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Music Memories: African-American Classical Composers

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Photos of African-American composers of classical music

February is African-American History Month, so this week, we look at the work of several African-American composers of classical music. Segregation and racism have often made it difficult for African-Americans to receive advanced musical training, or to get their music performed in prominent venues. Today, we offer a sampling of music by some of the composers who overcame those obstacles.

Harry T. Burleigh

Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949)

Burleigh was a gifted singer who received a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music; while there, he worked as a copyist for the Conservatory's director, Antonin Dvořák. In the 1910s and 1920s, Burleigh was one of America's best-known composers of art songs, and many prominent singers of the era included his songs in their recitals. His arrangements of spirituals were particularly popular. Karen Parks performs a collection of Burleigh's songs on Nobody Knows.

Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin (1868?-1917)

Probably the best-known composer on this list, Joplin was known as the "King of Ragtime." His piano rags elevated what had been seen as a vulgar form of music, adding new levels of harmonic and melodic sophistication. There was a great revival of interest in Joplin's music in the 1970s, and he was awarded a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976. John Arpin performs The Complete Piano Music of Scott Joplin.

R, Nathaniel Dett

R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943)

Dett was born in Canada but spent most of his professional life in the United States. He was the first black student to earn a degree from the Oberlin Conservatory. Dett argued that African-American composers should base their work on spirituals and other African-American folk music, just as generations of European composers had used their own folk music as inspiration. His choral music is most frequently performed today; a selection of it can be heard on Listen to the Lambs.

Florence Price

Florence Price (1887-1953)

Price studied piano and organ at the New England Conservatory of Music, and skillfully blended the music of her southern and African-American heritage with European classical traditions. In 1933, her first symphony was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the first music by an African-American woman to be played by a major orchestra. Much of her music was thought to be lost until scores were discovered in an abandoned house in 2009. Price's work includes four symphonies, music for piano and organ, spiritual arrangements, and two violin concertos.

William Grant Still

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

Still is often referred to as "the Dean" of African-American composers. He was the first black conductor to lead a major American orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in 1936), and the first black composer to have an opera performed by a major American company (the New York City Opera, in 1949). In the 1930s and 1940s, Still's first symphony, the "Afro-American," was the most frequently performed symphony by any American composer. Works of William Grant Still collects an assortment of vocal and chamber music.

George Walker

George Walker (1922-2018)

In the 1940s and 1950s, Walker was a successful concert pianist, performing with major orchestras in the United States and Europe. His compositions reflect a wide range of influences, from Chopin and Brahms to jazz and folk songs. In 1996, Walker was the first African-American composer to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Music, for Lilacs, a setting of Walt Whitman's poetry for soprano and orchestra. Lilacs is included in a Great American Orchestral Works collection of Walker's music.

Hale Smith

Hale Smith (1925-2009)

Smith was a skilled jazz pianist as a young man, and that experience informed his compositions. "A lot of my music would come off much better if it were played by performers with jazz backgrounds," he once said, "[that] doesn't mean I'm writing jazz." Music of Hale Smith collects vocal, chamber, and orchestral pieces.

David Baker

David Baker (1931-2016)

Baker's promising career as a jazz trombonist came to an end when his jaw was injured in an automobile accident. Baker remained an important figure in jazz, founding one of the first academic programs in jazz studies at Indiana University. He also composed a great deal of orchestral and chamber music. Baker's concertos for trombone and for alto saxophone are included on this collection of his music.

Adolphus Hailstork

Adolphus Hailstork (1941 - )

Hailstork writes in many genres – chamber music, vocal and choral works, orchestral music, and opera. He is still active, and his most recent composition, Still Holding On, will receive its world premiere from the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend. Hailstork's music for string quartet is gathered on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis (1951 - )

In the 1970s and 1980s, Davis was best known as a jazz pianist. In the late 1980s, he began to compose a series of operas and theatrical works, often based on African-American history. His music is influenced not only classical and African-American folk music, but by jazz, experimental music, and traditional music of Asia and Africa. Davis' 1997 opera Amistad is based on the 1839 rebellion by captives on a slave ship headed for the United States.

More music by these and other African-American composers can be found on Watch and Pray: Spirituals and Art Songs by African-American Women Composers; William Chapman Nyaho's two collections of piano music by composers of African descent, Senku, and Asa; and the nine volumes of the Black Composers Series, originally released in the 1970s.