Often unheralded, but increasingly appreciated today, African-American composers created wonderful music throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. Learn a little more about them and listen to some of their great works!
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
William Grant Still composed nearly two hundred works, including five symphonies and nine operas. Performing William Grant Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano, I. African Dancer are Randall Goosby, violin and Zhu Wang, piano. Note that Jung-Ho has his eye on Goosby as a future guest artist with the Cape Symphony! Known as the “Dean of Afro-American Composers,” the talented Still was for a long time in the 20th century considered to be “the” black composer of America, but today we know that there were and still are many other equally wonderful but sadly unheralded composers.
Florence Price (1887-1953)
One of Jung-Ho Pak’s favorite composers, Florence Price was sophisticated and masterful, equal to any of our great American composers like Aaron Copland. Price was the first African-American woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Jung-Ho says that Price’s work is “on par with some of the works by the European post-romantic and second Viennese school composers like Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg.” Listen to her Violin Concerto No. 2, performed by the Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra, and her String Quartet in G Major, 2nd movement, performed by the Viano String Quartet.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown, & Beige is one of Jung-Ho’s favorite Ellington pieces, written for orchestra and jazz band. The work is described in the liner notes as “Ellington’s philosophical metaphor for black survival in a white world.” According to Jung-Ho, Ellington’s command of extended harmony and melody and orchestration rivals that of Claude Debussy. In a short video from Jazz at Lincoln Center's JAZZ ACADEMY, music scholar Greg Thomas explains, “’Black, Brown, & Beige’ has a legacy tied to jazz, to Ellington’s own body of work, to Black Americans and American culture, and to the world.”
George Walker (1922–2018)
In 1996, George Walker became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Walker achieved many other “firsts” and awards throughout his acclaimed career as a pianist, organist, professor, and composer. He graduated from the Curtis Institute (where he was one of the first Black graduates), and was the first Black recipient of a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music. He won Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships, was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, and won the Aaron Copland ASCAP award. Walker’s early composition, Lyric for Strings from 1946, was one of the most frequently performed orchestral works by a living American composer.
Michael Abels (1962- )
Michael Abels is a composer, arranger, and producer who specializes in concert orchestral music and film scores. His orchestral works have been performed by the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and others. Abels wrote the “witty, soulful, and infectiously rhythmic” Delights & Dances for the Harlem Quartet, an ensemble of first-place laureates of the Sphinx Competition for outstanding young black and Latino string players. This world premiere video of Urban Legends, a concerto for string quartet and orchestra, led director Jordan Peele to connect with Abels, ultimately leading to multiple awards and nominations for the scores for Peele’s films “Get Out” and “Us.”
These composers are worthy of our attention all year round. We hope you appreciate the chance to hear some music that might be new to you, and that you enjoy it!
With thanks to Wikipedia.