Forgotten Black composers you need to know

Jim Ottewill 9 March 2021

From Chevalier de Saint-Georges to Florence Price we look at some of the best Black classical composers whose musical achievements have all too often been written out of history...

Classical music’s history is one dominated by the achievements of white male composers. 

A 2019 survey from the Royal Albert Hall showed that the most recognised composers by listeners are the so-called “white, male titans” such as Mozart and Beethoven. 

But this narrative neglects the achievements of the many brilliant female and Black creators who have added their potent musical skills to the mix. 

Over the last 12 months, the stories of these all too often forgotten composers have come increasingly to the fore in part due to the turmoil we’ve seen in the wider world. Issues of race and our relationship with how we view society’s past have become increasingly fraught. 

We’ve seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in the US and ongoing debate about the morally toxic pasts of the figures we’ve literally put on pedestals in the UK, most notoriously that of slave trader Edward Colston whose statue was torn down last year.  

Amid this volatile backdrop, there’s never been a more vital time to explore the often overlooked talents and potent musical forces of the Black classical world. Here, we celebrate some of the best Black composers who need and deserve to be heard. 

 

Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) 

Born on the island of Guadeloupe, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was the illegitimate son of a slave and white plantation owner. 

Saint-Georges went on to lead one of the most exciting of lives as his parents took him to Paris and he became the first known composer of African descent. His brilliant fencing skills and virtuoso abilities as a musician meant he became popular among certain sections of the upper echelons of French society. This swashbuckling composer was held in high esteem within Marie Antoinette’s court and was asked to take on the role of director of the Royal Opera House in Paris before a group of performers protested because of the colour of his skin. 

The richness of his life and exploits are currently being transformed into a Hollywood film

Must listen: Symphony No. 1 in G major—Allegro 

 

Florence Price (1887-1953) 

Born in 1887 in Arkansas, Florence Beatrice Price was an American classical composer, noted for being the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra. 

Following a musical life spent working on music for radio ads and playing as an organist, her composition Symphony in E Minor won first prize in the Wanamaker Foundation Awards in 1932. A year later, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her work. 

Florence’s musical style, drawing on her Christian upbringing and Southern American roots alongside her love for European styles, has seen her honoured with numerous events and awards since her death. 

Must listen: Symphony in E Minor 
 

 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1875-1912)

English composer Samuel Taylor-Coleridge only lived for a short time but his musical talents shone brightly before he sadly died of pneumonia in his thirties. 

Named after the famous romantic poet, he threw himself into studying music at the Royal College of Music before embarking on his career as a composer. 

Samuel overcame horrific racial abuse—which went as far as him enduring having his hair set on fire—to become a global musical sensation thanks to the success of his choral trilogy, The Song of Hiawatha. 

Other popular works include Deep River, Nonet in F Minor and Christmas Overture, and he toured the US and visited the White House at the invitation of President Theodore Roosevelt.  

Must listen: The Song of Hiawatha

 

Undine Smith Moore (1904-89) 

Undine trained as a classical pianist but loved vocal music, writing numerous choral works drawing on her African spiritual and folk music. 

She became known as the “Dean of Black Women Composers”, co-founding the Black Music Center at Virginia State College and going on to write more than 100 compositions. Only 26 of these were published while she was alive. Her career as an educator saw her devote 40 years of her life to teaching music at Virginia State College which went on to become Virginia State University. 

Scenes from the Life of a Martyr, her 16-part choral cantata based on the life of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1981 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Must listen: Scenes from the Life of a Martyr

 

George Theophilus Walker (1922-2018) 

Acclaimed composer George Walker devoted his life to music, writing nearly 100 works over a career that has taken in a variety of styles such as jazz and African-American spiritual sounds. 

His music saw him achieve a wave of firsts—he was the first African-American pianist to perform at New York’s Town Hall and the first Black graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. 

George won the Pulitzer Prize for Music with his composition Lilacs in 1996. 

Must listen: Lyrics for Strings

Read more: Why is 1960s music so enduring?

Read more: The best albums of 2020

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter