From 18th-century violin maestro Chevalier de Saint-Georges to Scott Joplin and his instantly recognisable riffs, black classical music composers have played a significant and formative role in the history of the genre. In spite of their creative talent, originality and distinctive sound, many black classical composers had their careers hampered by racial prejudice and societal discrimination.
As a result, many have been forgotten about through the annals of time, only to have their talents more clearly recognised after their deaths, and today, classical works from black people are increasingly performed. Nonetheless, less than 2% of musicians in American orchestras are African American, while only 4.3% of conductors are black, and composers remain predominantly white.
Here’s our pick of 10 of the best black composers in history.
1. Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 – 1799)
Nicknamed ‘le Mozart noir’ (black Mozart), Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges was the first prominent classical composer of African origin. Born to a wealthy plantation owner and his African slave, he was a prolific composer of symphonies, string quartets and concertos. He led one of the most prolific orchestras in Europe, Le Concert des Amateurs, but also served as a colonel during the French Revolution.
So talented and successful was Bologne that it is said that Mozart envied him. There is even a popular theory that Mozart, in addition to stealing one of Bologne’s ideas in his Sinfonia Concertante, created a villainous black character called Monostatos in The Magic Flute in his image. His accomplishments meant that former US president John Adams described him as ‘the most accomplished man in Europe’.
2. George Bridgetower (1778 – 1860)
George Bridgetower’s father was a servant in Prince Esterházy’s Hungarian castle, where the renowned composer Joseph Haydn worked as Kappelmeister. During his childhood, Bridgetower performed many successful concerts in England and France, which attracted the attention of George IV, who paid for his musical education. For 14 years afterwards, he was principal violinist in a private orchestra.
He was friends with Beethoven, and the pair performed together in Vienna in 1803. Beethoven originally formally dedicated his ‘Kreutzer’ violin sonata to Bridgetower, and gifted him a tuning fork. However, after the two fell out, Beethoven rededicated it. Bridgetower’s name soon got lost to history, and he died impoverished in Peckham.
3. Francis Johnson (1792-1844)
Francis ‘Frank’ Johnson was a violinist and keyed bugle virtuoso and composer who lived in Philadelphia. He is known for being the first African American composer to have his work printed as sheet music. Over the course of his career, he wrote over 200 pieces, including Ethiopian songs, operatic airs and marches. At the time, he was known for his influential work and pioneering brass band, which was a fashionable military band for parades and functions.
4. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 1912)
Referred to by white musicians in New York as the ‘African Mahler’, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor married African-American folk music with concert music, composing pieces such as his African Suite, African Romances and Twenty-Four Negro Melodies. He was particularly well-known for his three cantatas based upon the epic poem Song of Hiawatha. He also fought against racial prejudice, and was promoted by famed composer Edward Elgar, who was recommended Taylor by music critic and editor of Novello, August Jaeger, who described him as a ‘genius’.
In spite of barriers because of his race, he was recognised for his talent and invited by President Theodore Roosevelt to the White House. Tragically, he died of pneumonia aged 37.
5. Scott Joplin (1868 – 1917)
The ‘King of Ragtime’ Scott Joplin was one of the most important and influential composers of the early 20th century. He was revered for his ideas around harmony, complex bass patterns and sporadic syncopation. However, after his death due to syphilis that progressed into dementia, ragtime became less popular and his music largely forgotten.
His compositions were rediscovered and re-popularised in the early 1970s. In 1973, Oscar-winning film The Sting used several of his compositions such as ‘The Entertainer’ and ‘Solace’, bringing his music to the fore once again.
6. Florence Price (1887 – 1953)
Born in Arkansas, Florence Price was deeply religious, and combined African-American church music with musical influences such as Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and other European Romantic composers. In 1933, Price became the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra. It was declared by a music critic from the Chicago Daily News, who had heard the performance, that it was ‘a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion… worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertoire.’
7. William Grant Still (1895 – 1978)
Nicknamed ‘The Dean’ of African American composers, William Grant Still was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have an opera produced by a major opera company, the first to have an opera performed on national television and the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra.
A prolific composer, Still produced around 200 works in his lifetime, of which the most famous is his ‘Afro-American’ Symphony No. 1. In addition to his compositions, he was an accomplished oboist, jazz arranger and conductor. He received the Guggenheim fellowship as well as 9 honorary doctorates from colleges across the US.
8. Margaret Bonds (1913 – 1972)
Margaret Bonds was particularly known for her ability to marry the sounds of African American spirituals with Western classical music. The most famous of these is the well-known hymn, ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’. One of her music teachers when young was Florence Price, who made history herself as the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra.
Aged just 22, Bonds herself became the first black soloist to appear with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She also closely collaborated with famed poet Langston Hughes to write music that reflected African American values during the Civil Rights movement.
9. Julius Eastman (1940-1990)
Julius Eastman was a composer, pianist, vocalist and dancer whose music helped shape the post-minimalism movement. His music addressed his status as a black, gay composer against the backdrop of a predominantly white musical elite, with titles such as Evil N****r and Gay Guerrilla aiming to shock audiences across America and draw attention to inequality.
During his lifetime, he suffered with mental health problems and drug addiction, and was evicted from his home. He made no attempt to recover recordings of his music which had been dumped on the street by his landlord. He died homeless and alone in New York, and his death was only reported 8 months later, which is how his friends and colleagues learned of the news.
10. George Walker (1922 – 2018)
George Walker was also a record-breaker, becoming 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, the first black faculty member to receive tenure at Smith College, and the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, in 1996. Of his nearly 100 compositions, the most famous and performed is his Lyric for Strings, first performed in 1946.