Updated: Mar 1, 2021
(Thank you to our Artistic Director Warren Cohen for providing information and listening recommendations for this feature.)
Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953). Price was the first Black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in E Minor on June 1, 1933.
She is known to have expanded the American music vernacular by combining her classical training with modern African-American music such as spirituals and blues. Her music and legacy was recently revived upon discovery of never-before-seen manuscripts in 2009, leading to new recordings of her symphonies and chamber music.
Recommended listening: "Five Folksongs in Counterpoint" (1951)
Scott Joplin (1868-1917). Known as the “King of Ragtime,” Joplin began studying piano as a child with local teachers. He moved from his birthplace of Texas to St. Louis in 1900 after his first published songs brought this fame, and later moved to New York City in 1907, where he wrote an instructional book, “The School of Ragtime.”
His reputation comes largely from his classic rags for piano, including “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer.” Joplin also composed a ballet suite and operas: most notably, his opera “Treemonisha.” Joplin not only composed the music for this opera, but also wrote the libretto and choreographed it. Although there was only one semi-public performance of “Treemonisha” in his lifetime, it was well received when a production was produced on Broadway in 1972.
Recommended listening: “The Entertainer” and “Treemonisha”
Composer and violinist José Silvestre White Lafitte, also known as Joseph White (1835-1918). He was introduced to the violin as a child by his father, and gave his first concert at 18, at which he performed two of his own compositions. White studied at the Paris Conservatory, winning the Grand Prize in violin after only a year of study, and returned to Cuba in 1860 after touring Europe, the Caribbean, South America, and Mexico.
Throughout his life, White taught at various prestigious schools, created new chamber music groups, was a guest soloist for the New York Philharmonic twice, and performed around the world, including giving concerts in many U.S. cities. Later in his life, he directed the Imperial Conservatory in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
As a composer, White was responsible for the development of various styles of Cuban and Brazilian music that led to the development of genres such as Ragtime, Tango, and Samba. His music has recently seen a revival in recordings of his violin concertos and other pieces.
Recommended listening: “La Bella Cubana”
Composer and bandleader Francis Johnson, was the first Black composer to publish sheet music (1792-1844).
At the age of 17, Johnson had had mastered playing the violin and keyed bugle, and began building a reputation as a bandleader in Philadelphia by his early 20s. He became one of the leading dance band conductors in the 1820s, experimenting with different instrumentations, strings, and winds in his performances. In addition to his publications making history, Johnson was also the first Black bandleader to conduct public concerts, and led the first American ensemble to perform before Queen Victoria in England. He was also the first Black musician to perform in integrated musical events in the United States.
Over the course of his career, Johnson composed over 200 musical arrangements in various styles. These were mainly light works, such as dances, quadrilles, quicksteps, as well as ballads, operatic airs, and marches. Throughout his life, Johnson continued to teach music. He is recognized today as one of the first significant Black American composers, and a forefather of jazz and ragtime.
Recommended listening: “The New Bird Waltz”
Today, we are featuring musician and composer George Walker (1922-2018), the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Walker, born in Washington D.C. began playing the piano at age five. He graduated from Oberlin at the age of 18, and studied composition at the Curtis Institute for his graduate degree - one of the first black graduates of the school. From there, he went on to teach at various distinguished schools, from the New School to the Peabody Institute.
Walker was outspoken about the discrimination he faced as a black musician and composer, and continued to break barriers through his career. In 1945, he became the first black pianist to give a recital in Carnegie Hall, and in 1955 was the first black recipient of a doctoral degree from the Eastman School of Music. He also became the first black tenured faculty member at Smith College in 1961.
Most notably, Walker was the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize in Music, for “Lilacs for Voice in Orchestra” (1996). The piece was set to Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Walker’s musical style exemplifies a modern American style, with a very tonal and accessible sound. He also composed many pieces for strings that are well-known today—despite not being a string player himself.
Recommended listening: “Lyric for Strings” and “Lilacs”
Musician, composer, and conductor Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004) was named after the famous Black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. This was because of his family's history: his aunt had sung in the choir when Samuel Coleridge-Taylor conducted his famous “Song of Hiawatha” in Washington, marking a defining moment in their family history. Perkinson began showing an interest in music at a young age, and while in college initially for education, he transferred to Manhattan School of Music to become a composition major. After his graduation, Perkinson continued to study under various famed composers and conductors in the United States and Europe.
Perkinson had a long, successful career in the music industry, working on classical music and beyond. He worked as a music director and arranger for many famous jazz and soul artists, including Marvin Gaye, Harry Belafonte, and others. He composed many musical scores for stage, film, and television, and also wrote ballet scores for dance companies including the Dance Theatre of Harlem. His eclectic output also includes two String Sinfoniettas and a good deal of chamber and piano music.
In 1965, Perkinson co-founded the Symphony of the New World, also serving as its conductor from 1965-1970. His work also included teaching: he worked at various institutions, including Indiana University from 1997-98 and from 1998 until his death in 2004 worked at Columbia College Chicago’s Center for Black Music Research.
Recommended listening: “Sinfonietta No. 1 for Strings” and “Lamentations: Black/Folk Song Suite for Solo Cello”
Tania León (b. 1943) is a composer, conductor, educator, and advisor to arts organizations.
Born in Havana, Cuba, León began studying the piano at the age of four, and moved to New York City in 1967, where she continued her studies at New York University. In 1969, she became a founding member and the first musical director of the Dance Theater fo Harlem, establishing its music department, music school, and orchestra.
Throughout her career, León appeared as a guest conductor across the U.S. as well as internationally. Among many other notable accomplishments, she served as the New Music Advisor to the New York Philharmonic. León is also the founder and current artistic director of Composers Now, a nonprofit in NYC that celebrates the diversity and contributions of modern composers, helping to promote their work and contributions. She has also received Grammy and Latin Grammy nominations for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, among many other honors and awards.
A majority of León’s music is in a modernist style, and typically composed for unusual mixed ensembles, with some more recent pieces being commissioned for orchestra. León expresses her diverse musical background in her compositions, combining influences of gospel, jazz, as well as Latin American and African elements into pieces, creating a highly rhythmic and colorful signature sound.
Recommended Listening: “Ritmicas”
Musician, composer, and conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912).
Born in Croydon, England, Coleridge-Taylor's talent was quickly recognized by the British musical elite. One of his principal music composition teachers was Charles Villiers Stanford. At the suggestion of Edward Elgar, Coleridge-Taylor was commissioned to write a piece for a festival in 1898. The resulting "Ballade in A Minor" was a tremendous success. A subsequent trilogy written from 1898 to 1900 and based on the story of Hiawatha secured his fame for the remainder of his life.
In 1899 Coleridge-Taylor first heard American spirituals sung by the Fisk Jubilee singers on one of their tours. He became interested in African-American folk song and began incorporating it into his compositions. Black Americans returned the compliment. In 1902 a group of African-American music lovers formed the Coleridge-Taylor Society to perform and promote his music in America, and eventually brought Coleridge-Taylor over for three successful tours. During the first tour, Coleridge-Taylor conducted the Marine Band along with the Coleridge-Taylor Society Chorus. He also met with President Teddy Roosevelt. Subsequent tours took Coleridge-Taylor to more and more cities in the Midwest and the East.
In England, Coleridge-Taylor continued an active life in music. He composed, taught at Trinity College of Music, conducted numerous choral societies, and even conducted in the famed Handel Society from 1904 until his death.
Recommended listening: Check out our next post to hear some of “Ballade in A Minor!”