Canon Busters: Black Classical Composers Finally Being Recognized

In the world of classical music, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, among others, have long been recognized as the “crème de la crème” — brilliant, prolific composers considered icons within a canon dominated by white men.

Now, after decades languishing in relative obscurity, four African American classical composers are gaining the respect they deserve — and that was formerly denied because of pervasive racist and sexist ideologies.

William Grant Still, Jr. (1895–1978), George Theophilus Walker (1922–2018), Florence Beatrice (Smith) Price (1887–1953) and emerging artist Jessie Montgomery (born 1981), each had compositions performed by the New Orchestra of Washington (D.C.) during a concert on June 19.

Under the direction of conductor Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, who also serves as the orchestra’s artistic director, the ”Juneteenth Celebration: Lift Every Voice!” provided a unique means of observing America’s newest federal holiday — Juneteenth.

The orchestra’s ethnically diverse musicians brought vitality and emotion to the celebratory event at the Strathmore performing arts venue in North Bethesda, Maryland.

The four composers 

William Grant Still Jr. (Public Domain)

Mississippi native William Grant Still Jr., who composed nearly 200 works including five symphonies, four ballets and nine operas, attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Often referred to as the “Dean of African-American Composers,” historians consider him a member of the Harlem Renaissance because of his connection to several black literary and cultural figures of that era. His friends included Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke and Arna Bontemps.

He represents the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera and is known for his first symphony, Afro-American Symphony (1930), which, until 1950, served as the most widely performed symphony composed by an American.

Still composed “Song of a City” for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City — a song played continuously by the exhibit, “Democracity.” According to his granddaughter, journalist Celeste Headlee, Still could not attend the fair except on “Negro Day” without police protection.

George Theophilus Walker is the first black person to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, which he received for “Lilacs,” in 1996. His introduction to music began at the age 5 on the piano. At 14 he was admitted to the Oberlin Conservatory and later to the Curtis Institute of Music to study piano, chamber music and composition. He received his doctorate from the Eastman School of Music and taught at Rutgers University for several years before his retirement in 1992.

Walker’s most-performed orchestra work remains “Lyric for Strings,” written for voice and orchestra. It counts among more than 90 works he composed, many of which incorporate genres including jazz, folk songs and church hymns, as well as classical music. He sought to “create something which he could call his own,” according to his biography, and refused to conform to a specific style.

Florence Beatrice Price. (Public Domain)

Florence Beatrice Price (née Smith) was the first black woman recognized as a symphonic composer and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887 and one of three mixed-race children, her father served as the city’s only black dentist, which allowed the family to live comfortably, despite racism.

She studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and briefly reportedly attempted to “pass” as Mexican in an effort to escape racial discrimination. Her career as a composer took off while she was in Chicago, due in part to the assistance of Langston Hughes and Marian Anderson. After Smith’s death, some of her work was lost, but as more black and female composers have gained attention for their works, so has Price. A large volume of her music was later discovered in a dilapidated home in Illinois.

Jessie Montgomery earned a degree in violin performance from the Julliard School and a master’s degree at New York University. She has devoted much of her time to the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based nonprofit that supports young black and Latino string players. She often draws upon American folk and protest songs and anthems from around the world, including Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba, to create a musical melting pot. Listeners can expect to hear the multicultural sounds of her native New York, from samba and mbira to swing, techno and jazz.

Working to eliminate racism from the arts 

The Juneteenth Celebration served as an introduction to the music and stories behind the four overlooked African American composers. Hernandez-Valdez shared his views on the significance of the works featured during the concert.

“Because of systemic discrimination and socioeconomic dynamics, classical music has long remained out of reach to some demographics,” he said. “But classical music is for everyone, and we should all have the right to enjoy one of the most satisfying, edifying, stirring and powerful means of expression of the human mind and spirit. By making music as accessible as possible to as many demographics as possible, I hope we can take steps to right the ship.

Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, artistic director of the New Orchestra of Washington and the conductor for the evening, leads the musicians in a performance of compositions written by four overlooked African American composers. (Courtesy of the Strathmore) 

“Unfortunately, classical music has been largely inaccessible to people of color like me. For kids growing up in rough or limiting socioeconomic circumstances, a career in classical music is almost unthinkable. Becoming a professional classical musician requires an incredible amount of resources, determination and passion. I was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, to a family of very modest means, and I realize that my career would have not been possible without the help of several angels along the way.

“But not everyone is as fortunate, so many youths of color never get the chance to reach their potential. With time, I am hoping more and more youth of color will be able to dedicate their life to music. Our ensembles need more diversity. Our audiences need to see themselves reflected in the music and the artists they see onstage,” Hernandez-Valdez said.

Two friends and members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority who attended the concert— both women who live and work in the Greater Washington area — said they had never heard about the featured composers but promised to tell as many of their friends as possible.

Friends and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters Pamela Christian-Wilson (left) and Sabrina Mays-Diagne, heard theworks of four black, classical composers during the Juneteenth concert. (Courtesy of Pamela Christian-Wilson) 

“I’ve already reached out to my colleagues and told them about the wonderful music that I enjoyed during the concert — music written by black composers whom I previously knew nothing about,” said Sabrina Mays-Diagne, an attorneywho lives in suburban Herndon, Virginia.

“This was my first time attending a classical music concert, and it was a real treat,” she said. “Like most people, I know the works of the more-celebrated composers like Bach and Beethoven, but their work always seemed a bit cold and distant to me. But with these pieces, I felt something different and the music touched me. I felt connected to the composers and I loved it,” she said.

Pamela Christian-Wilson, a resident of Loudon County, Virginia, and a member of the management team at a law firm, described the music as “superb.”

“The orchestra played the music to perfection,” she said. “I just wish more young people could have been here to experience what I did this evening. It’s not that I have anything against the music that our youth tend to like — like hip-hop or rap. I just believe that black youth would benefit so profoundly from being exposed to classical music, especially works written by black men and women.

“These composers overcame significant obstacles just to do what they felt in their minds, hearts and souls. Everyone needs to know about them and their stories and to hear the beautiful works they created. I wanted more, and I could have listened to the orchestra for hours,” she said.

(Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Judith Isacoff)



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