Black musicians have been making their mark on classical music for centuries, even if they haven't always been afforded the spotlight they deserve. As Black History Month begins, here's a look back at a few of the black composers who made significant contributions to the genre.
George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (b. 1778; d. 1860)
Although few recordings of Bridgetower’s own music exist, there’s plenty of evidence that the English violinist—he was the son of a West Indian father and European mother—was brushing elbows with and impressing some of classical music’s biggest giants.
He may have studied with Haydn at Esterháza, and he performed with Beethoven in Vienna during the spring of 1803 to much acclaim. Beethoven, so impressed with Bridgetower’s skill, intended to dedicate a sonata from their performance to the young musician. After a falling out (rumor has it that the spat was over a girl), however, Beethoven rededicated the sonata, published in 1805 as op. 47, to French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer. Bridgetower then returned to England where he studied at Cambridge and performed as a member of the newly-formed Royal Philharmonic Society.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (b. 1745, d. 1799)
Born in Guadeloupe, the son of a wealthy plantation owner and his African slave, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges led an extraordinary life. After his father moved him permanently to France in 1753, the young Saint-George quickly became a champion fencer, which became his ticket into elite Parisian society. He made his debut as a violinist and composer in 1772, performing two violin concertos that thoroughly demonstrated both his virtuosic playing ability and his gift for composing songful and expressive melodies.
Although considered a darling of fashionable society—his many amorous conquests are well-documented by contemporaries— Saint-Georges’ career was not without difficulty. A proposal to make him music director of the Paris Opéra was halted by a petition to Marie Antoinette from a handful of its leading ladies, on the grounds that they be spared from “degrading their honour and delicate conscience by having them submit to the orders of a mulatto.”
Following this defeat, Saint-George joined revolutionary circles, and at one point was imprisoned for eighteen months after the Reign of Terror. He continued his musical pursuits until his death in 1799, and is sometimes referred to today as Le Mozart Noir, or “The Black Mozart”— an ironic moniker considering that it was actually Wolfgang who was so inspired by Saint-Georges, and after a visit to Paris used several of Saint-Georges’ techniques and passages in his subsequent work for violin.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (b. 1875; d. 1912)
After his father deserted the family and returned to his native Sierra Leone, Coleridge-Taylor was raised in England by his mother. As a boy, he studied violin and sang in various church choirs before entering the Royal College of Music in 1890 as a violin student. It was at the RCM that he also began his career as a composer, receiving his first commission just a year after leaving the college.
Not long after he would compose the piece on which is fame now largely rests, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast. The piece was received with great critical acclaim in England and the United States and many commissions followed, though none were ever met quite as enthusiastically as Hiawatha.
Coleridge-Taylor spent his career showcasing the dignity of the black man through his work—he was greatly inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Frederick Douglass, and P.L. Dunbar, a black American poet who Coleridge-Taylor set to music more than once. Coleridge-Taylor’s awareness of his heritage led to such works as African Romances (1897), the African Suite (1898), and Toussaint l’ouverture (1901), a work about the 18th-century slave who fronted the Haiti liberation.
Florence B Price (b. 1887, d. 1953)
Born in Little Rock, Price would go on to become an award-winning musician and the first black woman to gain widespread recognition as a symphonic composer. She gave her first performance at the age of 4, and later went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music.
She was the director of the Clark College music department in Atlanta before moving with her family to Chicago in 1927. Her time in Chicago was a period of great creativity, and in 1932 she won the Wanamaker prize for her Symphony in E minor.
In addition to her work in the classical world, she also played the organ to accompany silent films, arranged music for the WGN Radio orchestra, and penned popular music for commercial purposes. Her musical output totals over 300 pieces, and many of her large-scale works toe the line between a more conservative Romantic nationalist style popular in the beginning of the 20th century, and the influences of the Harlem Renaissance and her own cultural heritage.
William Grant Still (b. 1895, d. 1978)
The list of William Grant Still’s historical achievements is a long one. Among other accolades, he was the first African American composer to write a symphony performed by a major American orchestra, the first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra—not only in the United States, but also in the Deep South—and the first African American composer to have an opera produced by a major American company.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was an early influence, and Still found work at the beginning of his career arranging for theatre orchestras and early radio. In 1931, the Rochester (New York) PO premiered his Afro-American Symphony, the success of which launched a stream of commissions from other major orchestras, CBS, and the New York World’s Fair.
Still drew much inspiration from the blues, which is saw as a purely African American invention, and infused his music with blues melodies, irregular phrase lengths, and blue-note inflections—all of which you can hear in Afro-American Symphony.
Margaret Bonds (b. 1913; d. 1972)
During her childhood, Bonds watched her Chicago home become a gathering place for black creativity, and it was frequently filled with artists, writers, and musicians, including Will Marion Cook and Florence Price. It’s not surprising then, that Bonds went on to study piano and composition in high school and eventually received her BM and MM from Northwestern University.
In 1933, she became the first black soloist to appear with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; in the same decade she opened the Allied Arts Academy in Chicago while continuing to perform as a pianist in both the US and Canada. A lifelong friend of and collaborator with Langston Hughes, she often set his poetry to music and strived to showcase the pride she had in African American artists. She once described her work as jazz, blues, spirituals, and Tchaikovsky all rolled into one—a sentiment that is evident in one of her most performed works, Troubled Water.
George Walker (b. 1922)
In 1996, after a decades-long, decorated career, George Theophilus Walker became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his work Lilacs. Leading up to this achievement, Walker had pursued a variety of musical endeavors.
As a student he earned degrees from Oberlin College and the Eastman School of music; Nadia Boulanger and Robert Casadesus can be counted among his teachers. For a number of years, he toured extensively in the United States and abroad as an accomplished pianist. He then went on to hold teaching posts at various institutions, including Smith College, University of Colorado, Boulder, and Rutgers University.
A number of influences can be heard in his music, including the serialism of Schoenberg, the rhythmic complexities of Stravinsky, the colorful orchestrations of Debussy and Ravel, and the black folk idioms of his own heritage.