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Celebrating Black Artists for Black History Month – Music

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

5 Inspiring Black Composers

A poster installation on Black Lives Matter Blvd in Washington DC, Photo by  Obi Onyeador, Unsplash
A poster installation on Black Lives Matter Blvd in Washington DC, Photo by Obi Onyeador, Unsplash

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.

Portrait of Woodson from West Virginia Collegiate Institute's El Ojo yearbook (1923)
Carter G. Woodson in 1923

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.

Frederick Douglass in 1879
Frederick Douglass in 1879

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

Saint-Georges by Mather Brown, 1787
Saint-Georges by Mather Brown, 1787

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 Bridgetower

George Bridgetower, unsigned watercolor, 1800
George Bridgetower, unsigned watercolor, 1800

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 Price

Florence Price, 1942
Florence Price, 1942

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.

Margaret Bonds
Margaret Bonds

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.