Nobody Knows Their Names
I once sat in an artistic planning meeting in which the General Director expressed dismay that he rarely saw African-Americans in attendance. It seemed to him a great mystery that our city’s racial majority could be so absent. I suggested that perhaps they didn’t see themselves represented in our work. After considering this, he decided that we should produce something that would appeal to our black neighbors, making them feel that they were welcome in the hall and had a stake and a voice in our organization.
His suggestions? Gershwin and Weill.
Now, I have to give him credit for recognizing the problem and caring enough to seek a solution. Whether motivated by morality or ticket sales, his commitment to diversifying our programming was real. But as I tried to explain that it might seem patronizing to reach out to this community with works by a couple of white guys, I realized there was a deeper problem: no one in the room was familiar with any music by black composers.
There’s a shockingly large body of work by black musicians, both from the United States and elsewhere. Much of this music is unfamiliar to audiences and unperformed by musicians, which is a shame, because there’s some incredibly powerful stuff here.
Let’s take a look at five composers you should be performing.
Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799)
In addition to being the first known classical composer of African heritage, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a virtuoso violinist, conductor of the Concert des Amateurs (which, despite its name, was known at the time as the best orchestra in Paris) expert fencer, and colonel of the Légion St.-Georges in the French Revolution. When he played violin recitals, the queen frequently chose to accompany him on the piano. He and Mozart lived together for two months in 1777.
Despite these achievements, he still encountered obstacles because of his race. When word got out that he was the leading contender to become music director of the Paris Opéra, a group of singers sent a petition to Marie-Antoinette announcing that they could not be led by a black man.
After narrowly avoiding execution during the Reign of Terror, Saint-Georges spent the last years of his life in poverty, working to rebuild his music career. Most of his music was lost in the chaos of the Revolution, but we still have one of his operas, multiple vocal works, 14 violin concertos, eight symphonies concertante (a form similar to the concerto grosso), two symphonies, 11 sonatas for various instruments, and 18 string quartets.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)
In his lifetime, people called him the “African Mahler”. Born in London to an unmarried Englishwoman and a Sierra Leonean descended from freed American slaves, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was raised by his mother and grandfather. He attended the Royal College of Music and was taught and mentored by Charles Villiers Stanford and Edward Elgar, who called him a genius.
In the course of several tours of America, Coleridge-Taylor became increasingly interested in his heritage as the descendant of African-American slaves. He collaborated with African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar on several songs, but it was The Song of Hiawatha, a trilogy of cantatas on texts by Longfellow, which cemented his musical reputation.
When Coleridge-Taylor died at the age of 37, King George V approved a pension for his widow. Despite his young age, he left behind a remarkable body of work. In addition to the Hiawatha trilogy and Dunbar songs, he composed chamber music, choral works, an opera (Thelma), a violin concerto, a symphony, and incidental music for a number of plays, including Othello, Faust, and Ullyses.
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Still was the first African-American to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra (1931), the first to conduct a major American orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936), the first African-American to have an opera broadcast on television (A Bayou Legend, composed in 1941 and broadcast in 1981), and the first American of any race to have an opera performed by New York City Opera (Troubled Island, 1949).
Born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas, Still was raised by his widowed mother, a high school teacher. When she remarried, his new stepfather encouraged William’s musical interests. His mother wanted him to become a doctor, but he was focused on music. He studied composition with George Whitefield Chadwick and Edgard Varèse.
After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War I, Still worked as a dance band pianist and pop song arranger. He played piano in Paul Whiteman’s band (famous for premiering Rhapsody in Blue and the Grand Canyon Suite). In 1931, his Symphony No. 1 Afro-American was premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic, the first time a major orchestra performed a symphony by an African-American. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Los Angeles, where he composed or arranged music for no fewer than 60 films, including “Pennies From Heaven”, “Lost Horizon”, and the 1948 “Superman” serial.
He became associated with the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, collaborating with Langston Hughes on Lost Island, a work which led to the founding of New York City Opera after Eleanor Roosevelt and Mayor LaGuardia heard that the Met refused to produce the piece.
George Walker (b. 1922)
George Walker was born in Washington, D.C., the son of an American mother and Jamaican immigrant father. Like William Grant Still, he studied music at Oberlin Conservatory, graduating at age 18 and continuing his studies at the Curtis Institute, where his teachers included William Primrose, Gregor Piatigorsky, and Rosario Scalero (who also taught Samuel Barber, Marc Blitzstein, Ned Rorem, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Nina Rota).
Within the first year of his professional career, Walker performed as piano soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Baltimore Symphony. In 1956, he became the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Eastman, after which he used his Fulbright Scholarship and John Hay Whitney Fellowship to study composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.
In the course of his career, Walker has composed nearly 100 pieces in every major classical genre. His Lilacs, for soprano and orchestra, won the 1996 Pulitzer, the first time the prize had been awarded to an African-American composer. The piece is a setting of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.”