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6 Fascinating Black Classical Composers you should know!

The recent Black Lives Matter protests in the US and all over the world have triggered a positive interest in educating ourselves on understanding racism and acknowledging its prevalence in our societies. Knowledge of our history can empower us all to make the right changes to move forward and build a world that is equal, and that celebrates different cultures.

The history of music is no different, and it is impossible to not recognise the genius of a multitude of black musicians, or ignore their contributions and advancements of the art. Despite this, in the past 200 years, many black composers have almost been forgotten or overlooked, and struggled against the odds to be heard. Even now, their symphonies and operas, concertos and quartets are often ignored, and remain underperformed.

Shine Music School made its start in post apartheid South Africa, and we are well aware of the institutionalised inequalities in our everyday lives. Even so, we still have a long way to go in educating ourselves. Let’s stop being silent, stop standing by and advocate for change! Let’s uplift and support black musicians and composers. In today’s article, we look at 6 fascinating musical composers and highlight some of their works.

Listen to their music, play and perform their pieces, and applaud their contribution!

Our first composer is non other than Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799). If you are a music history buff you will have heard of him. This guy led an extraordinary life. Full of swashbuckling adventure, politics, kings, queens, drama and last but not least music! It’s the stuff of movies! Born in the French Caribbean, the son of a wealthy plantation owner and a 16 year old female slave; Joseph Bologne, or Saint-Georges (as he is better known) was brought to France at a young age by his father, where he continued to spend most of the rest of his life.

St-Georges grew up in French high society but his heritage restricted him in many ways. He was both unique because of his colour and status, but for the same reasons was never able to marry and although his musical expertise was recognised, he was not allowed to take on certain appointments, such as the director of the Académie royale de musique, the Paris Opéra.


He made a name for himself as a champion fencer, even fighting off four men in an attempted assassination for his political involvements. At one point he lived in the same house as Mozart, and indeed may have influenced his younger counterpart.  He was a prolific composer (with a multitude of operas, violin concertos, symphonies and numerous chamber works under his belt) and talented violin player. Saint-Georges even played intimate concerts for Marie Antoinette, and a performance of of his second opera, La Chasse was performed at her request at the royal chateau at Marly. He became a colonel in the French Legion during the Revolution. After the Revolution shattered France, St-Georges was forced out of the army with little to show for his accomplishments, he returned to his music, and continued to compose and perfect his violin playing. He died at the age of 53 from what seems to have be gangrene.  Read more about his music and fascinating escapade here.

 

Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869 – 1954) was the first African-American to write an opera (Epthalia, 1891) that was successfully produced. He was a composer, musician, conductor and music teacher and founded the Freeman School of Music and the Freeman School of Grand Opera. During his lifetime, he was known as “the black Wagner.”

Around 1908, Freeman moved his family to the Harlem neighbourhood of New York City where the Harlem Renaissance was just getting into swing. Freeman’s work was already well renowned and sometime in 1912, ragtime composer Scott Joplin, who was then living in New York, asked Freeman to assist in revising his three-act opera, “Treemonisha,” production of which had halted the previous year. Freeman opened a music school in New York.

Freeman composed a number of operas and other musical work, most famous, his opera Voodoo.

“The last couple of decades of his life he struggled to get any performances of his work. Almost all of his music was unpublished at the time of his death, and no recordings of his work have ever been released commercially. Twenty-one of his operas, as well as many of his other works, survive in Freeman’s own manuscripts, and are kept in a collection of his papers at Columbia University” (source)

Scott Joplin (1868 – 1917) was an American composer and pianist. Nicknamed the King of Ragtime, he was most renowned for his ragtime pieces, including his most famous composition “Maple Leaf Rag” which today would be considered the Billboard all time number one hit of ragtime. He was a prolific composer, and wrote two operas, although these were less popular, and he struggled to become recognised for his classical compositions. He taught piano, and although his popular hit helped to support him for the duration of his life, he frequently found himself in financial straits and the score to his first opera, A Guest of Honor, was confiscated in 1903 with his belongings for non-payment of bills, and is now considered lost. (source) None of his operas were performed in his lifetime, and ragtime music died with him. He was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize in the 1970s, and Treemonisha was finally performed. His ragtime compositions have influenced jazz and big band swing music.

Florence B Price (1887-1953) was a classical composer, pianist, organist and music teacher. She became the first African American woman to have a work played by a major orchestra. In 1933 the Chicago Symphony performed her Symphony in E minor for the first time. Although she is considered to be successful in her life time, her numerous compositions are rarely played today.  If you consider the era when she was writing and performing music, her accomplishments are enormous.

Florence grew up in the American south. Her family was well to do and she was a whip-smart, valedictorian of her class. She escaped some prejudice by identifying as Mexican during her studies in Boston, but later returned to the south and married only to move again during what is known as the Great Migration to escape Jim Crow conditions in the deep south.  The Price family eventually settled in Chicago. Despite the odds of being black and a woman, she studied composition, orchestration, and the organ with the best teachers in the city, and published four pieces for piano in 1928. Her marriage fell apart and Florence worked hard to support herself and her children. Price made considerable use of characteristic African-American melodies and rhythms in many of her works. (source) She won various musical awards and wrote numerous pieces for Orchestras, and for film and advertising under a pen name. Despite this she was almost forgotten until “in 2009, a substantial collection of her works and papers were found in an abandoned dilapidated house on the outskirts of St. Anne, Illinois.These consisted of dozens of her scores, including her two violin concertos and her fourth symphony. As Alex Ross stated in The New Yorker in February 2018, “not only did Price fail to enter the canon; a large quantity of her music came perilously close to obliteration. That run-down house in St. Anne is a potent symbol of how a country can forget its cultural history.” (source)

Her work has currently received some more airplay and recognition:

Francis “Frank” Johnson (1792 – 1844) was another prolific African-American composer during the Antebellum period. You can read more about that time period in our article on The Banjo. African American composers were scarce in America during this period, but Johnson was among the few who were successful. This guy could do it all! Performing on the (now rare) keyed Kent bugle and the violin, he wrote hundreds of compositions in a multitude of styles— Operatic airs, Ethiopian minstrel songs, patriotic marches and various dances. Johnson was the first African American composer to have his works published as sheet music. His dance music was published and played at balls across the country. Only his manuscripts and piano transcripts survive today. He even performed for Queen Victoria. He also was the first African American to give public concerts and the first to participate in racially integrated concerts in the United States.
Since no actual recordings of his work exist and critic of the day did not go into much details, historians surmise that Johnsons work included many details which are not recorded on the actual publications of his transcripts. According to wikipedia:

“Available accounts show that his composition and playing must have had qualities which cannot be reconstructed from the surviving manuscripts. Historical accounts suggest that his performances infused stylistic rhythmic changes, differing from the written versions, which were either inferred by performers or instructed verbally. This is presumed to be similar to the improvisations made by jazz musicians today, although the current practices and idioms are probably vastly different from the ones used by Johnson. He was able to create interesting music, harmonies, and effects that differed from the diatonic harmonies and triadic melodies that were popular at that time.”

His performances must have been something to see!

And finally  George Walker, (1922 -2018), was the first black American classical composer to be awarded the Pulitzer prize for music (for Lilacs, a piece for voice and orchestra, in 1996) while still alive. Walker balanced a career as a concert pianist, teacher, and composer. He was a man of firsts,  first black instrumentalist to appear with the Philadelphia Orchestra, first black instrumentalist to be signed by a major management, the National Concert Artists. He became first black recipient of a doctoral degree from Eastman School of Music and the list goes on! Walkers’ body of work included over 90 works for orchestra, chamber orchestra, piano, strings, voice, organ, clarinet, guitar, brass, woodwinds, and chorus. However, for all his accomplishments, he still remains a cult figure in the world of contemporary composition. (read more here)

EDUCATE YOURSELF ON THIS TOPIC WITH MORE READING!

More composers you can learn about:

An interesting discussion on Florence Price:

A list of living black composers:

Protest music and current anthems for Black Lives Matter: