Welcome! Below you will find a list of 8 important Black Composers of classical music from different times in history and from different areas of the world. This list represents an extremely small sample of the contributions of Black Composers, and mentions very little about the many talented Black Performers that have contributed to the world of classical music. It is my sincere hope that this very small list sparks an interest for you - whoever you are that is reading this now! - to dig deeper into this world! It is sad that even after the year 2000, the contributions of many Black artists to the world of classical music must be sought-out, and the importance of these people to the world is hardly emphasized, despite the tremendous amount of talent and success of these artists. Yet, once you start to discover this world, you WILL find an overwhelming amount of information about how important Blacks are in classical music history.
Want to know more? A great place to start (after reading my very small list below) is with AfriClassical. Started by William Zick, this blog does a fantastic job of daily posts concerning Blacks (including Africans, Latinos, and more) in classical and other genres of music, as well as documenting other important moments that may not relate to music. You can read the posts online, you can sign up to receive the daily posts in your e-mail, and you can send an e-mail to William Zick if you happen to come across a related event that you feel is important enough to post on his blog. Another wonderful website is for the Center for Black Music Research. Started in 1983, it has slowly grown into the most important entity for Black music study and preservation, including having a library with 4,500+ scores, 11,000+ audio recordings, and more. The website provides tidbits about important events in Black music history, and also provides a medium where you can donate to this organization so that it can continue doing this important work. Lastly, as the Castle of our Skins organization matures, our website will contain more and more educational features about important composers, musicians, writers, scholars, and events related to Black music artistry of all variations. Keep on visiting the Castle of our Skins website!
Pronounced: Shu-vah-lee-ay duh Sent-Jorj
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was born in Guadeloupe, an island in the Caribbean Sea, in 1745. When he was 8 years old, his father sent him to Paris to be educated. During his early education, he became known as a fencer with amazing technique. He beat one of the great fencer's of that day, and was given the title "Chevalier" (horseman). Eventually, the news of his talent as a violinist became known. Francois Gossec (a leading composer at that time) composed violin pieces for him to premiere with an orchestra of amateurs. The reviews were successful, and - because of his hard work - Gossec appointed Chevalier de Saint-Georges to be the next conductor of that orchestra. During this time, he also composed. Chevalier de Saint-Georges turned this orchestra of amateurs into the most famous and successful orchestra of that period. Chevalier composed and performed his own works with this orchestra, and they even commissioned Joseph Haydn (a very famous composer) to compose 6 symphonies for them.
Click HERE to listen to some his violin concertos!
Click HERE to read his Wikipedia article! (It's long!)
Scott Joplin was born in Linden, Texas, which is in the northeast part of the state. His father was an ex-slave and his mother was free-born. Both of his parents were musicians, and laborers. Joplin grew up learning music from his parents and many of the local musicians. His most important teacher, however, was Julius Weiss, a German-Jew immigrant. Professor Weiss exposed the young Joplin to classical and folk music from Europe. Joplin's creative abilities led him to fuse his lessons from Weiss with the popular music of that area during that time. This fusion essentially created ragtime, and caused Joplin to be known as The King of Ragtime. Joplin was a multi-talented musician who sang, played guitar, mandolin, cornet, and piano. His compositions, however, remain the most important aspect of his legacy. His most famous work The Maple Leaf Rag became a hit when it was published, and earned him a steady income. Consequently, he sent monetary gifts to Julius Weiss, paying his teacher back for the free lessons that the young Joplin received in his youth. Despite Joplin's creativity, the music he was composing was too unique for audiences at the time, and many of his works were not successful. Poor, Joplin died from a fatal disease, and was buried in an unmarked grave. 50 years after his death, many famous musicians began a revival of Scott Joplin's works, and this caused a craze for Joplin's music in the 1970s. This decade is singularly responsible for his legendary status in music history today.
Click HERE to listen to Maple Leaf Rag!
Click HERE to read his Wikipedia article!
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London in 1875. His name is similar to the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but do not get them confused! He unfortunately died from pneumonia in 1912 - he was only 37 years old. As a student in the Royal Conservatory of Music in London, he established himself as a fine composer, particularly with his work Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, which was completed when he was only 23 years old. One of England's most beloved composers, Edward Elgar, supported Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. With such strong support, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor traveled to the United States three times for performances. He was even invited by President Theodore Roosevelt at the white house, which was a tremendous honor and a rare event at that time for someone with brown skin. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's visits to the United States made him more interested in learning about his African Heritage, and putting African culture into his music.
Robert Nathaniel Dett (known mostly as R. Nathaniel Dett) was born in Ontario, Canada, in a small town that is now a part of Niagara Falls. His musical ability was recognized at the age of 3, and he started piano lessons when he was 5 years old. His college and university studies include Oberlin Conservatory, Harvard University (where he studied with the beloved American composer Arthur Foote), the Eastman School of Music, and the Fontainebleu School of Music in France (where he studied with the great teacher Nadia Boulanger). He won many awards for his music, and he was a talented pianist. As a pianist and choral conductor, R. Nathaniel Dett performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, and Symphony Hall in Boston. He was a big advocate for including Negro Spirituals in his music, and wrote extensively about the importance of Black American folk music. Even though he was born in Canada, his career was spent mostly in the United States.
Florence Price started her music training as child, taught by her mother who was a soprano and a pianist. When she was 14 years old, she enrolled in the New England Conservatory of music, majoring in piano and organ, and receiving a teaching certificate after 6 years of study. She moved to Arkansas to teach after she graduated, but a devastating racial incident caused her and her husband to move to Chicago in 1927. It was here where she continued her studies of music and other topics, and met her most successful student, Margaret Bonds. In 1932, she placed first and second place in the Wanamaker Foundation Awards. Her award-winning work, Symphony No. 1 in E minor, established Florence Price as the first Black woman in the United States to be recognized as a composer of symphonies and orchestral music. While her training was heavily steeped in the European tradition, Florence Price used Black melodies often in her works, especially melodies from Black church music - she was deeply religious. Marian Anderson often performed Price's spiritual arrangements.
Click HERE to listen to Symphony No. 1 in E minor!
Click HERE to read her Wikipedia article!
Margaret Bonds was born in Chicago, and her home was frequented by many Black intellectuals of the day while she was growing up. Her mother was her first music teacher, teaching her piano. By age five, Margaret Bonds composed her first work, Marquette Street Blues. Before college, she also studied with Florence Price, worked as an accompanist for dancers and singers, worked as a music copyist for other composers, and was involved in the National Association of Negro Musicians. She went to Northwestern University, where her song Sea-Ghost won a Wanamaker Award. Around this time, she also performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and she was the soloist in Florence Price's Piano Concerto with the Women's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago. She moved to New York, where she studied at Juilliard, and had an impressive career as a pianist, composer, and teacher. When she tried to study with the great Nadia Boulanger, Ms. Boulanger refused to take her as a student because she felt Margaret Bonds did not need any further study. Margaret Bonds is known for using the text of the great poet Langston Hughes for her vocal works. She also used Black folk melodies, and was influenced by Jazz, Calypso, Blues, and Spirituals.
Click HERE to listen to Troubled Water!
Click HERE to read her Wikipedia article!
George Walker is known as the first Black composer to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. He received this award in 1996 for his work Lilacs, for voice and orchestra. Born in Washington D. C., George Walker first studied music at the age of five, when he began to play the piano. His collegiate training at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, the Curtis Institute of Music (where he was the first Black graduate), and Eastman Conservatory (where he was the first Black person to receive a doctorate) includes study with some of the most well-known and well-respected musicians ever. As a pianist, he had much success playing some of the most difficult works in the repertoire in the United States, and throughout Europe. His compositions have been performed by virtually every important orchestra in the United States, which has lead him to receive numerous awards, as well as honorary doctorate degrees from 7 institutions. He also studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. In 2000, he was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. His most famous work is Lyric for Strings.
Click HERE to listen to Lyric for Strings!
Click HERE to read his official biography on his website!
Ed Bland is known as a composer and a musical director. He left his mark in several genres of music, as well as in the recording and film industries. Born in Chicago, he grew up with a father who had many illustrious friends, including Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. His early study of music in the 30's began with jazz. Eventually, he broke out of this idiom and ventured into modern classical music, specifically working with the 12-tone technique. Ed Bland served briefly in the army during World War II, and studied music afterwards with the G. I. Bill at the University of Chicago and the American Conservatory of Music. As a composer of concert music, his works have been performed by notable soloists and orchestras, including the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. He also composed music for the film A Soldier's Story and the TV Play A Raisin in the Sun. Further with film, he wrote, directed, and produced the documentary A Cry of Jazz, which is now considered an important Black independent film essay on racial issues involving this purely American musical genre. His music combines traditional modern classical music, jazz, and West African drumming rhythms to create a powerful, bold sound. This aggressive sound inspired many popular artists like Fat Boy Slim, Cypress Hill, and other hip-hop talents who all sampled Ed Bland's work. Consequently, he is regarded as the Great Grandfather of Hip-Hop.
Click HERE to watch his daughter, Stephanie Batten Bland, dance to one his funk works!
Click HERE to read his bio on his website!