Though historically overlooked, there is much that is owed to the Black composers who’ve made their mark in history. It’s not just in the Jazz world that we owe a lot to Black artists, but in the classical music world as well. From bebop and blues to concertos and chamber music, the long history of black composers has been instrumental and groundbreaking. Pushing the boundaries of convention and challenging stereotypes, these talented men and women revolutionized and played a critical and formative role in the history of classical music.
However, in spite of their creative talent, originality, and distinctive sound; Black classical composers unfortunately had their careers hampered by racial prejudice and societal discrimination. As a result, many of them have been forgotten about through the annals of time, only to have their talents more clearly recognized after their deaths. In honor of Black History Month, we are celebrating some of the most famous and influential Black composers throughout classical music history, as well as exploring the amazing music they have given us.
#1. Florence Price (1887-1953)
Florence Price was a composer of the modern era having been born on April 9, 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas to a dentist father and music teacher mother. She showed a real talent for music at a very young age by performing her first piano recital at age four and writing her first piece of music at eleven. She was also incredibly bright and graduated from high school at age fourteen, then immediately attended the distinguished New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Despite being made to feel uncomfortable as a Black student at NEC, Price graduated from the school in 1906 with honors, a teaching certificate, and an artist diploma in the organ before heading down to Atlanta to begin teaching at the historically Black college, Clark University.
While teaching at Clark, she met a lawyer named Thomas J. Price (who actually had a practice back in her hometown of Little Rock), and the two quickly fell in love. Price married Thomas in 1912 and the two moved back to Little Rock together, forcing her to leave her teaching position at Clark and bringing about a hiatus in her composing. Price would go on to have two daughters, but during the 1920s, a series of lynchings and Jim Crow laws shook Little Rock and the family ended up moving to Chicago to escape the violence of the south.
In Chicago, Price quickly became a participant in what became known as the Chicago Black Renaissance. She then swiftly became friends with many other great Black artists and leaders like Fredrick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Catherine Dunham, and Marion Anderson. Price once again started writing music and published four pieces in 1928 alone, while also returning to a handful of schools in Chicago as a student. In 1931, after years of dealing with her husband’s abuse and his constant financial troubles, the two divorced, leaving Price a single mother to her two daughters.
To make ends meet, Price composed commercial music such as radio advertisements, and played as an organist for silent film screenings. During this time, she also moved in with her good friend Margaret Bonds who was a really talented musician and composer herself. In 1932, both Price and Bonds achieved national fame when they came in first and second respectively for the Wanamaker Prize for composing. Price’s piece, her symphony in E Minor for organ, was a real hit and even inspired the Chicago Symphony to ask her to orchestrate the piece for full orchestra. The CSO gave the piece its world premiere on June 15, 1933, making Price the first Black woman to ever have a piece played by a major orchestra.
Price went on to write numerous more works for a wide variety of ensembles throughout her life, and had many pieces that achieved wide acclaim including four symphonies, three piano concertos, and a series of songs for her close friend Marion Anderson. Despite her incredible talent and long list of important compositions following her death in 1953, Price’s works began to fade into obscurity. Almost to the point of being completely forgotten about by audiences that were craving wider and more contemporary music.
After increased interest in her work in the late 90s and early 2000s, a lucky break for humanity occurred in 2009 when a large collection of Price’s manuscripts were found in an abandoned home in Saint Anne, Illinois; these included copies of her lost fourth symphony and two violin concertos. Thankfully, in the last decade, Price’s works are being performed by American symphony orchestras more and more and finally starting to get the attention and recognition that they are worthy of.
#2. Francis Johnson (1792-1844)
Francis B. Johnson was a musician, composer, and band master born in 1792 in Martinique in the West Indies. Little is known of his early life, but it is believed that he received training from an Irish keyed bugle soloist by the name of Richard Willis, who later took on the leadership position at West Point. At age 17, Johnson had emigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and had already mastered the key bugle and violin. By his early 20s, he was building a reputation as a band leader in Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania. Johnson gained greater popularity after a music publisher, George Willick, published his collection of New Cotillion in 1817. This was the first instance of a Black band leader having his musical compositions published. By 1818, 26 year-old Johnson had become a leading dance band conductor for Philadelphia’s high society. During the 1820s, Johnson’s band performed at the city’s most popular dance venues: schools, private parties, and balls. Prominent military regiments like the Washington Guards Company three band and the state first troupe, Philadelphia City Cavalry, also hired Johnson’s ensemble.
Though Johnson and his band were quite successful in Philadelphia and throughout the US, they sought to expand their audience and their musical knowledge by traveling abroad. In 1837, Johnson made a public announcement that he and a small portion of his band were planning to travel overseas to Europe; this was the first time ever that African-American musicians toured Europe. They also had the pleasure of playing at Buckingham Palace and one of the audience members was Victoria, right around the time that she was crowned Queen of England. While in Europe they also studied different styles, enhanced their music library, and continued to play concerts. In 1838, they returned to the US during the Christmas holidays and began giving promenade concerts fashioned after the French style. Johnson’s band toured throughout the US including Detroit, Ann Arbor, Louisville, Cleveland, as well as parts of Canada. Regardless of the renowned success, they were still refused entry into some states, such as Missouri, due to racial prejudice.
Although he was extremely successful in the White community, Johnson maintained a presence within the Black community as well. He would conduct pieces by Haydn and Handel at local black churches. He showed racial pride when he composed the “Recognition March on the Independence of Hayti” in response to the Haitian Revolution, he also composed the “Grave of the Slave" in response to the Abolitionist Movement in America. With all his success, Johnson could not escape the racial persecution that permeated within his era; at times, all-white bands would refuse to perform in parades that Johnson’s bands were invited to. After concerts in Pittsburgh, Johnson’s band was followed by a mob that threw stones and rocks at his group while shouting racial slurs. During his prolific career, Johnson composed over 200 musical arrangements and various styles including Cotillions, operatic airs, ballads, quadrilles, patriotic marches, quick steps, and other forms of ballroom music.
At the end of his life, Johnson became very ill and could no longer perform as frequently, but instead he composed more music. Johnson died in 1844 and his funeral was attended by hundreds of African-Americans from the community. His band continued to play even after his death and they named themselves the Frank Johnson String and Brass Band. The band ended during the American Civil War and to this day, Johson is recognized by some researchers as the forefather of ragtime and jazz.
#3. George Bridgetower (1778 – 1860)
There aren’t too many musicians who can say that Beethoven composed a piece for them, but George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower can say just that. He was born in Poland to a German mother and West Indian father. Both his parents served European aristocrats which meant that George grew up in a castle complete with a puppet theater and opera house. Like Mozart, he was a child prodigy and toured with his violin to places such as Bath, Bristol, and London.
George came to Trinity Hall in 1811 at the age of 30 to complete a bachelor's degree in music. To earn this, he had to do an exercise which involved writing a musical composition to poetry and performing it with a full orchestra at Great St. Mary's Church. Fluent in English, German, French, Italian and Polish he mixed with royalty and musicians across Europe. He was a great friend of Beethoven who called him a virtuoso and composed for him, “A Sonata for Pianoforte in A.” George even made some alterations to the violin part which Beethoven responded to by saying, "Once more, dear fellow!” in German. Unfortunately George and Beethoven fell out after George insulted a female friend of Beethoven's. Beethoven was so incensed that he actually scratched out the dedication to George and gave it to another violinist called Kreutzer who didn't even attempt to play the piece saying that it was too hard.
Since his death at the age of 81 in Peckham in South London there have been many more dedications to George that haven't been scratched out, dedications that appear in films, plays and even in a jazz opera. Looking back on the life of George Bridgetower it is truly amazing how excellent this man was. It is interesting and unfortunate that throughout history many, many Black people have been omitted, scratched out or censored. Today however, there are many who are curating and remembering someone who was an excellent violinist, an excellent person in the field of classical music, and it's just a representation of how Black excellence continues to thrive today.
#4. George Walker (1922 – 2018)
In 1996, George Walker became the first Black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in music. He was also the first Black graduate of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia in 1945, the first Black musician to play New York’s Town Hall in the same year, the first Black recipient of a doctorate from the Eastman School in 1955, and the first Black faculty member to receive tenure at Smith College in 1961. There have been many firsts in George Walker's remarkable life that the challenges facing him to excel as a composer, growing up in the time that he did, as a African-American, were really extraordinary. He was active for many, many years and he's evolved past a lot of the questions of what a black man could do then and it put him in a position to be part of the pantheon of great American composers of the late 20th century.
George Walker was born in Washington DC in 1922 and began taking piano lessons at the age of five. He had no particular interest in music at the time, but in his household he was taught that when you commit to something, you should see it through. His father Dr. George T. Walker was a prominent physician and one of Washington DC's first Black doctors. His father supported him by taking him to piano lessons twice a week and would sit in the car until his lessons were finished. The moment George decided where he wanted to go to college, he knew he had to concentrate on music. He knew at the time that he wanted to be a concert pianist, but he had no idea what composition even consisted of or how to become one. As a classical pianist in the US, there were also a lot of doors that were closed to him. After graduating from Oberlin College at 18 and graduating from the famed Curtis Institute of Music, George Walker accomplished his goal.
Toward the end of his time at Curtis, Walker composed what became one of his most popular pieces, the “Lyric For Strings”. In the 1960s, George accepted a teaching position at Rutgers University in Newark and the Walker family moved to Montclair, New Jersey. George’s children would also eventually grow to become successful in music as well. Ian Walker was an award-winning playwright and co-founder and playwright-in-residence at Second Winds Productions in San Francisco. Gregory Walker was an accomplished violinist and composer in his own right and in 2009, he premiered his father's violin concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
For his 90th birthday in 2012, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra along with the Pittsburgh Symphony and the National Symphony in Washington DC commissioned George Walker to write a new piece. George had a fairly long relationship with this orchestra and they premiered a piece of his for the opening of the NJPAC. George believed it very important that his music should have a certain seriousness about it and a certain scope. What he felt was important music on a purely musical level, created by black composers, simply did not exist. He always thought in universal terms of not just what is Black or what is American but simply what has quality.
#5. Jessie Montgomery (1981-Present)
Born in 1981 in New York, composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side which is known for its cultural diversity, artistic experimentation, and rebellious nature. Despite this, composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery most strongly identifies with European classical music.
Starting violin lessons when she was only four years old at the Third Street Music School, Montgomery wrote her first original compositions seven years later. She soon became totally immersed in string quartets, playing in several ensembles as well as eventually writing for them. She later received an undergraduate degree in violin performance from The Juilliard School. After her graduation, she performed for five years with the Providence String Quartet and then with the Catalyst Quartet. Since her late teens, she worked closely with The Sphinx Organization, a non-profit developer of young Black and Latino classical musicians, and has been a two-time laureate in the annual Sphinx Competition.
While classical music has been Montgomery’s primary focus in life, she was not afraid to immerse herself in the many other kinds of musical activities that have transpired around her. What sets Montgomery’s own music apart from so many of her previous work as well as her peers, is how involved she has been in the performance of works from other composers. That unique knowledge has given her more than just an ability to write music for strings, but it has also helped her to understand the mindset of classical interpreters and to create music that allows for greater spontaneity and a little less formality.
Another defining attribute of Montgomery’s music are the narratives woven through so many of her compositions, even though she has written exclusively for instruments and mainly for strings. This is because her compositions initially grew directly out of her playing, but now they have evolved beyond it. She obtained a master’s in composition and film scoring from New York University and credits that experience with taking her out of her comfort zone of writing only for strings. From 2011-2012, while she was the Van Lier Composer Fellow at the American Composers Orchestra, she composed a quartet for four wind instruments. Montgomery also made her compositions stand out by using audible ciphers with references to materials with which most of her listeners would be familiar with and showcase specific associations. Although she is widely known as a composer today, she still considers herself primarily a violinist as it was her first love.
We hope you learned something interesting from composers who are often historically overlooked as these are just a few of the many Black composers who’ve made their mark in history. We are fortunate to be able to celebrate some of the most famous and influential Black composers throughout classical music history, as well as explore the beautiful music they have given us!