It takes little effort to realize that the standard classical music fare one finds in orchestral concert halls and, though to a lesser extent, in the catalogues of recorded music, is and has been markedly deficit in black composers. While there have been notable recordings of music by black composers, more attention to this music than has been given is warranted. Indeed, it can too easily seem that there simply have not been significant black composers of classical music. But this simply is not the case. Were it not for a colleague who wrote his dissertation on African American composers, I might to this day still be ignorant of many of them. As it is, there have been many notable black classical music composers who, have made important contributions to the advancement and history of symphonic music. In this article, I will highlight a few of them, and encourage you to look into more of these talented musicians. Be sure to listen to the musical examples provided, and as you do, keep in mind that Boulogne was a contemporary of Mozart, Margaret Bonds received her master’s degree in music the same year Rachmaninoff wrote his Variations on a Theme of Paganini, and Florence Price was composing amid the dawn of what Dvorak hoped would be the new school of American composition which he purported to model in his symphony “from the new world.” This is just a bit of the historical context in which these composers lived and worked.
The first of these is Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Much of what has been written about his life is speculative or based on here say. Even the date of his birth is uncertain, though it is thought that he was born between 1739 and 1749. Among those facts which seem to be true are that he was the son of a wealthy French plantation owner. He was born in Guadaloupe in 1745, and 10 years later moved with his father and mother to France where he was enrolled in elite schools and received private lessons in music and fencing. Boulogne first became well known as a champion fencer; so much so that Louis XV named him Chevalier de Saint-Georges, after his father’s noble title, even though France’s Code Noir prohibited Boulogne from officially inheriting the title because of his African ancestry (on his mother’s side). He earned a nearly mythical status even across the Atlantic: John Adams described him as “the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, shooting, fencing, dancing and music.”
His early works were chamber pieces, including sonatas and string quartets. His first critical success was with his two violin concertos from 1772.
Florence Price was the first African American female composer to gain national recognition in the United States. Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887. She won first prize in the Wanamaker Competition with her Symphony in E minor and as a result, became the first female composer of African descent to have a symphonic work performed by a major national symphony orchestra. Numerous works for solo piano and piano duet have recently been discovered, and a project to record all of it is under way. Her symphonic output began in 1931. There were four symphonies begun, but only three of them were completed, the first in E minor, third, and fourth. The last of these was premiered posthumously in May, 2018. Her symphonic work revealed at times influences of Dvorak, and African American vocal tradition, the inclusion of which itself demonstrates the influence of Dvorak, who championed the use of traditional music as a foundation for an American school of symphonic writing. For those interested in learning more, there is an excellent article about Florence Price in the New Yorker.
George Walker had a distinguished career as a teacher, performer, and composer. In 1946 George Walker composed his String Quartet no. 1. The second movement of this work, entitled, Lyric for Strings, has become the most frequently performed orchestral work by a living American composer. In 1954, he toured seven European countries, performing piano repertoire in Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and England in the major cities of Stockholm, Copenhagen, The Hague, Amsterdam, Frankfurt a Main, Lausanne, Berne, Milan and London with great acclaim.
Once returned to the United States, he entered the Doctor of Musical Arts Degree Program at the Eastman School of Music. In 1956, he became the first black recipient of a doctoral degree from that institution as well as an Artist Diploma in Piano. He was awarded both a Fulbright Fellowship and a John Hay Whitney Fellowship in 1957.
George Walker’s distinguished career as a teacher continued in 1960 with faculty appointments to the Dalcroze School of Music, The New School for Social Research, Smith College (1961-68) (where he became the first black tenured faculty member), the University of Colorado (1968-69 as Visiting Professor), Rutgers University (1969-92, where he was Chairman of the Music Department), and Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University (1975-78)
George Walker has composed over 90 works for orchestra, chamber orchestra, piano, strings, voice, organ, clarinet, guitar, brass, woodwinds, and chorus. His works have been performed by virtually every major orchestra in the United States and by many in England and other countries. He has won numerous awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, two Rockefeller Fellowships, a Fromm Foundation commission, two Koussevitsky Awards, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award
Walker has received important commissions from many ensembles that include the New York Philharmonic (Cello Concerto), the Cleveland Orchestra (Dialogus for Cello and Orchestra), the Boston Symphony (Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra), the Eastman School of Music (An Eastman Overture) , the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (Violin and Piano Sonata No. 2).
Margaret Bonds. Margaret Jeanette Allison Majors was born on March 3, 1913, in Chicago, Illinois. Her father, Monroe Majors, was a physician, lecturer, and author. Her mother, Estella Bonds, was musician and piano teacher, and served as church choral director and organist.
When her parents divorced in 1917, Margaret’s last name was changed to Bonds. She grew up in her mother’s household, which was frequented by African American students and many of the leading artistic and literary figures that either lived in or visited the Chicago area.
Margaret Bonds began studying piano with her mother at a very early age. By the time she was eight, she was able to study at the Coleridge-Taylor Music School. Eventually, she studied composition with Florence Price (see above) and William Dawson. Bonds also studied composition privately with famed composer Roy Harris and piano with Djane Herz at Julliard. Among her most recorded compositions from this period is “Troubled Water,” from the Spiritual Suite for piano.
During the 1950’s, Bonds composed several works setting to music the poems of Langston Hughes whom she had finally met in 1936 and with whom she become close friends over the years. The song cycles from this period include, Songs of the Seasons and Three Dream Portraits, as well as music for the Hughes play, Shakespeare in Harlem.
Bonds, “Troubled Water”
It is more important now than ever that as music educators we bring these composers and other black composers to the attention of our students, and indeed to ourselves. There is a rich repertoire of heartfelt, expressive and above all outstanding music by black composers who have been denied their due for too long. I hope that this short article will be the beginning of further enjoyment of and teaching on these composers’ music.