Black History Month is observed each year during the month of February in the United States and Canada and in October in the United Kingdom and Ireland. While we benefit around the world from the contributions of Black musicians and artists all year long, this is a special time to recognize the great contributions of these artists in the face of adversity.
To celebrate, we’re shining a light on four Black musicians from different periods of history and their incredible contributions to the world of Western classical music.
Chevalier de Saint-Georges (b. 1745 – d. 1799)
Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is remembered today as the first known composer of Western Classical music of African ancestry. His father was a wealthy French planter, and his mother, Anne, was an enslaved person. Saint-Georges first became famous as a fencing master known for excellent swordsmanship and then went on to become a virtuoso violinist and the concertmaster of a leading orchestra. Simply put, Saint-Georges did it all: writing operas and symphonies, and overcoming prejudice to become the Duc d’Orleans music director. A true visionary and incredible artist, we thank Chevalier de Saint-Georges for all he did for music.
Florence Price (b. 1887 – d. 1953)
The daughter of a dentist and a piano teacher from Arkansas, Florence Price was the first female African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra. Because few music schools accepted Black students at this time, Florence overcame adversity to study at the New England Conservatory of Music. Opportunities were hard to come by for Florence because of racism and sexism, so to make ends meet, she also played organ for the soundtracks in silent films and wrote advertising music for the radio. Throughout her life, she composed over 300 works, including symphonies, organ pieces, piano concertos, and arrangements of spiritual songs. Click here to listen to her first symphony, which won a contest and was premiered in Chicago in 1933!
Thomas ‘Blind Tom’ Wiggins (b. 1849 – d. 1908)
Born an enslaved person, Tom Wiggins was a blind pianist and composer who learned to play the piano by ear. A child prodigy, by age ten Tom was the highest paid pianist of the 19th century, but his earnings all went to his enslavers, the Bethune family. After emancipation, the Bethunes appointed themselves legal guardians of Tom in order to continue arranging and financially benefiting from his concert tours. Tom travelled throughout the United States performing music by Bach and Beethoven, as well as his own works. Tom Wiggins was an inspiring musician who became one of the most accomplished concert pianists of the 19th century, although he was not appreciated by audiences of his time.
Marian Anderson (b. 1897 – d. 1993)
Marian Anderson was a contralto singer who overcame the challenges of growing up in segregated America to have a career that stretched all the way to Europe and included music from opera to Spirituals. Even though her family couldn’t afford music lessons and she was denied entry to a music school because of her race, she persisted. When told she couldn’t perform a concert at Constitution Hall because of who she was, Marian arranged with Eleanor Roosevelt to host a huge open-air integrated concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Marian also became the first African-American singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera when she played Ulrica in Verdi’s “A Masked Ball.” In addition to her work on the stage, she worked as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and a Goodwill Ambassador for the United States Department of State. Marian Anderson was a true trailblazer for music and human rights, performing all over the world. Marian Anderson premiered one of Florence Price’s vocal pieces at her Lincoln Memorial Concert– you can listen to footage from that concert here!