Classical Classroom

28 Classical Music Moments In Black History

Learn about these twenty-eight great classical music moments in black history – one for every day of Black History Month.

Each day during February, we posted a “Classical Music Moment in Black History” on our Facebook page to show the contributions of black artists to classical music throughout history. We’ve collected our twenty-eight February entries in this article. By the way, these entries were originally part of an episode of the Classical Classroom podcast (audio included below). 

Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Composer Chevalier de Saint-Georges. 

In the mid-to-late 1700’s, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was an Afro-French composer who was also France’s best fencer. After Napoleon re-instituted slavery in France, de Saint-Georges’ works were rarely played, though lots of his work has been recorded since the 1970’s.

In 1803, virtuoso violinist George Bridgetower, who had studied under the leader of the Royal Opera, played with Beethoven. Beethoven then dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major to Bridgetower, and they premiered the piece together. Later, the two had a falling out – something to do with a lady – and Beethoven changed the piece’s name. It’s now called the Kreutzer Sonata. Poet Rita Dove wrote a book about Bridgetower and Beethoven’s relationship.

Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield
Soprano Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, “The Black Swan”. 

In 1853, soprano Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield – people knew her as the “Black Swan” – made her New York debut at the Metropolitan Hall. While she could sing, her skin color would have denied her entrance to the concert. But that didn’t slow Greenfield down: In 1854, this classy lady sang a command performance before Queen Victoria.

Scott Joplin
Composer Scott Joplin. 

In 1868, innovative composer and pianist Scott Joplin was born in Texas. Joplin wrote 2 operas, one ragtime ballet, and 44 original ragtime pieces before he died.

Harry T. Burleigh
Composer Harry Thacker Burleigh. 

From 1892-95, Antonin Dvorak – not black as you might know, but stick with me – was director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. The woman who founded the school, Jeanette Thurber, opened the school to men, women, blacks, and whites – pretty unusual for that time. Dvorak felt that a true American style of music should grow out of African- and Native-American music. Harry Burleigh, one of the earliest African-American composers and one of Dvorak’s pupils, introduced Dvorak to American spirituals.

In 1898, Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor wrote the musical Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. It was wildly successful during his lifetime. Coleridge-Taylor also visited the States and inspired American blacks to become composers.

Roland Hayes
Tenor Roland Hayes. 

In 1921 tenor Roland Hayes gave a performance before King George V of England. In 1923, Hayes debuted at Carnegie Hall. He was the first African American man to become famous worldwide as a concert performer, and he became one of the world’s greatest Lieder interpreters.

In 1926, Undine Smith Moore graduated cum laude from the Juilliard School. She was the first graduate of Fisk University, a historically black school, to receive a scholarship to Juilliard. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Moore became “…one of this country’s most prominent composers and arrangers of choral works, many based on or inspired by Negro spirituals and folk songs.”

William Grant Still
Composer William Grant Still. 

1931 was the year William Grant Still became the first Black American composer to have a symphonic work performed by a major American orchestra. The Rochester Philharmonic performed his Afro-American Symphony. Stills had another big “first” in 1949 when his opera Troubled Island – based on a libretto by Langston Hughes – was performed by the New York City Opera, becoming the first opera by a black person to be performed by a major company. William Grant Still was also the first black man to conduct a major orchestra (LA Phil) and he won 2 Guggenheim fellowships. In 1933, Caterina Jarboro became the first black woman to appear in a leading role with a major American opera when she again played the title role in Aida with the Chicago Opera. 

Florence Price
Composer Florence Price.

Also in 1933, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed Florence Price’s Symphony in E Minor. She was the first female African-American composer to have a symphonic composition performed by a major American symphony orchestra.

Todd Duncan
Baritone Todd Duncan and Anne Brown. Culver Pictures/file 1935.

In 1935, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway, with baritone Todd Duncan as Porgy, and sopranos Anne Brown as Bess and Ruby Elzy as Serena. In 1945, Todd Duncan became the first African American to sing with a major American opera company, when he played the role of Tonio Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci with the New York City Opera.

Marian Anderson
Contralto Marian Anderson

In 1939, both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the District of Columbia’s Board of Education refused to allow contralto Marian Anderson to use Constitution Hall and Central High School auditorium for a recital respectively. So, she gave her concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead, drawing a crowd of 75,000 – not to mention the millions who listened on the radio. (To read more about the performance, go here.)

Camilla Williams
Lyric Soprano Camilla Williams (l) with Margery Mayer. Courtesy of Fred Fehl/New York City Opera.

Also in 1945, lyric soprano Camilla Williams signed a contract with the New York City Opera in 1946, becoming the first African American to do so with a major American opera company. She debuted with the role of the heroine in Madama Butterfly. And in 1947, soprano Helen Phillips was the first African American to sing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. In 1951 William Warfield and Muriel Rahn were the first black concert artists on TV – they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Dorothy Maynor
Soprano and educator Dorothy Maynor.

In 1953, soprano and educator Dorothy Maynor was the first black person to sing at a US presidential inauguration when she performed the national anthem for Dwight Eisenhower.

Margaret Bonds
Composer Margaret Bonds. Wikimedia Commons.

Margaret Bonds, who frequently collaborated with Langston Hughes, was one of the first black composers and performers in the US to gain recognition. In 1965, when the Freedom March on Montgomery, Alabama took place, she wrote Montgomery Variations for orchestra, dedicating it to Martin Luther King, Jr.. For more information about Ms. Bonds, check out this piece from WBUR 90.9 FM.

Henry Lewis
Conductor Henry Lewis.

In 1968 Henry Lewis became the first black conductor and music director of a major American orchestra when he was appointed to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. He was also the first African-American to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera.

1972 saw Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha finally premiere – 55 years after his death – at the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center. In 1976, Joplin posthumously received a special Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to American music.

Wynton Marsalis
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Photo by Luigi Beverelli. Courtesy Mr. Marsalis’ website.

In 1983 and 1984, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis became the only artist ever to win Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical records. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1997 for Blood on the Fields, a three-hour oratorio for 3 singers and a 14-member ensemble. The oratorio follows the story of an African couple sold into slavery in the US.

In 1987, conductor Paul Freeman became Founding Musical Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta. This orchestra’s mission is “Musical Excellence Through Diversity”. Dr. Freeman served for 24 years.

Aaron Dworkin
Violinist Aaron Dworkin. Courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation website.

Violinist Aaron Dworkin founded the non-profit Sphinx Organization in 1996 to cultivate the development of young black and Latino musicians in the classical music profession. The Sphinx Competition, spotlights young black and Latino string players on a national platform.

Composer George Walker received the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra, a work commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra as part of its tribute to tenor Roland Hayes. This was the first time a living African American won the prize for music.

Denyce Graves
Mezzo-Soprano Denyce Graves. Courtesy of the artist’s website.

In 2001 mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves sang “America the Beautiful” and “The Lord’s Prayer” at the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance Service at the Washington National Cathedral following the September 11 attacks.

James DePriest
James DePriest conducting the Oregon Sympony. Courtesy of the Sympony’s website.

In 2005, James DePriest, one of classical music’s most accomplished conductors who at the time of his death in 2013 was Laureate Music Director of the Oregon Symphony and Director Emeritus of Conducting and Orchestral Studies at the Juilliard School, received the National Medal of Arts.

Tim Brooks won a 2007 Grammy award for Best Historical Release with his Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, which includes performances by Harry Burleigh, Roland Hayes, and Edward Boatner.

Noah Stewart
Tenor Noah Stewart. Photograph: Mitch Jenkins Mitch Jenkins/PR.

In 2012, tenor Noah Stewart became the first black musician to top the UK Classical Album Chart.

Of course, we had to leave a GAGILLION people out of our daily Black History Month Facebook posts because (duh) there are just not enough days in the month. Like Jeffrey MumfordAwadagin Pratt, David BakerImani WindsAndré Watts, Chelsea Tipton, Thomas WilkinsMorris Robinson, Lawrence Brownlee, Valerie Coleman, Rachel Jordan, and Tona Brown. And Daniel Bernard Roumain. And Black Violin. And… you get the idea! 

But, blacks are still one of classical music’s most under-served communities. As of 2011, according to the League of American Orchestras, only 1.83% of our nation’s orchestras’ makeup was black. Aaron Dworkin has pointed out that African-American composers are often missing in traditional classical music station programming. But people like Dworkin and many others are working to change that! 

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about all of these awesome artists.

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Dacia Clay

Dacia Clay

Host/Producer, Classical Classroom; Web Editor, Arts & Culture

Dacia began her career in public radio as the Audio Librarian for Houston Public Media (then KUHF) in 2009. She earned her Master of Library Science degree from the University of North Texas' School of Library and Information Science, where she focused on special collections (thanks to the sage advice...

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