Five Black Composers Who Changed History

It’s Black History Month, and we want to celebrate by introducing you to five amazing Black composers from classical music history!

Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Joseph Bologne

Joseph Bologne was a French composer who lived one of the most adventurous lives in the history of classical music. He was a famous violinist, a composer, and a conductor. He was also a famous swordsman, a knight, a colonel, and a boxer! Throughout his life, he made waves both as a musician and as a fighter. 

Joseph Bologne was born into slavery in Guadaloupe in 1745. His mother, Nanon, was an enslaved African woman, and his father, Georges, was a plantation owner. It was very unusual for slaveholders to take responsibility for their Black children and take care of them. Most would continue to enslave them but Joseph’s father actually took care of him–though not as well as his white children. Joseph and his mother were able to move to France and live in Paris together, where Joseph studied sword-fighting and music.

In this cartoon from 1787, the artist wrote that the picture represents Joseph Bologne “boxing against the slave trade.”

Joseph Bologne took a job in the Royal Police Guard of the King of France, and quickly became famous for winning fencing and boxing competitions. He was also knighted, which is why he has the title of “Chevalier” (Knight) “de Saint-Georges.” Joseph Bologne’s adventures included working in a French abolitionist movement, and becoming Colonel of an all-Black military regiment. 

As a musician, Joseph Bologne performed as a violinist and an orchestra conductor. He even founded his own orchestra, the Concert de la Loge Olympique. In spite of his talent, he faced discrimination. In 1776, the Paris Opéra, one of the most important musical organizations in Europe, wanted to hire him as their new Director. Unfortunately, he was blocked from getting the job by four opera singers who didn’t want to take directions from him because he was biracial. Joseph Bologne didn’t let this disappointment ruin his career: he wrote operas for other theaters instead. Today you can hear performances of his music by orchestras and opera companies all over the world! 

In this video, you can watch the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble play Joseph Bologne’s Symphony Concertante in G Major.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was a successful composer in England during the Victorian era, at a time when just about every classical composer was white.  

He didn’t have the easiest childhood–his parents split up when he was little. His dad, who was a Black doctor, couldn’t find any work in England, so he moved away. Samuel studied the violin with the support of his mom, and when he was a teenager he went to the Royal College of Music, England’s top conservatory. He took lessons there with some of the most famous English composers of the time, like Sir Charles Stanford. His musical compositions became very popular with audiences, and orchestras and choirs all over England performed his pieces. Most popular was a piece he wrote inspired by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. 

This is the Coleridge-Taylor 1912 family Christmas card. The children are Hiawatha and Avril.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s music also made it from England over to the United States. African-American musicians loved the representation he gave to Black musicians. He visited the United States several times, where he met African-American singers and choirs, conducted a choir that had been form in his honor, and met President Teddy Roosevelt. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was inspired by American Black music and started using Spirituals and other African-American styles in his compositions. 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor had a happy family life as an adult. He was very close to his wife Jessie, his son Hiawatha and his daughter Avril. Both of his kids became professional musicians when they grew up. 

In this video, the Chineke! Orchestra plays Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade, Op. 33. The Chineke! Orchestra is England’s first orchestra made up completely of musicians who Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. 

R. Nathaniel Dett 

Robert Nathaniel Dett was born in Drummondville, Ontario, Canada. Today Drummondville is part of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Drummondville was originally founded by freedom seekers: people who had escaped from American slavery through the Underground Railroad. Nathaniel Dett’s ancestors were freedom-seekers. 

Nathaniel Dett took piano lessons when he was a child, and went on to study music at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. In fact, he was the first Black student to earn a Bachelor of Music degree there. He was a dedicated scholar and continued to study composition as a graduate student. He even went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, a brilliant lady who was one of the most famous composition teachers in the world. 

Nathaniel Dett became a college professor, teaching at many schools throughout his career, including the Hampton Institute in Ohio. The Hampton Institute was an HBCU (Historically Black College or University), a college founded by and for African-Americans in the 1800s. Today the Hampton Institute is called Hampton University.

Nathaniel Dett was a choir director at the Hampton Institute. He conducted their college choir, the Hampton Singers, and he helped make the group famous. The Hampton Singers performed Spirituals and other music by Black composers, spreading awareness of this music in international tours, and singing for the then-President of the United States, Herbert Hoover. 

Nathaniel Dett wrote music for many different instruments and ensembles, but he especially loved writing choral music. In this video, you’ll see the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, a Canadian choir named in honor of the composer, singing a piece by Nathaniel Dett called Hew Round the Tree. 

Florence Price 

Can you imagine writing music for your whole life, only for much of it to be lost and forgotten after you left this world? That’s what happened to Florence Price. An American composer who was the first Black woman to have a symphony she wrote performed by a major American orchestra.  

One day in 2009, a couple was trying to renovate an abandoned house in Chicago. In the attic, they found lots of musical scores, all labeled with the name Florence Price. It turned out that the old house had once been Florence Price’s summer home. The couple had stumbled upon a treasure trove of music that had been lost since the composer’s death! Since 2009, musicians have been excited about this discovery of classical music by a brilliant Black lady. They have been eagerly learning, performing, and recording music by Florence Price. 

Florence Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887. She was a child prodigy in music, and in school. She graduated high school, at the top of her class, when she was only 14! She studied music at the New England Conservatory, one of the only schools of music that would accept students of color in the early twentieth century. Then she returned to the South, teaching music at colleges in Georgia. 

In 1927, Florence Price decided to move her family to Chicago. Even though she was a college professor in Atlanta, racial violence and discrimination made life very hard in Georgia. She hoped she’d have more opportunities in Chicago. It turns out that she did: in 1932, Florence Price won a national composition competition. That year, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her winning piece, her Symphony in E minor.  

American composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972)

Florence Price spent the rest of her life in Chicago as a teacher, an organist, a music arranger for radio, and a composer. She was especially famous for writing songs for voice and piano: Black classical singers like Marian Anderson sang Florence Price’s songs all over the United States and the world. She was also involved in African-American classical music organizations in Chicago, and she encouraged young Black composers, like her student and friend Margaret Bonds, who went on to become another respected composer. 

In this video, you’ll see pianist Michelle Cann play a movement from Florence Price’s Piano Sonata in E minor. 

William Grant Still

William Grant Still

William Grant Still is sometimes called the “Dean of African-American Composers.” That’s a way of saying that his work as a composer paved the way for future Black musicians, earned him respect, and made him a source of inspiration. When you look at his biography, you can see why: he accomplished a lot of amazing musical firsts! 

William Grant Still was born in Mississippi in 1895. As a child, he played the violin, cello and oboe. He studied music at college, with the dream of becoming a classical composer. He got his start writing blues and jazz: one of his first jobs was working for W.C. Handy, a bandleader and songwriter who called himself the “Father of the Blues.” William Grant Still wrote music arrangements for W.C. Handy and other jazz musicians in New York City, and he also wrote music for radio and theaters. At the same time, he was composing classical music, getting ready to break into the world of symphony and opera composition. 

W.C. Handy and his jazz orchestra, 1918
W.C. Handy and his jazz orchestra in 1918

In 1930, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performed William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony. This made him the first Black composer to have one of his symphonies performed by a major orchestra. William Grant Still went on to add more “firsts” to his career. In 1936, he conducted a performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which made him the first Black musician to conduct a national classical orchestra. And in 1949, he became the first African-American to have one of his operas performed by a major opera company. The opera was Troubled Island, with words by the African-American poet Langston Hughes, and by Verna Arvey, a poet and pianist who was married to William Grant Still. Verna Arvey and William Grant Still would go on to write many more songs and operas together. 

In this video, you’ll see Randall Goosby and Zhu Wang play part of William Grant Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano.