in recording film music.

  16. Jessye Norman (1945 - 2019)

    When news of Jessye Norman’s death was announced last year, the Met described her as “one of the great sopranos of the past half-century”.

    One of the rare black opera singers to achieve worldwide stardom, Norman performed in the best opera houses and with the best orchestras and conductors throughout the world, including at La Scala, with the Berlin Philharmonic and under the baton of Sir Colin Davis.

    An African American born in Georgia, Norman credited other great black singers including Leontyne Price and Marian Anderson (see above) with paving the way for her. “They have made it possible for me to say, ‘I will sing French opera,’” she told The New York Times in 1983, “Or, ‘I will sing German opera,’ instead of being told, ‘You will sing Porgy and Bess’.”

    She added: “It’s unrealistic to pretend that racial prejudice doesn’t exist. It does! It’s one thing to have a set of laws, and quite another to change the hearts and minds of men. That takes longer. I do not consider my blackness a problem. I think it looks rather nice.”

    American opera singer Jessye Norman in 2006
    American opera singer Jessye Norman in 2006. Picture: Getty
  17. Yvette Devereaux (1940-)

    Yvette Devereaux goes down in history not only as the first black woman to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic – as a guest conductor in 1996, see below – but also among the first women to ever conduct major orchestras really.

    Devereaux, a violinist and conductor of African descent, was also the first African-American woman to attain a conductor’s degree from the world-renowned Peabody Conservatory of Music.

    Yvette Devereaux, the first African American woman to conduct the LA Phil
    Yvette Devereaux, the first African American woman to conduct the LA Phil. Picture: Courtesy of Yvette Devereaux
  18. Wynton Marsalis (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 making waves today.

  19. Sheku Kanneh-Mason (1999-)

    Sheku’s glittering career has been one ‘first’ after another. The young cellist first found fame after becoming the first black artist to win BBC Young Musician of the Year. Soon after, he went on the play at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, playing Fauré and Schubert to an audience of two billion.

    At the beginning of 2020, Sheku became the first cellist in chart history to reach the UK Official Album Chart Top 10, in a groundbreaking moment for classical and pop music. The 21-year-old cellist is a remarkable story – and it gets all the more special when you look at his family. Incredibly, Sheku’s six siblings, the Kanneh-Masons, all share exceptional musical talents.