Though historically overlooked, the world of music owes a lot to black and African-American composers. Pushing the boundaries of convention and challenging stereotypes, these talented men and women played critical roles in revolutionizing classical music throughout time.
Some of the Top Black Female and Male Composers of All Time
1. Joseph de Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 – 1799)
Chevalier de Saint-Georges (born Joseph de Bologne) is recognized as the first classical composer of African descent. (His mother was an African slave and his father a wealthy plantation owner.)
During his lifetime, Chevalier was most famous for his fencing prowess. However, it’s his musical talent that he is best remembered for now. Chevalier was unofficially dubbed ‘le Mozart noir’ (the Black Mozart), thanks to the popularity of his string quartets, symphonies, and concertos composed in the late 18th century.
His work was so impressive that when former US president John Adams heard him, he said Joseph was “the most accomplished man in Europe.”
2. Florence Price (1887 – 1953)
Florence Price was the first African-American woman recognized as a symphonic composer. Her musical debuted in 1933, when it was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, making her the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony.
Upon hearing her work at the time, the Chicago Daily News music critic Eugene Stinson described it as “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 Little Rock, Arkansas, Price was deeply religious. Her music draws on her faith and deep southern roots, as well as other classical music composers such as Dvořák and Tchaikovsky.
3. Scott Joplin (1868 – 1917)
Known as the ‘King of Ragtime,’ Scott Joplin was one of the most influential composers at the turn of the 20th century. He brought revolutionary ideas to harmony, utilizing complex brass patterns and sporadic syncopation that composers still imitate today.
Despite his influence, he didn’t live to see his music fully take root. Joplin contracted syphilis, which eventually descended into dementia. But in the early 1970s, Joshua Rifkin breathed new life into his work, releasing a series of Joplin’s pieces in an extremely successful album. This recognition was further built upon by the 1973 Academy Award-winning film ‘The Sting’ that highlighted several of Joplin’s compositions.
4. George Bridgetower (1778 – 1860)
George Bridgetower is the son of African and German parents (though some believe his father was, in fact, from the West Indies). A child prodigy, Bridgewater grew up in England. By the age of 11, he was performing violin concerts in Paris, London, Bath, and Bristol.
By 1791, the Prince of Whales (the future King George IV) was so impressed by Bridgetower’s skill that he arranged for him to study with established musicians.
During spring 1803, Bridgewater met Beethoven, who composed Op. 47 Violin Sonata just for him. The pair premiered the work in Vienna on May 24, 1803, Beethoven playing the violin and Bridgetower playing the violin.
The relationship between Beethoven and Bridgetower is highlighted in the 1994 film Immortal Beloved, when he is shown playing the Kreutzer Sonata while Beethoven watches. In addition to playing, Bridgetower composed works for keyboard, solo voice, and other instruments.
5. William Grant Still (1895 – 1978)
Fondly dubbed ‘The Dean’ of African-American composers, William Grant Still accomplished many firsts in his career, including:
The first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra. (LA Phil on 23 July 1936 at the Hollywood Bowl)
The first African American to have an opera produced by a major opera company (New York City Opera)
He was the first African American composer to have his symphony performed by a leading orchestra. (‘Afro-American’ Symphony No. 1)
The first African American composer to have an opera performed on national TV. (A Bayou Legend in 1981)
Throughout his lifetime, he composed more than 150 works, including five symphonies and eight operas. But his most famous work is undoubtedly his first, ‘Afro-American’ Symphony No. 1. When not composing, Still often spent his time performing the oboe and conducting symphonies.
6. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 1912)
At one time, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was referred to as the ‘African Mahler.’ However, he is better known for composing Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. Written in 1898, it was performed more than 200 times in concert, making Coleridge-Taylor a recognized name in Europe and America.
During his short life, Coleridge-Taylor was also an advocate for racial equality.
7. George Walker (1922 – 2018)
In 1996, George Walker became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for his work, Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra.
Walker studied music at the Oberlin Conservatory. In 1945, he became the first black graduate of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. In 2010, Walker brought well-deserved attention to the legacy of Chevalier de Saint-Georges, honoring him in his Foils for Orchestra (Homage à Saint George).
In 1999, Walker was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And in 2000, he was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.
8. Francis Johnson (1792-1844)
The first African American composer to have his works printed as sheet music, Francis Johnson was widely-published. Known to many as ‘Frank,’ he also played the violin and keyed bugle.
Composing more than 200 pieces during his lifespan, Johnson’s works include Ethiopian songs, operatic airs, marches, ballads, quicksteps, cotillions, and quadrilles.
9. Wynton Marsalis (born 1961)
In 1997, Wynton Marsalis won the Pulitzer Prize for Music with his oratorio, Blood on the Fields. This was the first time in history a jazz musician was awarded this honor. His inventive and infectious compositions range from jazz and gospel to violin concertos.
10. Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908)
Blind at birth, Thomas Wiggins was an African slave who learned to play the piano by ear at just four years old. Exploited by his slave owners, Wiggins frequently toured to perform for huge sums. His performances included requested pieces and his own popular songs, composed by Wiggins himself.
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