• Julia Corso

Black History Month

Updated: Mar 1

(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”