10 Black Composers You Should Know
Despite working in the classical genre throughout its history, works by Black composers have been overlooked for centuries.
Today, when we think of classical music, names such as Mozart, Brahms, Wagner, and Rachmaninoff may spring to mind. Their famed works, along with those written by their contemporaries, make up much of the classical canon. However, the works of Black composers are little known to classical audiences.
The written tradition of classical music, which began in western Europe, has a long history. Since at least the ninth century, composers have been writing complex art music. The classical genre was initially supported by churches and royal courts and focused heavily on vocals and religious subject matter. By the 17th century, the use of tonality — the relationship between notes, chords, and keys — became common in classical composition. This led to a greater emphasis on musical instruments in classical music resulting in larger performance ensembles, and underpinned the genre’s style for the next 250 years.
The attitudes of common-practice period composers and conductors have largely shaped the perception of the genre, which doesn’t reflect the breadth of diversity within classical music. Despite working in the genre throughout its history, Black composers were often overlooked by orchestras and music publishers. As a result, their works are not part of the standard classical concert repertoire and an untold number of compositions have been lost. In recent years, older works have been rediscovered and contemporary composers have gained traction with audiences as performance ensembles seek to be more diverse. Read on for a list of 10 Black composers whose music you should know.
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, Florence Price composed over 300 works, including four symphonies and four concertos. She studied organ performance and piano teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music and, after graduating, was briefly the head of the music department at a college in Atlanta. She married and returned to her hometown in 1912, but moved her family to Chicago during the Great Migration in 1927. In 1932, Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor won first prize in the Rodman Wanamaker Competition and was later included in a program with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This made her the first Black woman to have a composition played by a major American orchestra.
George Walker, born in 1922, was an American composer and pianist. He was admitted to the Oberlin Conservatory at age 14 and learned composition from Rosario Scalero, who also taught composer Samuel Barber. Walker became the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 1996 work, Lilacs. He published over 90 compositions during his lifetime — including pieces commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony — which were influenced by poetry, jazz music, folk songs, and hymns. Walker’s most performed composition, Lyric for Strings, was written while he was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
William Grant Still
Often referred to as the “Dean of Afro-American Composers,” William Grant Still composed nearly 200 works, including five symphonies, four ballets, nine operas, and over 30 choral compositions. Born in small-town Mississippi in 1895, Still accomplished many firsts — most notably becoming the first Black person to a major American orchestra after he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance of his own works.
Jessie Montgomery is a composer and violinist born and raised in New York. Her output includes solo compositions, as well as chamber, orchestral, and vocal works. In 2014, she was commissioned to write Banner, a rhapsody on the theme of “The Star Spangled Banner” in tribute to its 200th anniversary. Described as a “musical melting pot,” Banner blends folk and protest music with spirituals and Latin styles to create a work reflective of modern America.
Chevalier de Saint-Georges
The story of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges is the stuff of legend. He was born in the French colony of Guadeloupe as Joseph Boulogne, the son of a married plantation owner and an enslaved Senegalese woman. He was educated in France where he was known as a champion fencer who beat fencing master Alexandre Picard at age 15 — for this he was appointed gendarme de la garde and knighted by King Louis XVI, earning the title of chevalier. Saint-Georges joined Le Concert de Amateurs in 1969 as a violinist. He was appointed the orchestra’s concertmaster and began composing his own works just two years later. Saint-Georges composed 14 violin concertos, two symphonies, and several sinfonia concertantes and operas.
Adolphus Hailstork III
Adolphus Hailstork III is an American composer and music educator. Born in Rochester, New York, Hailstork studied composition at Howard University and attended the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau in Paris where he studied with famed conductor Nadia Boulanger, who also taught the likes of Aaron Copland and Astor Piazzolla. Hailstork’s oeuvre contains works for chorus, chamber ensemble, band, and orchestra that combine styles from African, American, and European musical traditions.
Valerie Coleman is a composer and flutist from Louisville, Kentucky. She began her formal music education at age 11 and had written three full-length symphonies by age 14. As a leading contemporary composer, her works often incorporate jazz and Afro-Cuban styles and explore social and political themes. Her most performed composition, Ujoma, was originally written for chorus as a celebration of the first day of Kwanzaa but has since been arranged for wind trio as well as flute, brass, and string quartet.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, born in 1875, was a Black British composer and conductor. He sought to incorporate African music into the classical tradition, taking inspiration from the compositional styles of Brahms and Dvořák. He was championed by Elgar during his early career and is best known for the choral work Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson was an American composer who worked in the classical, jazz, and pop genres and wrote scores for film and television. Born in 1932, Perkinson was named after British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and studied music and composition at the Manhattan School of Music and Princeton University. He served as the music director for several dance and theater companies, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and arranged music for popular singers Marvin Gaye and Harry Belafonte.
Contemporary classical composer Carlos Simon was born in Washington, D.C., but raised in Atlanta. The son of a preacher, Simon was forbidden to listen to secular music at home. He began formal piano training at age 10 and credits the improvisational quality of gospel music as an influence on his own compositions. Currently the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ composer-in-residence, Simon’s works incorporate activist themes and address social justice issues.
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