Updated: Mar 16, 2022
5 Inspiring Black Composers
The Beginnings of Black History Month
In the U.S. and Canada, February is Black History Month, an annual observance in honor of the history and accomplishments of the African Diaspora. (The African Diaspora is made up of the worldwide collection of communities descended from native Africans or people from Africa, predominantly in the Americas.) In the U.K., Ireland, and the Netherlands, it is celebrated in October.
Black History Month's origins go back to the summer of 1915. Historian, author, journalist, and founder of founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Carter G. Woodson (Dec. 19, 1875 – April 3, 1950), an alumnus of the University of Chicago, traveled from Washington, D.C. to Chicago to participate in a national celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation sponsored by the state of Illinois. Thousands of African Americans from across the US. came to see exhibits highlighting the progress their people had made since the end of slavery. Woodson, who had graduated with his Ph.D. in history from Harvard in 1912, presented a display featuring black history.
In 1924, Woodson, along with is Omega Psi Phi Fraternity brothers, helped to found Negro History and Literature Week, later renamed Negro Achievement Week, which was the second week of February.This week was chosen because it coincided with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865) and of social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writers, and statesman Frederick Douglass (c. Feb. 1818 – Feb. 20, 1895). Due to his contributions to the preservation, collection, and dissemination of Black history, Woodson came to be known as the "Father of Black History."
Black History Month was first proposed by black educators and the Black United Students at Kent State University in Ohio Feb 1969. The first celebration of Black History Month took place at Kent State the following year, 1970. Six years later, in 1976, celebration of Black History Month had spread across the U.S. and President Gerald Ford (July 14, 1913 – Dec. 26, 2006) recognized it as part of the U.S. Bicentennial.
While one post, article, or even month can not encapsulate the significant contributions that Black artists have made to arts history, it's a start. The following list meant to be a starting place and by no means all-encompassing. Today, we will discuss five Black orchestral composers. They are ordered chronologically by birth year not ranked. To learn more about Black arts history, I encourage you to explore the stories including Black artists before the 20th century, the Harlem Renaissance, the creation of Jazz culture, Gospel music, the evolution of Hip Hop as art and culture, and many more topics. See the Further Reading links at the bottom on this post for some informative pages.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (Joseph Bologne de Saint-George) (December 25, 1745 – June 12, 1799) is best remembered as the first classical composer of African ancestry. His father was a wealthy planter in the French colonies in the Caribbean and his mother was an African slave. He was born on Guadeloupe. At the age of seven, he after brought him to boarding school in France. Two years later, his father returned to France with Negresse Nanon (Joseph's mother) and the family lived together in Paris. At the age of 13, his father enrolled him at the l'Académie royale polytechnique des armes et de ‘l’équitation (fencing and horsemanship). Upon graduating, he was made an officer of the king’s bodyguard. (Chevalier de Saint-Georges means horsemen of Saint George.) As a swordsmen, he was known to the be finest swordsman in Europe. He fought many exhibition matches with only one known loss. During the French Revolution, Saint-Georges served as Colonel of 1,000 volunteers of color. He was imprisoned for 11 months on false charges then later acquitted. At the end of life, he found comfort in his music. He wrote, "Towards the end of my life, I was particularly devoted to my violin, never before did I play it so well!
Not much is known about his musical training, but he was a virtuoso on the violin and also performed on harpsichord and worked as a conductor. He composed numerous string quartets, symphonies, and other instrumental pieces but loved the theater had a passion for composing operas. You can listen to and watch excerpts from his lone surviving opera, L'Amant anonyme (The Anonymous Lover), by Opera Ritrovata.
George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (Oct. 11, 1778 – Feb. 29, 1860) was an Afro-European virtuoso violinist and composer, who lived in England much of his life. He was born in Poland to a Polish mother and and West Indian father. He was a child prodigy and was performing as a violinist by the age of 10. When he was 13, the British Prince Regent (later King George IV) heard him perform and was so impressed that he oversaw Bridgetower's continuing musical education.
Bridgetower met and performed with Beethoven in Vienna 1803. Beethoven was so impressed with his immense talent that he dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major (Op.47) to him, with the dedication "Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer, gran pazzo e compositore mulattico" ("Mulatto sonata composed for the mulatto Bridgetower, great lunatic and mulatto composer." The two debuted the work with Bridgetower sight-reading. However, the two musicians soon got in an argument over a lady and Beethoven rescinded the dedication, instead dedicating the piece to another prominent violinist, Rudolphe Kreutzer (Nov. 15, 1766 – Jan. 6 1831), who never performed it, said that the music was “outrageously unintelligible." Watch a performance of this Sonata properly called the 'Bridgetower' Sonata presented by the Chineke! Foundation which supports up-and-coming Black and ethnically diverse musicians in the UK and Europe.
After performing across Europe, Bridgtower returned to England, where he was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians in 1807 and attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he earned the degree of Bachelor of Music in 1811. He married Mary Leech Leeke in 1816 and continued his music career as a music teacher, performer, and composer. He performed in the Philharmonic Society (later the Royal Philharmonic Society) of London's first season in 1813, leading the performance of Beethoven's String Quintet. In his later years, he continued to rather between England and the continent, particularly to Italy where his daughter lived. However, his popularity eventually faded and he died in relative obscurity and poverty in 1860.
Unfortunately, only two of his musical compositions are known to have survived. A song for piano and voice and a set of piano exercises. You can watch the first (and only) digitally documented performance of this song, Henry, presented by the Indictus Project, who aims to expand art music of all eras through inclusivity and equity.
Florence Beatrice Price (née Smith; April 9, 1887 – June 3, 1953) was born in Little Rock, Arkansas to a music teacher mother and a dentist father. Florence eventually went on to study at the new England Conservatory of Music, majoring in Piano and Organ and graduating with honors. After graduating, she briefly returned to Arkansas to teach. Shortly after, she moved to Atlanta and became the head of the music department of what is now Clark Atlanta University.
In 1912, she married Thomas J. Price, a lawyer, and the young couple returned to Little Rock where he had his practice. Back in Arkansas, Price was denied membership to the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association even though she more than qualified. She began an independent teaching studio, offering piano lessons, music theory, and composing short studies for her students. Also, she founded the Little Rock Club of Musicians and taught music at segregated Black schools.
After a series of racial incidents in Little Rock, particularly a lynching of a black man in 1927, the Price family decided it was safer to leave. Like many southern Black families, they moved north in the Great Migration to escape Jim Crow conditions. The Prices made their home in Chicago.
In Chicago, Florence began her career as a composer. She was able to continue to studies and was at various times enrolled at various institutions around the city, including the Chicago Musical College, Chicago Teacher’s College, University of Chicago, and American Conservatory of Music, studying languages and liberal arts subjects as well as music. She studied composition, orchestration, and organ with the leading teachers in the city and published four pieces for piano in 1928.
In 1931, Price divorced her husband, who had become abusive and began composing seriously to support herself and her two children. To make ends meet, she worked as an accompanying organist for silent film screenings and composed songs for radio ads under a pen name. She also began to compose in larger forms and for larger ensembles; up until that point, her works had consisted mostly of songs, short pieces, and children's music. She lived with friends during this time, eventually living with her student, friend, and fellow
Black pianist and composer, Margaret Bonds (March 3, 1913 – April 26, 1972). Bonds introduced Price to Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes (Feb. 1, 1901 – May 22, 1967) and contralto Marian Anderson (Feb. 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993) who was the first Black singer to perform at The Metropolitan Opera.
In 1932, Price finally received recognition as she won several prizes at the Wanamaker Music Composition Contest: first prize in the orchestral category for Symphony in E minor (1931-2), the first prize in the solo instrumental category for Piano Sonata (1931). Two of her other works, the orchestral work Ethiopia’s Shadow in America and the Piano Fantasie were mentioned in as well. Margaret Bonds won first prize in the song category for Sea Ghost (1932).
Her successes attracted the attention of the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock, who conducted a performance of her First Symphony with the CSO on June 15, 1933 at the Century of Progress Exhibition. Price became established as a note-worthy composer. She was the first Black women to have a symphonic work performed by a major American orchestra. The First Symphony received rave reviews. The Chicago Daily News wrote, "It is a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion … worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory."
The First Symphony introduced the world to Price's unique compositional style. Her music echoed both the European art tradition and the African-American folk tradition. She incorporated African American cultural elements such as rhythmic syncopation, spiritual melodies, Gospel music, polyphony, blue notes, the pentatonic scale, as well as African instruments such as the marimba. Watch the first movement of the First Symphony in E minor as presented by the Chineke! Foundation. Notice the use of spiritual melodies and blue notes. This is uniquely North American music.
Even with her successes, Price struggled to pay her bills and was often supported financially by friends. She suffered from poor health most of her adult life and had substantial medical costs. In May 1953, her work was gaining momentum internationally, and she was scheduled to travel to Europe to promote her music. Unfortunately, she suffered a heart attack before her trip and died on June 3, 1953.
William Grant Still
William Grant Still Jr. (May 11, 1895 – Dec. 3, 1978) was a prolific composer of more than 200 works, including five symphonies, four ballets, eight operas, over thirty choral works, plus many songs, solo works, and chamber pieces. He has been called the "Dean of Afro-American Composers." He is primarily known for his first symphony, Afro-American Symphony (1930) which like Price's First Symphony features distinctively Afro-American musical influences. Due to his close association and collaboration with prominent African-American literary and cultural figures, Still is considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance movement. Watch a performance by the Camellia Symphony Orchestra from Sacramento, CA.
Still accomplished many firsts in his lifetime. He was the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera. He was also the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony (his First Symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, and the first to have an opera performed on national television.
Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi and, like Price, grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. His mother was an English teacher and his father was a partner in a grocery store and a band leader who died when Still was two. His step-father Charles B. Shepperson nurtured his musical interests by taking William to operettas and buying him recordings of classical music. Still didn't begin violin lessons until he was 15. He also taught himself to play clarinet, saxophone, oboe, double bass, cello, and viola.
After high school, Still attended Wilberforce University to study science and medicine at the urging of his mother. However, after receiving a small amount of money left to him by his father, he left Wilberforce without graduating and went to Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Still worked for the school assisting the janitor, along with other odd jobs to support himself though he still struggled financially. His professors saw so much potential in him that his composition teacher taught him without charge. Still went on to be a student of French-born composer and electronic music pioneer Edgard Varèse (Dec. 22, 1883 – Nov. 6, 1965).
While at Wilberforce, Still married fellow student Grace Bundy and they had four children. The couple separated in 1932 and divorced in 1939. On Feb. 8, 1939 he married pianist and librettist Verna Arvey (Feb. 16, 1910 – Nov. 22, 1987) in Mexico as interracial marriage was illegal in California where they lived. They had two children. The couple collaborated throughout their 40+ year marriage.
In 1970, Still’s health began to decline. He spent his last years in a convalescent home. He died in Los Angeles on Dec. 3, 1978, and his ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean. On Dec. 1, 1976, his Los Angeles home was designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #169. It is located at 1262 Victoria Avenue in Oxford Square, Los Angeles.