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5 Black Composers Who Transformed Classical Music
When you think of Black music, what genres come to mind? Jazz, blues, gospel, rock and roll, R&B, and hip-hop might come up, but what about classical music? Although Black Americans have helped shape the genre, their contributions have been undervalued and ignored throughout time. Historically, artists globally associated with the genre have predominantly been white men—Mozart, Igor Stravinsky, Beethoven are among those celebrated as geniuses. In the U.S., it’s been no different. White men continue to dominate and represent today’s classical scene, although Black Americans like Jonathan Bailey Holland, Jessie Montgomery, Anthony R. Green , and 2021 Guggenheim Composition Fellow Nkeiru Okoye are heavily influencing the contemporary genre.
The music of these brilliant Black American composers has too long been neglected in the American classical music tradition, but this month GRAMMY.com is celebrating some of the most famous and influential Black composers in classical music history. Below find a list of Black musicians, from Scott Joplin to Florence Price, who transformed classical music.
Scott Joplin (1868 - 1917)
At the turn of the 20th century, Scott Joplin the "king of Ragtime" was one of the most influential American composers. During his career, Joplin wrote over 100 ragtime pieces, a ragtime ballet, and two operas. He rose to national fame after releasing one of his best-known works, Maple Leaf Rag, ragtime's first hit and the standard example of the music's genre. Although Joplin did not invent ragtime, he became the genre's most gifted composer by creating harmonies, sporadic syncopations and complex bass patterns that composers still mimic today.
Joplin's death in 1917 marked the end of ragtime as a mainstream musical format. In the early 1920s, the genre evolved into other styles including stride, swing, jazz, and classical. In the early 1970s, Joplin's compositions were revitalized when American Conductor Joshua Rifkin released his pieces as classical music recordings. The album was nominated for two GRAMMY Awards (Best Album Notes and Best Instrumental Soloist Performance) and sold more than a million copies. This was followed by the 1973 production of The Sting, a film featuring several of Joplin's compositions including "The Entertainer" and "Solace."
Florence Price (1887 - 1953)
In 1933, Florence Price became the first African American woman to have her symphony premiered by a major orchestra. When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered Symphony No. 1, the composer was one of the most celebrated composers of her time. Her musical style, a mixture of classic European music, Black spirituals and the rhythms associated with the African Juba dance drove well-known artists of the day to perform her work. Even Contralto Marian Anderson would regularly close her concerts with pieces Price arranged. Most notably, Anderson performed Price's arrangement of My Soul's Been Anchored in de Lord at her famous Lincoln Memorial Concert in 1939.
Price composed over 300 works ranging from symphonies, concertos, chamber music, piano pieces, vocal compositions, and radio music. After her death, the majority of Price's music was forgotten until the Women's Philharmonic created an album of Price's work in 2001. Eight years later more than two-thirds of Price's manuscripts were discovered in an abandoned house in St. Anne, Illinois. The compositions included dozens of musical scores including two violin concertos and her last symphony. Today Price's work is being remembered and slowly regaining attention. Her rediscovered manuscripts reside in the University of Arkansas Library where musicians can access and play her work.
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
William Grant Still, also known as the "dean of Afro-American composers," is considered to be one of the most prominent American contributors in classical music for the many firsts he achieved throughout his career. In 1931, Grant became the first African American to have a symphony performed by a professional orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic. Four years later, he became the first Black composer to conduct a major American orchestra with his music and to have an opera performed by a major opera company.
Still’s compositional career flourished despite operating in a predominantly white profession, and throughout it he highlighted Black Americans (the Afro-American Symphony; Lenox Avenue; the ballet Sahdji; and the opera The Troubled Island with a libretto by Langston Hughes). At a time where jazz and blues were considered low-brow music, Still blended classical European music with jazz, blues and spirituals. He wrote over 150 compositions including operas, symphonies, ballets, chamber works, and film scores. Today, Still is considered to be among the greatest American composers ever.
George Walker (1922 - 2018)
In 1996, Walker became the first African American composer to receive a Pulitzer Prize for music for his Walt Whitman song-cycle "Lilacs." The onset of his career is filled with stories of "firsts." He was the first Black graduate of the Curtis Institute of Philadelphia, as well as the first among his peers to have his compositions performed by every major orchestra in the United States. The composer rose to fame after publishing Address for Orchestra, his most performed orchestral work to date.
Although jazz, folk songs and hymns influenced Walker's musical style, most of his work pays homage to Europe's 20th-century classical music style. Adamant he should be seen as an American composer rather than a Black composer, Walker experimented with sounds that resembled his white contemporaries. Walker composed nearly 100 compositions ranging from symphonies, concertos, and solo piano pieces. Later in his career, he decided to pursue teaching, working at some of the most distinguished schools in the country, including the New School, Rutgers University, University of Delaware, and Smith College where he was named the first Black tenured faculty member.
James Lee III (1975 -)
This modern pianist and composer's history is still being written. Lee, who is considered to be one of the most promising young composers of his time, has been commissioned for orchestral works since earning his D.M.A. in composition in 2005 from the University of Michigan. He rose to national prominence a year later after his dissertation Beyond Rivers of Vision premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
In the past decade, Lee has written over 80 works including orchestral and band works, chamber ensembles, solo pianos, and vocal pieces with 14 new pieces due to be premiered. Lee's musical styles include European classical music and sacred music. Lee, a proud Seventh-Day Adventist has mentioned his faith plays a major role in his musical inspiration. His best-known orchestral works include Sukkot Through Orion's Nebula, and Night Visions of Kippur, a piece inspired by the biblical book of Daniel. He is currently a Professor of Music at Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD.