Our first project highlights talented Black composers who have contributed to the orchestral repertoire. Acknowledging their impact in the field of music expands our understanding of the vital role they played in the advancement of civil rights and popular culture. In recognition of Black History Month, we studied and rehearsed works by Joseph Bologne, Scott Joplin, Florence Price and William Grant Still.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George (1745 – 1799)
Joseph Bologne was the first classical musician of African descent to garner notoriety throughout Europe in pre-Revolutionary Paris. He studied violin with Jean-Marie Leclair and composition with Francois- Joseph Gossec. He made his solo debut at 27, performing his own virtuosi violin concertos. Both Haydn and Mozart, contemporaries of Bologne, held him in high regard as a violinist and composer.
His esteemed reputation led to royal offices. Queen Marie-Antoinette appointed Bologne as her music director and King Louis XVI selected him as director of the Paris Opera. Bologne’s compositions include 14 violin concertos, violin sonatas, string quartets, 2 sinfonia concertantes, 8 symphonies and 6 operas.
Bologne’s childhood years were spent on the island of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean and Saint Dominque, (now Haiti). His father was a former Gentleman of the King’s House and owner of a coffee and sugar plantation; his mother, a household slave. The family relocated to Paris, France when Bologne was 10. In Paris, he began his formal education as well as received instruction in music, riding and fencing. Bologne showed immeasurable talent in fencing and later became a master swordsman, serving as an officer in king’s bodyguard, leading a troop of Black soldiers known as the “Legion of Saint-Georges”.
Scott Joplin (1867 – 1917)
Florence Price (1887 - 1953)
composition with acclaimed composer George W. Chadwick. Several years after graduating from the NEC, she was appointed director of music at Clark University in Atlanta.
In 1927, Price moved to Chicago, Illinois, to further her professional opportunities as an educator, pianist and organist. She also signed a music publishing contract with G. Schirmer. In 1933, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered Price’s Symphony no. 1 in e minor at the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1939, Price received national recognition when soprano Marion Anderson performed her setting of the spiritual, “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” at the Lincoln Memorial.
William Grant Still (1895 – 1978)
William Grant Still achieved many firsts as a 20th century musician and composer, so much so that he earned the name “Dean of African American Composers.” Today, he is best remembered for his classical orchestral compositions and chamber music.Still was a versatile composer, having completed over 200 works. The unmistakably “American” compositional qualities of his music – moderate tempos, lush sonorities, rhythmic textures, blues passages and jazz chords – attracted the attention of the greatest conductors of his day. Early in his career, Still found success writing for radio. and theatre orchestras. He also worked as an arranger for
Paul Whiteman and W.C. Handy, and for a short period composed movie scores for 20th Century Fox.
By the late 1920’s, Still focused his attention solely on composing classical compositions. His first big breakthrough occurred in 1931, when his Symphony no.1 “Afro-American” was performed by a major U.S. orchestra. In 1934, he had the honor of conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, performing a concert of his own music. In 1939, Still was commissioned to compose a work for the New York World’s Fair.
Still grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. Both his mother and grandmother instilled in William a love for the arts. Showing great interest in music, he began private violin lessons at age 15. Still went on to teach himself to play clarinet, sax, oboe, double bass, cello and viola. After serving a for a time in the Navy in 1918, Still enrolled at Oberlin Conservatory and the New England Conservatory, earning degrees in music theory and composition. His most influential teachers were George W. Chadwick and Edgard Varese.
“As musicians, we are blessed with a voice that can touch and transform. It is our responsibility to use it to make the world a better place around us.” Rachel Barton Pine (Internationally acclaimed concert violinist, educator and philanthropist)
I could not agree more with Rachel.
COVID has truly challenged performing artists to create new ways to share music with their audiences. In the hope of sharing the gift of music in new ways, we are designing our own music projects.
Music of Black Composers
African American composer, performer and teacher Scott Joplin was known as the “King of Ragtime.” He was also a pioneer who broke barriers that stood between Black musicians and their opportunity for success. He saw ragtime as a medium for Black music creativity.
Ragtime is a blend of two traditional styles – European classical and African syncopated rhythms, which led to its popularity with people of all races. Ragtime was the precursor of music styles that followed, leading the way for the advent of Dixieland jazz and swing.Joplin was raised in a musical household and by the age of 12, was composing music. As a young man, he worked as a touring musician and later published several of his own compositions.
He wrote over 50 piano rags, several works for theatre, a ballet and two operas. His “Maple Leaf Rag” published in 1899, sold a million copies, earning him a steady income.
In the 1970’s Joplin’s music went through a revival. His compositions were featured in concerts, recordings and television commercials. In 1973, his rag, “The Entertainer,” was chosen as the soundtrack for the movie, The Sting. In 1975, his opera, “Treemonisha,” appeared on Broadway and one year later, he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Florence Price was an African American classical composer, pianist, organist and music educator. She was the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer. Price’s compositions present a genuine blend of jazz, blues, dance rhythms, spirituals and European classical music.
Price grew up in a racially integrated neighborhood in Little Rock, Arkansas. By the age of 12 she had published her first composition. At 16, she moved to Boston, Massachusetts to attend the New England Conservatory and study