Classical music has been shaped by the genius of countless composers. However, the contributions of Black composers in classical music have often been overlooked or underrepresented in mainstream narratives. Delve into our list of 10 remarkable Black composers (among many more) who have changed—or are changing—the face of classical music.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799): “Black Mozart”
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a virtuoso violinist and composer in 18th-century Europe. His symphonies and operas not only showcased his exceptional talent but also shattered racial barriers, leaving an indelible mark on European classical music history. The Afro-Caribbean influences in Saint-Georges’ compositions reflect a cross-cultural dialogue that continues to influence classical music to this day.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912): Weaving Melodic Unity
Born in London to a British mother and a Sierra Leonean father, Coleridge-Taylor rose to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a classical composer and conductor. His most celebrated work, the cantata trilogy Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, drew inspiration from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha. This masterpiece garnered international acclaim, solidifying Coleridge-Taylor’s status as one of Britain’s foremost composers of his time, and serves as a musical testament to his gift for intertwining European classical traditions with the rhythmic cadence of African melodies.
Florence Price (1887–1953): A Symphonic Trailblazer
A pioneering figure in classical music, Florence Price broke barriers as the first African-American woman to have her composition performed by a major orchestra. That groundbreaking composition, Symphony No. 1 in E minor, stands as a sonic masterpiece, blending lush romanticism with spiritual richness and leaving an indelible mark on classical music.
William Grant Still (1895–1978): “The Dean of African-American Composers”
William Grant Still, often referred to as the “Dean of African-American Composers,” achieved monumental success with his Afro-American Symphony. A groundbreaking work that seamlessly blends traditional symphonic structures with the vibrant rhythms of jazz, the piece was also the first symphony by an African-American composer to be performed by a major orchestra. Still’s contribution to the classical canon is nothing short of revolutionary.
Undine Smith Moore (1904–1989): “Dean of Black Women Composers”
Undine Smith Moore was an influential American composer and music educator. Her work Scenes from the Life of a Martyr, a large-scale composition based on the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., showcases her skillful choral writing and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Dedicated to celebrating African-American musical traditions, Moore integrated spirituals and folk influences into compositions such as Afro-American Suite, thereby preserving and revitalizing these traditions within the classical repertoire.
Margaret Bonds (1913–1972): A Pianist and Composer Extraordinaire
Margaret Bonds, a pianist and composer, played a significant role in bringing African-American spirituals to classical compositions. Her collaborations with poet Langston Hughes resulted in powerful vocal works, showcasing Bonds’ ability to infuse classical forms with a distinctly American voice.
George Walker (1922–2018): A Pulitzer Prize-Winning Trailblazer
George Walker’s compositions, characterized by emotional depth and technical brilliance, earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996, making him the first African American to receive that honor. His Lyric for Strings is a poignant masterpiece, a reflection of Walker’s ability to elicit powerful emotions through classical music. His triumphant Pulitzer win marked a watershed moment for African-American composers in the contemporary classical music scene.
Julius Eastman (1940–1990): Visionary Minimalist Pioneer
Julius Eastman, a pioneering force in minimalism and post-minimalism, defied conventions with provocative compositions. His compositions were characterized by boldness and offered a fresh perspective on the possibilities within the classical canon. Eastman’s avant-garde contributions in the late 20th century challenged classical norms, leaving an indelible mark on the evolving landscape of classical music.
RZA, aka Robert Diggs (b. 1969): A Modern Maestro
RZA, known primarily for his influential role in hip hop as a founding member and the de facto leader of the Wu-Tang Clan, extends his artistic prowess into classical music with the composition A Ballet Through Mud. This unique foray showcases RZA’s ability to traverse genres, demonstrating that creativity knows no bounds. The fusion of classical elements within this composition, notable for its experimental nature, underlines RZA’s commitment to pushing artistic boundaries and challenging traditional perceptions of musical genres.
Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981): Bridging Genres with Innovation
Jessie Montgomery, a contemporary virtuoso, stands at the vanguard of classical music, seamlessly blending classical, jazz, and folk genres. Her compositions, including Strum and Starburst, are vibrant reflections of a new age in classical music, resonating with innovation and fresh perspectives. Montgomery’s ability to traverse and blend genres positions her as a torchbearer for the evolving landscape of classical music in the 21st century and is a continuation of a tradition of innovation begun by the Black composers that preceded her.
The contributions of these Black composers have not only shaped classical music but have become integral to its evolving narrative. By celebrating these musical legacies, we honor not only the composers but also the enduring spirit of creativity that transcends time, leaving an everlasting imprint on classical music.