Artist Spotlights

Black History: Classical Composers

By Hoffman Academy Team

Learn about some African-American composers of classical music along with present-day musical creators. If you’re looking for sheet music arrangements by some of these composers and others, you can check out Hoffman Academy’s collection of music arrangements for piano by African-American Composers. 

Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

Scott Joplin is the King of Ragtime. While not the first ragtime composer, he helped make it famous. Classically trained by a German pianist, Joplin wrote over 40 ragtime pieces for piano, and even published a ragtime ballet! Joplin is probably most famous for The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag. His music inspired other Classical composers too, including Debussy, Satie, and Stravinsky. To learn more about Scott Joplin, check out our post, Who Is Scott Joplin?

Check out our sheet music for the Maple Leaf Rag and for The Entertainer  in our music store

Florence Price (1887-1953)

Florence Price faced many difficulties in her life, ranging from discrimination and racism to a difficult marriage. That didn’t stop her from being the first female African American composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra! Her piece Symphony No. 1 in E minor earned a $500 prize (over $10,000 dollars today) in 1932 and was premiered in 1933.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence gave her first performance at the piano at age four and wrote her first composition at age 11. The daughter of a music teacher, she attended the New England Conservatory, a prestigious music college in Boston. After graduating with honors, she moved back to Little Rock, only to leave for Chicago in 1927 due to the unsafe conditions of the racially segregated town. 

Price continued her studies in Chicago, and from there, her career as a composer took off. She became a key member of the Chicago Black Renaissance, an important cultural movement. With collaborators ranging from Margaret Bonds to Langston Hughes, she taught and created classical music in a thriving community. Throughout her life, she composed over 300 works, including symphonies, organ pieces, piano concertos, and arrangements of spiritual songs. The music she grew up with inspired much of her composition. Listening to her works, one hears inspirations from spirituals, the blues, and more! In 1964, Chicago named an elementary school after her, cementing her legacy as one of that city’s great artists.

Margaret Bonds (1913-1972)

Margaret Bonds became a notable African American pianist, composer, and arranger. A Chicago local, she studied with Florence Price and worked closely with Langston Hughes and other members of the Chicago Black Renaissance. Her connections also extend to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the famed British composer of mixed-race heritage, since she studied at his music school. 

The daughter of a physician active in the civil rights movement and a church musician, Margaret Bonds grew up playing piano. From her first lessons with her mother Estelle, Bonds earned a scholarship to learn piano at the Coleridge-Taylor School of Music. Bonds became one of the first Black students at Northwestern University, where she earned multiple music degrees. Although she was a student at the university, Bonds was not allowed to use the school practice rooms or live on campus because of her race. 

Bonds became the first African American pianist to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. Her compositions included piano music, musical theater works, and choral works and cantatas in addition to her art songs and spiritual arrangements. Like her teacher Florence Price, Bonds drew inspiration and solace from Langston Hughes’s poetry, The two became close friends in 1936 and remained collaborators  

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

Movie scores, Harlem Renaissance poetry, opera – there’s a reason William Grant Still is known as “The Dean of African American Composers!” Born in Mississippi and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, Still started violin lessons at age 14. He went on to teach himself other instruments and studied music in college. He made a living partly out of “commercial music,” which included writing for film scores. However, much of that work went uncredited.

Still’s career is full of firsts. His Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American” was the first composition by an African American to be performed by a major American orchestra. He also became the first African American conductor of a major symphony orchestra in 1936. His opera, Troubled Island, was the first by an African American to be performed by the New York City Opera, and the first to be nationally televised. In addition, Still set many poems of the Harlem Renaissance to music, including some by Langston Hughes.

Audra McDonald (1970–)

6 Tony Awards. 2 Grammys. 1 Emmy. Time Magazine named her as one of the most influential people of 2015. A Classically-trained soprano with a transcendent voice, Audra McDonald studied at the famous Juilliard School of Music in NYC. Since then, she’s performed on countless stages and appeared in many movies, musicals, operas, and plays. She’s sung with just about every major orchestra in the United States. McDonald’s even premiered works by Pulitzer Prize-winning composers, some of whom wrote songs specifically for her!

You also may have seen Audra McDonald at The Tony Awards! In fact, one performance the author recalls is of McDonald singing Summertime from Porgy & Bess at the 2012 awards. (If you want to see her sing Summertime in full, here you go!) Then, in 2013, she played Mother Abbess in the televised Sound of Music, in which Carrie Underwood played Maria. Her rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain gained much critical acclaim. More recently, McDonald was featured in the 2017 live action remake of Beauty and the Beast. There, you can see her singing the Aria in the opening scene!

More about AAMAM!

Explore how the blues came to be and how jazz helped change American culture. Also, we’ll meet four of the many musicians that made the genre great: Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, and Ella Fitzgerald. Also, read on to find out why we celebrate African American Music Appreciation Month

Remember to check out our special AAMAM Spotify Playlist, too. Happy listening!

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