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Black Composers and Artists who Left Their Mark on Classical Music

News 2020-06-05

Black Composers and Artists who Left Their Mark on Classical Music

This week has been one of anger, heartbreak and reflection as African-Americans have once again found themselves fighting for their rights and their lives.

The world stood in solidarity on Tuesday with an initiative put forth by the music industry and wider communities – Blackout Tuesday, a day-long pause to silence an industry propped up by black history.

The arts has always been seen as the mirror by which we see ourselves – the good and the bad. Classical music – born of the European tradition, has long had a battle with equality and racism. We recognize that there is an immense amount of work to be done as an industry and in our own backyard.

Today we celebrate some of the brilliant composers that have been neglected too long in the Western tradition.


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. Saint-Georges was born to a wealthy plantation owner and his African slave. He was a champion fencer, classical composer and virtuoso violinist who also led one of the best orchestras in Europe – Le Concert des Amateurs. US president John Adams called him “the most accomplished man in Europe.”

It’s been said that Mozart, who at the time of Saint-Georges’ success was struggling greatly with his career, was so envious of the man, that he stole one of Saint-Georges’ ideas in his Sinfonia Concertante.


George Bridgetower (1780–1860)

Eighteenth- and 19th-century classical violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower is perhaps now best remembered for his association with Ludwig van Beethoven, who composed his Kreutzer Sonata for the young Afro-European musician, and personally performed the sonata for violin and piano with Bridgetower. A copy of the sonata autographed by Beethoven is inscribed: “Sonata mulattica composta per il mullato.”

Bridegetower was born to a Polish mother in Poland. His father was from the West Indies and worked for Prince Hieronim Wincenty Radziwiłł. A child prodigy on the violin, Bridgetower lived in England most of his life. The Prince of Wales placed Bridgetower under his protection when he was just 11, and appointed tutors for him. He went on to become first violinist in the prince’s private orchestra for 14 years. Bridgetower also performed numerous concerts and became a famous and celebrated musician in his time. It was during an 1802 concert tour of Europe that he made friends with Beethoven, who described Bridgetower as “an absolute master of his instrument.”

Unfortunately the two had a falling out after Bridgetower spoke badly about a female friend of Beethoven’s. Beethoven scratched out Bridgetower’s name from the manuscript and instead dedicated the work to a violinist name Kreutzer – who never played the work. He said it was far too difficult.


Scott Joplin (1868–1917)

A pianist and ragtime master, Joplin wrote over 100 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet and two operas. He was one of the most important and influential composers at the turn of the 20th century. One of his first and most popular pieces, the Maple Leaf Rag, became ragtime’s first and most influential hit, and has been recognized as the archetypal rag.

One of six children, Joplin’s mother Florence cleaned houses for a living. She would sometimes make a deal with the owners of the houses to work for free certain days if Scott could practice on their piano or other instruments.

In 1911, Joplin wrote a groundbreaking opera titled Treemonisha. The opera encompassed a wide range of musical styles but was largely unknown before its first complete performance in 1972. In 1976, Joplin was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music.


Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912)

Dubbed by white New York musicians as the ‘African Mahler’ and the ‘Black Dvorak’, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor fought against racial prejudice all his short life. Born in Holborn and raised in Croydon, Coleridge-Taylor’s father was a black Sierra Leonean doctor. His mother was English and white. The composer travelled a great deal – especially to the US, where he was incredibly successful and honoured by people like President Theodore Roosevelt and black educationalist Booker T. Washington.

Coleridge-Taylor burst onto the British music scene with the premiere of his cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast at the Royal College of Music. According to the composer Hubert Parry, word had gotten around London’s music scene that an extraordinary event was about to take place. Expectations were easily met. London papers hailed the work as a masterpiece, but Coleridge-Taylor relinquished copyright for the piece for only 15 guineas, even though thousands of copies of the score were later sold. This was one of the reasons Coleridge-Taylor died so young. On August 28, 1912, the 37-year-old composer collapsed at West Croydon station while waiting for a train. He died later from pneumonia brought on by overwork.


Florence Price (1887–1953)

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Price was one of the first African-American classical composers to win national attention, and, unquestionably, the first black woman to be recognized. Unfortunately, she is mentioned more often than she is heard.

In 1933, she became the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra. A music critic from the Chicago Daily News, who heard the work performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 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.”

In 2009, Vicki and Darrell Gatwood, of St. Anne, Illinois, were preparing to renovate an abandoned house on the outskirts of town. They made a curious discovery – piles of musical manuscripts, books, personal papers and other documents all bearing the name Florence Price. The house had once been the composer’s summer house. Among the manuscripts were dozens of Price scores that had been thought lost.


William Grant Still (1895–1978)

Born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas, Still’s legacy is remarkable both for the barriers he broke and the inventive works he wrote that blended European art music with African-rooted popular and folk music. Dubbed ‘The Dean’ of African-American composers, he was a gifted musician who studied the violin but was self taught on the clarinet, saxophone, oboe, viola, cello and double bass.

Still 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 performed by a leading orchestra (Afro-American Symphony No. 1), and the first to have an opera performed on national TV.


Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882–1943)

A Canadian-American Black composer, organist, pianist, choral director and music professor, Dett was born and raised in Canada until the age of 11. He and his family moved to the United States with his family and had most of his professional education and career there. During his lifetime he was a leading Black composer, known for his use of African-American folk songs and spirituals as the basis for choral and piano compositions in the 19th century Romantic style of Classical music.

He was among the first Black composers during the early years after the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) was organized. Dett performed at Carnegie Hall and at the Boston Symphony Hall as a pianist and choir director.


George Walker (1922–2018)

The grandson of a slave, George Walker died in 2018 at age 96. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996, he was one of America’s most distinguished composers. Firmly rooted in the modern classical tradition, Walker also drew from African-American spirituals and jazz. His nearly 100 compositions range broadly, from intricately orchestrated symphonic works and concertos to intimate songs and solo piano pieces.

Walker was a trailblazing man of “firsts,” and not just because of the Pulitzer. In the year 1945 alone, he was the first African-American pianist to play a recital at New York’s Town Hall, the first black instrumentalist to play solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the first black graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.


These are just a handful of the brilliant Black composers and artists who despite all barriers, made a lasting mark on classical music. There are so many more. We haven’t even touched on the artists. Legends like Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman just to name a few.

As people all over the world rally together we pause to think about all the creative geniuses whose talent we’ll never enjoy because of the colour of their skin, their sex or their economic background.

As Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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