New for the 2023 – 2024 season! The Classical Context blog series provides the important details you need to better understand your favorite works and composers. Written by a computer. Fact-checked by a human. Enjoyed by you.
6 Black Composers You Should Know
In the realm of American classical music, the brilliance of Black composers transcends time and today continues to challenge societal norms. Join us on a journey through their musical contributions, shedding light on the narratives, challenges, and triumphs that have indelibly marked the cultural landscape.
Scott Joplin: The King of Ragtime
Scott Joplin, born in 1868, emerged as a pioneer in American music, earning the title “King of Ragtime.” Joplin began playing piano at the age of seven, while his mother worked as a cleaner and his father, a former slave, worked on the railroad. His ragtime compositions, including the timeless “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899), revolutionized the genre and earned him recognition as one of the most significant American composers. Joplin’s dedication to elevating African American musical traditions was evident in his groundbreaking opera “Treemonisha.” This ambitious work, though initially underappreciated, now stands as a testament to his commitment to pushing artistic boundaries. Joplin’s music not only became a cornerstone of the ragtime era but also laid the groundwork for the jazz and blues movements that followed, leaving an enduring legacy in American music.
Florence Price: A Trailblazer’s Symphony
Florence Price, born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, was a trailblazer in the classical music world as a composer and pianist. Price’s award-winning Symphony No. 1 in E Minor (1932) marked a historic moment, becoming the first composition by an African American woman to be performed by a major orchestra. Price masterfully blended Western classical structures with the spirituals and folk traditions of her African American heritage, creating a unique and profound musical language. Her compositions, such as the emotive “Andante” from Symphony No. 1, reflect a deep engagement with her cultural identity and the struggles of the African American community. Price’s pioneering achievements opened doors for future generations of Black composers, showcasing the transformative power of music in overcoming societal barriers.
William Grant Still: Dean of African American Composers
Born in 1895, William Grant Still‘s legacy as the “Dean of African American Composers” is rooted in his groundbreaking contributions to classical music. Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Still emerged as a prolific composer, arranger, and conductor. His Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American” (1931), was a monumental achievement, making him the first African American composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra. Still’s compositions, such as “Here’s One” and “Wood Notes,” reflect a seamless fusion of classical and popular music idioms. Still’s ability to capture the essence of the African American experience through orchestral compositions solidified his place as a visionary in the classical music world. Still’s legacy endures as a beacon of inspiration for Black composers seeking to navigate and contribute to the world of classical music.
Nina Simone: A Fusion of Genius
Born in 1933 in North Carolina, Nina Simone, although not a classical composer, left an indelible mark on the musical landscape. Her ability to seamlessly fuse jazz, blues, and classical influences showcased a rare musical genius. Simone’s rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy” and her groundbreaking work in “Mississippi Goddam” addressed social issues with a powerful and emotive voice. Simone’s virtuosity transcended genres, making her a seminal figure in the broader musical landscape. Beyond her achievements as a performer, Simone’s impact on the civil rights movement and her fearless approach to addressing social injustices through her music solidify her legacy as a transformative force in American music.
Contemporary Voices: Jessie Montgomery and Tania León
Jessie Montgomery, born in 1981, is a vibrant contemporary Black composer. Hailing from New York, Montgomery’s compositions, such as “Strum” and “Starburst,” intricately weave together diverse influences. As a violinist, Montgomery’s work reflects a deep engagement with tradition while pushing the boundaries of classical music. She has faced the challenge of navigating a traditionally conservative field and has triumphed by becoming a prominent figure in the contemporary classical scene. Montgomery’s commitment to exploring new sonic territories and incorporating a wide range of influences positions her as a key figure in shaping the future of classical music.
Tania León, born in 1943, is a groundbreaking figure in contemporary classical music. Raised in Cuba and later moving to New York, León faced cultural and gender challenges. Her compositions, including “Stride,” “Rituál,” and “A la Par,” challenge conventions and enrich the musical narrative with her unique voice. As a composer, conductor, and educator, León has played a vital role in pushing the boundaries of classical music, overcoming obstacles, and fostering a more inclusive musical landscape. In 2021, she was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music with “Ritual,” and in 2022 earned a Kennedy Center Honor. León’s dedication to exploring diverse musical expressions and breaking down traditional barriers underscores her commitment to shaping a future where classical music embraces a wide spectrum of voices.
Bonus Composer: Shawn Okpebholo (Premiering a new work at Linton Chamber Music)
GRAMMY®-nominated for his latest solo album “Lord, How Come Me Here?“—a collection of reimagined Negro spirituals—and named one of the 2023 Musical America Top 30 Professionals of the Year, Nigerian-American composer Shawn E. Okpebholo‘s music resonates globally, earning widespread acclaim from critics and audiences alike. Okpebholo has garnered numerous accolades, including awards from The Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Prize in Composition, the Music Publishers Association, ASCAP, and was awarded the Inaugural honoree of the Leslie Adams-Robert Owens Composition Award.
As a pedagogue, Okpebholo has conducted masterclasses at various academic institutions worldwide. His research interests have led to ethnomusicological fieldwork in both East and West Africa, resulting in compositions, transcriptions, and academic lectures. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in composition from the College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) at the University of Cincinnati. During his upbringing, a significant part of his music education came from The Salvation Army church, where he received free music lessons regularly. Inspired by that altruism, Okpebholo is deeply passionate about music outreach to underserved communities.
Recently, he completed a residency with the Chicago Opera Theater, culminating in the premiere of his opera, “The Cook-Off,” with librettist Mark Campbell (librettist of the Pulitzer-prize-winning opera Silent Night). Currently, he serves as the Jonathan Blanchard Distinguished Professor of Composition at Wheaton College-Conservatory of Music and the Saykaly Garbulinska Composer-in-Residence with the Lexington Philharmonic.
As we celebrate the brilliance of Black composers in America, it is imperative to delve into the nuanced stories and influences that have shaped their musical legacies. From Scott Joplin’s pioneering ragtime to Florence Price’s symphonic breakthroughs and the contemporary innovations of Jessie Montgomery and Tania León, these composers have left an indelible mark on the cultural and artistic heritage of the nation. Their contributions not only enrich the classical music canon but also pave the way for a more inclusive, diverse, and dynamic future in classical music.
We invite you to celebrate the world premier of Shawn Okpebholo’s Rise at Linton Chamber Music’s Changing Winds of Time on January 21 & 22.