The impact of black classical musicians on classical music cannot be understated. Whether it’s through composing a new piece or playing in an orchestra, their contribution to this genre has proved significant and far-reaching.
Throughout history, black classical musicians have been overlooked and underrepresented in orchestras around the world. This was mainly due to systemic and cultural barriers, as well as lack of access to elite musical training.
Despite these challenges, some people just refuse to be held back. Over time, many black classical musicians were able to develop incredible musical skills, find success as performers, and create a lasting impact on the genre.
Why Are There So Few Black Classical Musicians?
Black composers have historically been overlooked in American society and culture for various reasons. One reason is that they didn’t fit into the white supremacist worldview that dominated much of American and European history.
They also faced issues within their own culture, in the sense that they were black and playing what was generally regarded as European music.
In addition to these frustrations, many of these musicians lacked adequate opportunities for success. Major orchestras or opera companies did not exist at all until much later in American history.
Furthermore, opportunities for training and education were often limited for anyone other than wealthy elites in European and American society. Getting the opportunity to commit one’s life to studying and composing music was reserved for a very few lucky people.
As black people were rarely in this luxurious situation in America or Europe, the opportunity to become a world-renowned composer or musician was limited.
There were also laws and structural barriers that prevented black people from achieving musical success. Many black musicians had to settle for being accompanists because they were barred from playing solos in public venues.
This practice continued well into the 20th century when laws were changed. Additionally, black composers were finally accepted by publishers such as Francis Day & Hunter Ltd., Carl Fischer Music Publishers, and G. Schirmer Inc.
Some black musicians, such as Mason Jones, were fortunate enough to be taught by white musicians who accepted them and their work. When he was a teenager in the 1920s, he had lessons with German pianist Martin Krause. Having this one-on-one interaction allowed him to have an outlet for his music that would not otherwise have been available.
How Have Black Composers Contributed to Classical Music?
Black classical composers have contributed positively to the genre in many ways. They were able to reshape what was then an overwhelmingly white orchestra by adding more than just novelty value with their presence — they made the American orchestra an all-inclusive place where every voice could be heard.
Black composers helped to create new styles of classical music by influencing composers such as Paul Hindemith and George Gershwin, who created the American style that was so popular in Europe during the interwar period.
Modernized the Genre
Black composers helped modernize classical music by influencing composers to incorporate elements from jazz and blues into their compositions. George Gershwin was the first composer to experiment with jazz in his compositions. His music such as "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American In Paris" have become some of the most beloved classical pieces from that era.
This experimentation led to new musical styles that are still enjoyed today by people of all colors. This is a great example of the power that comes from combining diverse perspectives.
Changed People's Perspective of Classical Music
Black artists have also helped change how classical music is seen in the world. Broadway shows such as "Hamilton" and pop stars like Beyonce have brought more awareness of classical music to black culture.
More and more people are starting to explore black culture through classical music. This can be seen in the songs "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and "I Will Follow Him," -- two pieces that are some of the most popular, well-known gospel songs today with roots in classical music.
Who Are the Most Influential Black Classical Musicians?
Now, we will take a look at some black classical musicians from history who have been most influential in the development of classical music. These artists include:
Joseph Bologne (1745 - 1799)
Also known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Joseph Bologne was the first classical composer in history who descended from African ancestry. He composed many operas, string quartets, and other instrumental works. His operas include Ernestine and La Partie de Chasse, among many others.
Bologne was also a highly skilled violinist, which is how he originally made a name for himself in the music world. Interestingly, he was also a talented fencer, which suggests the two skills might have been connected.
Bologne is important in history because he is the first black classical composer recognized by his contemporary peers for his excellence. Being first is crucial and helps pave the road for those who will come later. There may have been others before him, but Bologne is remembered.
Some legends even suggest that Mozart himself was jealous of Bologne because the latter achieved public acclaim before the former.
George Bridgetower (1778 - 1860)
Bridgetower was born in Poland and had an incredible talent for violin from a very young age. His skill was so high, he was singled out by the future king of England to be trained in the elite music academies of Europe.
In his later years, Bridgetower created several compositions including Henry: A Ballad for Medium Voice and Piano and Diatonica Armonica. Historians agree that he wrote many others but they have been lost to time, which was common for all but the most elite composers.
Bridgetower was famously a companion and fellow performer of Beethoven. They performed together on several occasions with Beethoven on the piano and Bridgetower on the violin. Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 in A minor (Op.47) was dedicated to Bridgetower.
Scott Joplin (1868 - 1917)
The first American on our list, Joplin was known as the “King of Ragtime,” a style of music he helped create. Born poor in the American south, his musical education was unconventional, learning from his musically-inclined family as well as local teachers.
In 1899, he published “Maple Leaf Rag,” which made him famous for the rest of his life. He went on to write many more pieces, including several operas, but never again reached the level of acclaim he received for “Maple Leaf Rag.”
His music regained popularity in the 1970s, thanks in part to the use of the music in several high-profile films. He was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize. While not a composer of classical music, Joplin is historically important because he was the first high-profile African-American composer.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 - 1912)
Coleridge-Taylor was born in London and, like others on this list, displayed incredible talent from a young age. He is best known for his renditions of an epic poem called Song of Hiawatha.
In 1904, Coleridge-Taylor met President Teddy Roosevelt at the White House, which was unheard of in those days for a black man. His music was popular with American blacks as he may have been the first notable classical black musician Americans saw in person.
He died tragically at just 37 due to pneumonia, likely brought on by stress due to financial hardships. Despite his untimely demise, he gained fame and notoriety for his incredible musical abilities.
Florence Price (1887 - 1953)
Price was the first black woman to be widely accepted as a composer of symphonies. She was also the first black woman to have her compositions performed by a major orchestra. In this way, she was a groundbreaker for both black Americans and women.
Price composed numerous musical works throughout her career, including four symphonies and four concertos. Some of her more famous works include Ethiopia's Shadow in America, Colonial Dance Symphony, and Dances in the Canebrakes.
Price’s music was unique because even though her training focused on the European style of classical music, she infused her work with American influences, particularly from her southern heritage. This revealed her talents as a musical innovator.
Do Black Classical Musicians Still Face Discrimination Today?
Throughout history, black classical musicians faced structural and cultural barriers in their pursuit of musical excellence and recognition. This is because black people were often excluded from the elite training schools that tended to produce high-class musicians and composers.
But, do black classical musicians still face these challenges today?
One data point is that a cultural stereotype still exists which equates classical music to white culture. Whether black people are directly discouraged from pursuing classical music is unclear, but the cultural stereotype persists. For example, the Gramophone Awards, the most prestigious awards in classical music today, have never given an award to a black musician.
Another barrier is the lack of representation in classical music. Black people make up 13% of the American population, yet only a small percentage of the artists in chamber groups are black.
The reasons for this inequity are complex. Some allege it’s because blacks don’t have access to high-quality education or training. However, this does not take into account the many black musicians who have come up through classical music education programs in recent years and still cannot find opportunities to perform on a solo stage.
Currently, there are only about 50 orchestras with African-American members or performers out of over 1800 symphonies across the country, which is less than three percent. Forty-two of these orchestras are in New York City alone, and many musicians feel they offer an important cultural attraction for black audiences.
A few cities have taken steps to remedy this lack of representation by the symphony orchestra. For example, Rochester has one black violinist on its roster, Indianapolis employs 5 black musicians out of a total of 73, and Seattle employs 6 black musicians out of 81.
In addition to these persistent barriers of discrimination and lack of representation for black musicians, they also face lower pay than their white counterparts.
Black classical musicians have historically been paid less than white musicians, and they’re also less likely to receive an audition or a callback for the orchestra.
This is partly linked to the issue of discrimination and lack of representation, as black musicians make up such a small percentage of orchestras that white conductors and managers may not believe there’s significant talent among them. Unfortunately, it's often assumed these positions need only be occupied by the best of the white performers.
What Is the Future of Black Classical Music?
It's difficult to say what the future of black classical musicians will be. Many have pointed out that as long as it continues to exist, there is hope for more representation in this field. It also seems like an area where those who are looking for a change could make progress very quickly if they're willing and able to take on this fight.
To increase representation in this field, more opportunities need to be created for young people from diverse backgrounds who want to pursue careers as professional musicians. This will likely require changes in the way we approach music education.
To change how classical musicians are selected and trained for orchestras or chamber groups, there would need to be a discussion about what instruments should be represented within these ensembles - violins, violas, cellos? What's more important: race representation or the instrument that's played?
Black classical musicians have played a significant role in advancing classical music, despite the general lack of diversity. However, this is gradually changing as more classical orchestras across America are making it easier for people from all backgrounds to participate.
We hope you enjoyed this article about black classical musicians. If you want to sample some of the best classical songs ever, check out our guide to the best classical music on the market right now!