Black Composers and Concert Artists
Histories on African American music rarely include the cultural expressions of performers or composers defined as part of concert or classical music. The reason most often cited for this exclusion is that their expressions represent a Western European aesthetic, and, thus, fall outside the cultural and musical framework of Black culture. While this interpretation has merit, it ignores the cultural hybridity embodied in many forms of musical expression considered to be “Black music.” Within the Black concert or Afro-classical aesthetic, artists, performers, and composers expand the palette for what has come to define sonic Blackness. They also provide a form of resistance culture to notions of racial inferiority, and the marginalization of Black America.
Explore Related GenresSpecific attributes: Ensemble, Polyrhythms, Arrangement, Hymns, Piano, Voice, Orchestra, Harlem Renaissance, Migration, Civil Rights, Political Issues/Activism, Racism/Discrimination
The development of the Afro-classical aesthetic can be divided into seven major historical periods: I. Colonial Period (1619–1775); II. Revolutionary War and Antebellum Period (1776–1860); III. Civil War and Post-Reconstruction (1861–1895) and the Rise of Jim Crow (1896–1919); IV. Negro Renaissance and World War II (1920–1945); V. Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement (1946–1960s); VI. Black Power and Post–Civil Rights Era (1968–1985); VII. Post–Civil Rights: Second Generation and Beyond (1986–Present).
I. Colonial Period 1619–1775
During the colonial period, Africans brought to the Northern colonies acculturated much more quickly than those in the southern colonies. The ratio of Africans to Europeans favored the latter in the North and where the two groups frequently interacted. Many Africans, both enslaved and freed, for example, worshiped with the Europeans, adopted their religious practices, and participated in their musical activities. Organizations such as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel converted both American Indians and Africans to Christianity and provided literacy training in their charity schools in the North. In New England, where religion defined every aspect of life, Blacks participated in the singing of Psalmody, an early form of sacred music introduced in the American colonies by the Pilgrims and Puritans.
“I cannot but observe that the Negroes, above all the human species I ever knew, have an ear for music, and a kind of ecstatic delight in Psalmody; and there are no books they learn so soon, or take so much pleasure in, as those used in that heavenly part of divine worship.”Samuel DaviesPresbyterian Minister
II. Revolutionary War and Antebellum Period 1776–1860
The Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 significantly impacted the culture of public music-making in the colonies. In the subsequent years, efforts to increase the quality of music-making in America gave rise to the Singing School Movement. From this movement emerged a generation of Black singing school masters who eventually became composers, such as Newport Gardner, who was brought to America as an enslaved African, yet his master provided the means for him to study music formally.
During the Post–Revolutionary War Years, free Blacks in the north lived primarily in their own segregated communities. They established churches, which served as the focal point of community life. In addition to Sunday worship, they were sites for all educational and cultural activities and provided spaces for singing schools, religious study, and training in literacy. They also sponsored concerts of European sacred and secular music by European composers, such as Bellini, Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart.
“Frank [Francis Johnson] was one of the most celebrity personages of Philadelphia. His talents as a musician rendered him famous all over the Union, and in that portion of Europe where he had visited, while his kindness of heart and gentleness of demeanor endeared him to be universally respected in this community.”Editorial, the Philadelphia Public Ledger, April 6, 1844
“He [Thomas Bowers] has naturally a superior voice, far better than many of the principal tenors who have been engaged for star opera troupes. He has, besides, much musical tastes.”Daily Pennsylvanian, February 9, 1854
Many African American composers and concert artists of this period were self-taught. Yet under a patronage system emerging in America, some traveled to Europe, where they concertized and received formal training in European classical forms. Their compositions and performance repertory display a mastery of both the European concert and American popular traditions (band and dance music), as illustrated in the musical activities of bandleader and composer Francis Johnson (1792–1844). For years, he led a band consisting primarily of African Americans who performed largely for Black audiences. The band played primarily marches, cotillions, waltzes, and other dance music. Over time, Johnson became one of the central figures in Philadelphia’s concert culture and sustained a career in music, unlike most musicians regardless of color. In 1818, he became the first African American to have a composition published as sheet music. During his lifetime, he composed more than 200 works. In 1837, he became the first Black bandleader to take a group to Europe and performed for Queen Victoria. Impressed with his talent, she gifted him a silver bugle. Johnson and his band toured most of the United States and Canada during the late 1830s and were influential in shaping America’s concert life in the early 19th century.
Justin Miner Holland
Aaron J. R. Connor
Prominent Concert Artists:
Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield – “The Black Swan”
Thomas Bowers – “The Colored Mario”
Sarah Sedgwick Bowers – “The Colored Nightingale”
“She [Elizabeth Greenfield] sings with great ease, and apparently without any effort. Her pronunciation is very correct, and her intonation excellent. Her voice has a wonderful compass, and in many notes is remarkable and sweet in tone.”Boston Evening Transcript, February 3, 1852
III. Civil War/Post-Reconstruction 1861–1895 and The Rise of Jim Crow 1896–1919
During the second half of the 19th century, African American composers and concert artists operated in a vibrant concert environment that provided new opportunities for training and sustained careers. Although Black musicians were prohibited from participating in orchestras and opera companies, they had access to professional training schools and conservatories, as well as mentorship and patronage from eminent European musicians and composers. The institutions that welcomed both Blacks and women during this period marked significant advancements in music education in America from 1857 to 1900. They included the Peabody Institute (Baltimore), Oberlin Conservatory (Oberlin, Ohio), New England Conservatory (Boston), Boston Conservatory, Cincinnati College-Conservatory (Ohio), Chicago Musical College, and the National Conservatory of Music of America (New York). Examples include the interactions between students and composers Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) at the National Conservatory (1892–1895) and Julius Eichberg (1824–1893) at the Boston Conservatory. A number of performers and composers also took advantage of opportunities to study in Europe. Despite these advancements, aspiring Black female composers lacked a significant presence.
Unlike Black composers of the Antebellum period, those of the post-slavery era used Black folk traditions such as the spiritual, blues, and dance rhythms as sources for their music. This generation of composers, many of whom were performing artists and college educators, can be divided into two groups: those born around 1860 and those born in the1880s. While some wrote primarily concert music, others specialized in popular or entertainment music. During this period, it became standard practice for Black performers to include the music of Black composers in recitals. Singers, in particular, concluded their concerts with groups of spirituals. One of the individuals significant in the evolution of the spiritual from folk song sung in the praise houses and fields to a stylized song performed on the concert stage was Ella Sheppard (1851–1915).
Born and enslaved on Andrew Jackson’s plantation, Hermitage, Sheppard would become one of America’s first Black female composers of note. Her father, Simone, purchased his and his young daughter’s freedom but was unable to secure the freedom of his wife, Sarah. Fearing that they would be re-enslaved, Simone fled with the child to Cincinnati, Ohio, where she was educated at the colored school and taught piano by a German woman. She also studied voice, but only on the condition that she agreed to do so secretly. In 1868, Sheppard moved to Nashville, where she attended the Fisk Free Colored School. Her talent garnered the attention of teacher George White, who appointed her the accompanist and assistant director of his choir, the Jubilee Singers. During their 1871 inaugural concert tour, the group promoted the spirituals of their ancestors on concert stages throughout America and Europe. For seven years, Sheppard worked with the Jubilee Singers, accompanying on piano, overseeing the rehearsals, conducting the singers on stage, and collecting as well as transcribing the spirituals that served as the group’s repertory.
Composer and singer Harry T. Burleigh (1866–1949) was also significant in transforming the spiritual into a concert form. Burleigh was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1866, to a family that encouraged his musical development from a very early age. His sister, Louisa, and his mother, Elizabeth Waters Burleigh, encouraged him to pursue a career as a concert singer. In 1892, members of his community raised money to support his studies at the National Conservatory in New York, where he developed a close relationship with Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. He discussed composition methods with Burleigh, who, in turn, introduced the composer to the spirituals and plantation songs of the enslaved. In 1913, Burleigh published his first choral arrangements of spirituals, and in 1916, the first edition of solo arrangements. He explains in his New York World essay (October 17, 1917): “My desire was to preserve them in harmonies that belong to modern methods of tonal progression without robbing the melodies of their racial flavor.” A major advocate of Black music and Black composers, Burleigh lectured extensively on spirituals throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Harry T. Burleigh
Will Marion Cook
John Rosamond Johnson
James Weldon Johnson
Harry Lawrence Freeman
Clarence Cameron White
Robert Nathaniel Dett
Prominent Concert Artists:
Hyers Sisters (Anna Madah and Emma Louise)
Nellie Brown Mitchell
Matilda Sissieretta Jones
Thomas Greene Bethune (Blind Tom)
John William Boone (Blind Boone)
IV. Negro Renaissance and World War II 1920-1945
“America is beginning to see the Negro in a new light, or rather, to something new in the Negro… [C]olored singers draw concert goers of the highest class; Negro poets and writers find entrée to all the most important magazines; Negro authors have their books accepted and put out by leading publishers.”James Weldon JohnsonWriter, Poet, Civil Rights Activist
The Negro Renaissance that commenced in the years immediately following the end of World War I spawned a surge in the literary, artistic, and musical output of America’s Black elite. This affirmation of the values of Black cultural heritage had a decisive impact on composers, whose primary goal was the elevation of Negro folk idioms like the spiritual, blues, and dance music to symphonic form, opera, and other genres of Western classical music. In many ways, the music that the Renaissance generated extended the efforts to create an “American” sound that began during the last decade of the 19th century. Unlike in the 19th century, Black composers now had access to major orchestras and mainstream concert halls. The central concern that linked these two periods of creative activity was countering notions of racial inferiority as evidenced by the two ideologies of the Renaissance movement: the mastery of European form and the representation of the African spirit—defined by the use of polyrhythms, the nuances in pitch that defined Black vocalism, and the adaptation of Black folk melodies such as the blues and folk spiritual. At the height of this cultural movement, the works of a number of composers reflected this ideology. In the 1930s, three major American orchestras were the first to perform the works of Black composers that incorporated Black folk forms into a European form. The Rochester Symphony Orchestra programmed William Grant Still’s (1895–1978) Afro-American Symphony in 1931; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed Florence Price’s (1888–1953) Symphony in E Minor in 1933; and The Philadelphia Orchestra presented William Dawson’s (1899–1990) Negro Folk Symphony the following year.
“[Still] certainly knows how to write in other styles, but he is true to his own heritage in both the “Afro-American Symphony” and the Fourth Symphony. The blues and the Harlem Renaissance brought Still back to his roots. There was a certain degree of acceptance of jazz among the [musical elite]. But the blues just felt too secular, too raw, too on the nose.”Thomas WilkinsOrchestra Conductor
“I knew I wanted to write a symphony; I knew it had to be an American work; and I wanted to demonstrate how the blues, so often considered a lowly expression, could be elevated to the highest musical level.”William Grant Still
America’s entrance into World War II in 1941 and the issuance of a general moratorium on cultural activities significantly impacted the careers of Black concert artists. Black instrumentalists seeking employment with opera companies and symphonic orchestras faced considerable challenges. While a few instrumentalists garnered positions with regional orchestras, no considerable gains were made. Singers faced fewer challenges. While a number of them continued to gain prominence through concert tours and recitals, some earned spaces on the operatic stage. In 1941, Mary Cardwell Dawson founded the National Negro Opera Company, which toured the country performing major operas, and debuting works of Black composers. The Karamu Theater in Cleveland provided a space for the production of both operas and plays. The 1940s also marked the period in which some major opera companies began hiring Black singers. In 1946, Camilla Williams made her operatic debut as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. She was the first African American woman to do so with a major opera company. Roland Hayes became the first African American male singer to garner international acclaim, and Marian Anderson became a symbol of the racial inequality that Black concert artists endured when, in 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall. The furor that followed resulted in Anderson being invited to give a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In 1955, she became the first African American woman to perform with the Metropolitan Opera, and three years later, she was named a US delegate to the United Nations. These singers were also significant in debuting and popularizing a repertory of solo spirituals that promoted the works of Black composers in both American and European concert halls and churches.
William Grant Still
Prominent Concert Artists:
Mary Cardwell Dawson
Emma Azalia Hackley
Anita Patti Brown
V. Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement 1946–1960s
The professional gains made by Black composers and concert artists during the postwar years were linked to the changing dynamics of America’s political climate. The 1950s brought fear that communism would invade America’s political life and that nuclear war with the Soviet Union was imminent. As America entered the Cold War period, domestic unrest grew as Blacks faced racist policies that excluded them from education, housing, and jobs. The result was a wave of public activism that evolved into the modern Civil Rights Movement.
In the early 1950s, the US State Department initiated a strategy of combating the spread of communism using art and music, which provided new opportunities for Black composers and concert artists. Specifically, the US Information Services sponsored cultural tours, lectures, performances, and exhibits in Africa, South America, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. Black composers that participated in this initiative or gained funding from fellowships such as the Guggenheim or Ford foundations concertized and studied extensively in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s. Many went to France to study with famed composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger. In the 1960s, the support of musicians, composers, and researchers increased with the establishment of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Two central events that influenced the compositional approaches of this generation were the immigration of European composers to America and the expansion of music programs in liberal arts colleges during the 1940s and 1950s. The international composers, who introduced new compositional approaches, such as serialism and atonality, became an important part of the curriculum of the postwar college music department. As a new generation of aspiring Black composers and musicians enrolled, they were exposed to these musical ideals, which influenced their compositional identity.
“She’s [Margaret Bonds] born into the time where jazz musicians from the Great Migration have come to Chicago. You have classical musicians that are also there, so it’s a very rich musical environment. The Chicago renaissance is going on, so you have writers, poets—everything is happening.”Louise ToppinOpera Singer
As in previous years, Black churches and Black colleges continued to be the primary supporters of Black musicians and composers. These institutions, especially Black colleges, provided not only financial stability through professorships, but also access to performing groups. Only a few Black composers during the midcentury years were not college professors, such as Margaret Bonds (1913–1972) and Howard Swanson (1907–1978). Swanson spent most of the postwar years in New York, where he lived modestly and survived on a small pension. Margaret Bonds, who is sometimes viewed as the protégé of Florence Price, financed her work as a composer through recitals and concerts. An accomplished pianist, Bonds concertized extensively throughout the midcentury years. It is rumored that she is the only composer Nadia Boulanger refused to take on as a student because she believed that Bonds’ compositional voice was well developed and did not need tampering. Bonds’ music pointed strongly to how jazz, gospel, and blues influenced the work of some midcentury Black composers. She and Howard Swanson were significant in popularizing the poetry and writings of Langston Hughes. Hughes’s prose came to represent the type of Black consciousness that inspired the modern civil rights struggle, and for decades, he collaborated closely with Bonds to produce a number of influential works, including the cantata The Ballad of the Brown King and incidental music for the play Shakespeare in Harlem. By the late 1960s, the relationship between the civil rights struggle and Black concert music increased and was represented not only in the works of Black composers, but also in their efforts to challenge their exclusion from concert halls.
During the Cold War and Civil Rights eras, Black concert and opera singers such as Camilla Williams (b. 1919–2012), Leontyne Price (b. 1927), Grace Bumbry (b. 1937), Simon Estes (b. 1938), and George Shirley (b. 1934) made significant strides, winning prestigious national and international competitions and historic operatic roles in some of America’s and Europe’s most premiere opera houses. Through the 1970s, they became household names in opera, swinging the doors wide open for subsequent generations of opera singers.
Undine Smith Moore
Zenobia Powell Perry
Prominent Concert Artists:
VI. Black Power and Post–Civil Rights Era (1968–1985)
The 1970s and 1980s defined a new chapter in America’s history. The 1970s transition from a segregated to a desegregated society that held promise for new opportunities followed the rise of the Black Power movement, which promoted racial pride and self-empowerment. Both events impacted the creative endeavors of Black musicians of the Post–Civil Rights Era. Similar to their predecessors, Black composers and performing artists received fellowships for study and other creative endeavors in Europe. This generation, more than any other, benefitted from the teaching and mentorship of established Black composers and concert artists who populated college-level music departments at historically Black colleges (e.g., Mark Fax, Natalie Hinderas, and Mattiwilda Dobbs at Howard University; Undine Smith Moore at Virginia State College). Others joined the faculties of predominantly white institutions during this period (e.g., Olly Wilson at University of California, Berkeley; Hale Smith at University of Connecticut, Storrs; T.J. Anderson at Tufts University; David Baker, and Camilla Williams at Indiana University; William Warfield at University of Illinois; and George Shirley at University of Maryland and University of Michigan).
“I work with all available forms (irrespective of genre, origin, etc.)…and many of my works have been devoted to, dedicated to, and are about Black people. I have written to Dr. Martin Luther King, one to Malcolm X, another called Coltrane in Memorial, another entitled A Tribute to Wes, another called Bird...”David BakerComposer & Jazz Educator
“The source of the Black composer’s music lies deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of his people. Along with a heightened sensitivity to motion, qualitative rhythm, and immediateness of expression, it includes...the wordless moans of a mid-week poorly attended prayer meeting, the Saturday night ecstatic shrieks of a James Brown, the relentless intensity of the modal excursions of a John Coltrane, and the tonal word-songs of brothers rappin’ on the corner, full of pride of new-found respect.”Olly WilsonComposer & University Professor
Musically, this generation of composers continued to promote the eclectic array of styles introduced by the previous generation. Although representations of Black consciousness and identity remained an important element of many Black composers, some shifted away from quoting Black folk songs or composing melodies in those traditions. Rather, they turned to jazz for creative inspiration. The connection between concert music and jazz resulted, in part, from the relationship a number of composers had with the genre. Many of the prominent male composers of this generation, notably T.J. Anderson, Noel DaCosta, and David Baker played in jazz bands during their formative years and also arranged for jazz groups much later. Electronic music influenced a number of composers, especially Olly Wilson (1937–2018), whose compositions not only reflected this approach but inspired him to establish the first conservatory-based program in electronic music (Technology in Music and Related Arts at Oberlin College and Conservatory). Electronic music expanded the tonal possibilities for composers, as natural or electronic sounds were recorded on magnetic tape. These sounds were then manipulated through a variety of means in order to create a new piece of music. This generation was also marked by its financial stability and autonomy. No longer singularly dependent upon the funding provided by commissions, composers became selective about what they accepted.
During this period, various organizations, ensembles, and collectives formed to encourage the writing and performance of new music. In 1968 in New York, 25 young composers of concert music and jazz established the Society of Black Composers. The formation of Opera/South (1970) and Opera Ebony (1974) provided performance opportunities for well-trained Black singers and instrumentalists as well as the exposure of operatic works by Black composers. A number of opera companies and symphony orchestras also instituted diversity and outreach programs designed to mentor a generation of musicians, as well as to develop relationships with Black communities. Special programming that premiered new works, resurrected historic works (e.g., Houston Grand Opera’s production of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, 1976), or connected concert music with other forms of Black music (Detroit and Cincinnati’s Classical Roots concert) became regular events in the concert life of certain cities with major Black populations.
Dorothy Rudd Moore
Prominent Concert Artists:
New World Symphony
Donnie Ray Albert
VII. Post–Civil Rights Era: Second Generation and Beyond (ca. 1986–Present)
“My music doesn’t easily fit into a single category, though I incorporate many musical influences in a way that creates a distinct sound,” says Okoye. “I think a lot of people are surprised to hear connections between gospel aria and jazz used in classical compositions.”Nkeiru OkoyeComposer
“I didn’t think (opera) was something that I would like or understand or something I could even aspire to until I took to the technique of classical voice like a duck to water. And as I started to study, I found, ‘Hey this is something I can do too. I don’t have to be relegated to any other genre of music’.”Angela BrownOpera Singer
The generation of Black artists and composers who have achieved recognition and renown since the early 1980s benefited from the new opportunities for advancements made possible by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. These composers have found new outlets for performances of their works as they continue to broaden the sound of concert music with their blurring of the line between jazz, gospel, and concert music and borrowing from contemporary forms. Gregory T.S. Walker’s Magic Man for Amplified Chamber Orchestra and Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Symphony for the Dance Floor and “Woodbox Beats & Balladry” draw elements from rock and hip-hop culture (e.g., turntablism and spoken word). While orchestral works remain an important facet of the Black composer’s catalog, opera has also been an important genre in promoting Black narratives. Operas such as Anthony Davis’s X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, and Nkeiru Okoye’s Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom represent how historical figures and their experiences have been reclaimed and presented to new audiences. During this period, the performance opportunities of Black instrumentalists expanded with the emergence of the Gateways Festival (Rochester, New York), the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra (Detroit), African American Philharmonic Orchestra (Atlanta) and Soul Symphony (Baltimore).
While the works of several composers embody expressions of sociopolitical activism, others have initiated outreach programs to broaden the audience for classical music. Opera singer Angela Brown, for example, has created innovative programs to bring an awareness of opera to all ages, ethnicities, and races. Her one-woman show, Opera from a Sistah’s Point of View, combines an educational narrative interspersed with musical selections to dispel the myths of opera with humor and charm while involving the audience. Similarly, violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins’s Music Kitchen: Food for the Soul outreach concerts bring performances to homeless shelters in various cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Paris.
Regina Harris Baiocchi
George T.S. Walker
Gary Powell Nash
Daniel Bernard Roumain
Prominent Concert Artists:
- André, Naomi. Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018.
- Banfield, William C. Musical Landscapes in Color: Conversations with Black American Composers. Boston: Scarecrow Press, 2003.
- Banfield, William C. Black Notes: Essays of a Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age. Boston: Scarecrow Press, 2004.
- Baker, David N., Lida M. Belt and Herman Hudson, Eds. The Black Composer Speaks. Metuchen, N.J. The Scarecrow Press, 1978.
- Johnson, James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson. The Books of American Negro Spirituals. New York: A Da Capo Paperback, 1977. First published 1969.
- Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black America: A History. 3rd Ed. New York: W.W, Norton, 1997.
- Walker-Hill, Helen. From Spirituals to Symphonies: African American Women Composers and Their Music. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Originally published in 2002.