When we think about African American music, we tend to think about spirituals, jazz and gospel genres. To be sure, these are genres that have been created and shaped by Black composers and musicians. However, something we often overlook is Black classical music and Black classical composers.
Though I have been trained in classical music my entire life and studied music in college, I never heard names such as William Grant Still or Florence Price until recently. Many Black composers have been largely absent from the study of classical music. Let’s take a moment to learn about three of these brilliant composers and their contributions to classical music.
(After you read this, be sure to check out my playlist of Black classical music, which has 10 curated songs by Black composers — including the composers mentioned below.)
Florence Price was the first Black woman to be noted as a symphonic composer and have her music played by an orchestra. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, she was also the first Black female composer to really achieve national status. She was deeply religious and brought influences from the African-American church into her works.
WILLIAM GRANT STILL
William Grant Still was the first African American to conduct a symphony orchestra in the United States. From Mississippi, he wrote operas, ballets,symphonies and concertos. One of his operas contains a libretto written by the famous poet Langston Hughes! His most famous work is Afro-American Symphony. Still also played the obo, arranged jazz music and was the first to have an opera performed on national television.
Joseph balogne, chevalier de saint-georges
The Chevalier de Saint-Georges was called “le Mozart noir” — or, Black Mozart. He is the first noted classical composer of African descent and had many talents. Composing music was obviously one of them, but he was also a champion fencer and a virtuoso (very skilled) violinist. Born in Guadeloupe to a wealthy plantation owner and his African Slave, Saint-Georges composed all sorts of music including string quartets, symphonies and concertos. President John Adams called him, “the most accomplished man in Europe.”
Now that you know a little bit about a few of these brilliant landmark composers, be sure to check out my playlist on YouTube featuring 10 songs by Black classical composers.
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