Artist Spotlights

Black History: Classical Composers

By Hoffman Academy Team

Last week on the blog, we talked about why we celebrate African American Music Appreciation Month. This week, we’re exploring some lesser-known Classical musicians!

Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

Let’s start with someone you’ve probably heard of, especially if you follow this blog! 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?

Florence Price (1887-1953)

Florence Price faced many difficulties in her life. That didn’t stop her from being the first female African American composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra! The piece, Symphony No. 1 in E minor, is well worth a listen.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Price attended the New England Conservatory, a prestigious music college in Boston. After graduating with honors, she moved back to Little Rock. However, good work was hard to find in the racially segregated South, so she moved to Chicago in 1927.

Price continued her studies in Chicago, and from there, her career as a composer took off. 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 bits of spirituals and even the blues! In 1964, Chicago named an elementary school after her, cementing her legacy as one of that city’s great artists.

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!

A few places you may have seen Audra McDonald: The Tony Awards! In fact, one performance the author recalls is of McDonald singing Summertime from Porgy & Bess at the 2012 Tony 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!

Coming up in AAMAM!

Next time, join us for Blues & Jazz Geniuses! We’ll 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.

Got a composer or performer you’d like to see featured on the blog? Let us know in the comments! Remember to check out our special AAMAM Spotify Playlist, too. Happy listening!

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