Great jazz composers of African descent are too numerous to name here, and many of them have written works for orchestra, voice, or chamber ensemble that blur lines of genre. This amazing piece by Wynton Marsalis was co-commissioned and premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic, and this awesome work by Duke Ellington served as the score for Billie Holiday’s film debut. The below (incomplete) list focuses on composers whose compositional foundation was in the world of classical music.
Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799)
Though he may have been most famous during his lifetime as France’s best fencer, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (born Joseph de Bologne) was a great composer, conductor, and a virtuoso violinist. Born on December 25, 1745 on a plantation on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, he was the son of a slave woman of African descent and a French plantation owner. Educated in France and proving himself a prodigious talent on violin and harpsichord from an early age, the composer Antonio Lolli dedicated music to him when he was nineteen, and other works by François-Joseph Gossec and Carl Stamitz were written for him in 1766 and 1770. He became conductor of revered ensembles such as Le Concert des amateurs and Le Concert de la Loge Olympique, with which he premiered Haydn’s Paris Symphonies in 1787.
George Bridgetower (1780-1860)
The son of African and German parents, Bridgetower was another child prodigy, growing up in England and giving violin concerts in Paris, London, Bath, and Bristol by the age of 11. He later joined the retinue of the Prince of Wales (later George IV), who arranged music studies with established musicians. In 1802 Bridgetower obtained permission to travel to the Continent to visit his mother. In the Spring of 1803 he met Beethoven, who composed the Op. 47 Violin Sonata for him. Beethoven played the piano and Bridgetower played the violin at the work’s successful premiere in Vienna on May 24, 1803, but before the work was published, the two men had a disagreement. Beethoven angrily replaced Bridgetower’s name on the manuscript with that of Rodolphe Kreutzer. Bridgetower composed works for keyboard, solo voice, and other instruments.
Francis “Frank” Johnson (1792-1844)
Johnson was a virtuoso of the violin and keyed Kent bugle, and accomplished composer who introduced the concert of promenade concerts to the United States in the Antebellum period. Johnson was the first African American composer to have his works published as sheet music and to give public concerts. He also was the first African American to give public concerts and the first to participate in racially integrated concerts in the United States. He wrote more than two hundred compositions of various styles: operatic airs, Ethiopian minstrel songs, patriotic marches, ballads, cotillions, quadrilles, quicksteps and other dances, but few survive today.
José Silvestre White (1835-1918)
Praised by composers such as Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Gioacchino Rossini, José Silvestre White was an Afro-Cuban violinist who studied at the Paris Conservatory and later served as a professor there for many years. White was an accomplished soloist, performing twice with the New York Philharmonic under Theodore Thomas during the 1875-1876 season.
Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908)
Now regarded as an “autistic sawant,” Wiggins was an American slave who was a classical pianist of prodigious talent and a composer of popular songs. Blind at birth, he learned to play piano by ear at age four. His talent was exploited by slave owners his entire life, who kept control of Wiggins and the huge income he made touring as a soloist (by some accounts, Wiggins was the highest-grossing pianist of the 19th century).
Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
Joplin is Known as the “King of Ragtime,” and composed 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas over the course of his short career. “Maple Leaf Rag,” his first ragtime hit, was widely published and distributed, earning him fame as a composer and performer. His first opera was lost; his second opera Treemonisha was only partially staged in a 1915 premiere, and was not fully presented until 1972. In 1976, Joplin was pothumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)
At one time called the “African Mahler,” Coleridge-Taylor was an Afro-British composer of Creole descent. He studied the violin at the Royal College of Music and composition under Charles Villiers Stanford. He also was a faculty member of the Crystal Palace School of Music and conducted the orchestra at the Croydon Conservatoire. His career as a composer was assisted at times by Edward Elgar. He wrote Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in 1898, a composition that was performed in concert over 200 times and made his name a household word on both sides of the Atlantic.
Florence B Price (1887-1953)
Price was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. (The Chicago Symphony premiered her Symphony in E minor in 1933.) Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Price’s music draws on her southern roots. Her friendships with writer Langston Hughes and contralto Marian Anderson led to notable collaborations.
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
William Grant Still also grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and also had a strong friendship with Langston Hughes. An oboist, arranger, conductor, and composer of jazz and popular music themes, Still was the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra, the first to have a symphony performed by a leading national ensemble, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company (New York City Opera), and the first to have an opera performed on national television. Still attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and was a student of George Whitefield Chadwick and later Edgard Varèse. Jazz and the blues are incorporated extensively in his most well-known work, the Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American,” which premiered in 1931.
George Walker (b. 1922)
George Walker was the first black American composer to win the Pulitzer prize for music (for Lilacs of 1996, a work for voice and orchestra, in 1996), and is still working today. Walker studied at Oberlin Conservatory and was the first black graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, studying piano with Rudolf Serkin, chamber music with William Primrose and Gregor Piatigorsky, and composition with Samuel Barber’s teacher Rosario Scalero. Walker enjoyed a significant early career as a piano soloist (the first black soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the first black concert artist to be signed by a major management firm), and has written a large range of music, from solo keyboard works to chamber music, vocal music, and orchestral music. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999 was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2000, among a host of other awards and recognition.
Information from “Black Composers and Musicians in Classical Music History” by William J. Zick on Blackpast.org contributed to this article.