Tradition & Legacy II

Tradition and Legacy in African American Composers, part I

Looking at media in the modern age, our mainstream eyes have started to pick up on identity representation, and it’s time to come clean:

The western canon of art music is very white.

Very male. And very white. And understandably so, since the tradition of western art music is deeply rooted in Europe and supported by the various churches of Christianity. The world is much more globalized and diverse now, and music historians have proven that other people besides white men were writing music, but there still seems to be a problem with ensembles only programming white men. Since moving to Chicago last year, I’ve noticed the new music scene actively try to combat this, and it makes me so happy. So with a cup of coffee in my hand, and the memory of MLK Jr. propelling me forward, I decided to do my part and write about, uncover, and delve into African-American composers.

I feel compelled to do this not only because these composers should not be forgotten, but also because their musical triumphs have largely been ignored and lost under the applause of other great American composers like Ives, Bernstein, Copland, Reich, Adams, etc. These big names in music became hailed as American music, while black composers got stuffed into a niche genre. By exploring this niche, we can see how much damage is done by treating it like a niche. In Part 1, we’re going to look at trailblazing African-American composers and in Part 2, we’ll talk about the problem of labels.



Part 1: Lost, but not forgotten.


We’ll start our exploration in the late 19th century, right after the abolition of slavery. Of course there was music being written by African-Americans before then, but most was not being notated or recorded, because, you know, slavery. Even when black composers started publishing their music and making it readily available for performance, there was still resistance.


There are a few reasons why African American composers were left off concert programs in the early 20th century, including the discomfort with  jazz music by the white bourgeois (widely considered a low art form) and extreme tension in racial relations during Reconstruction Era America, but this is not an indication that black composers were not writing; of course they were, and they were writing truly great work. Composers struggled left and right to make a living from their music in this environment, often having to perform in brothels and bars to get by. Fortunately, there was a haven for black art in Harlem in the 1930s and here some gems of music were being crafted by ambitious minds. Today we’ll meet some of the players. If you’ve got the time, take a little listen to some of their music.


Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866 – 1949)


H.T. Burleigh is usually cited as the first African-American composer to have an impact on the American style of composition with his art songs. He has an amazing story though, starting in Erie, Pennsylvania. At age 26, Burleigh was awarded a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music in New York where he met and developed friendships with prominent and preeminent composers and performers, including Antonín Dvořák. Burleigh would make a name for himself as a gifted baritone singer, but after securing a job at Ricordi Publishing, was able to publish his art songs and spiritual arrangements. After his death, his music fell out of popularity and into obscurity.


Derek’s recommendations for further investigation:

Deep River (traditional, arr. H.T. Burleigh) – you can listen to a version here

You ask me if I love you (1907) – listen here


Scott Joplin (c.1868 – 1917)

Scott Joplin is usually the first name people throw out when pressed for a black composer, but he was also known as The King of Ragtime. Joplin was a talented piano improviser but notated his works so that his art would be taken more seriously than the minstrel/vaudeville acts of the early 20th century. He wrote extremely colorful, lively music and his rags influenced composers such as Satie, Debussy, and Stravinsky. Joplin spent the later portions of his life trying to stage his opera Treemonisha with no success. Many of his pieces are lost and went unpublished including his Symphony No. 1 (1916?) and his first opera A Guest of Honor (1903). In 1972, Treemonisha was finally staged and in 1976, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize posthumously.


Derek’s recommendations for further investigation:

Treemonisha (1913) – the Houston Grand Opera 1982 staging be found here. It’s really good, I promise.

Maple Leaf Rag (1899) – you’ve probably definitely heard this piece before. Come on. Okay, fine I’ll link it here.


Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954)

H.L. Freeman was unofficially dubbed “the colored Wagner” because of his devotion to opera; he wrote over 20 operas and many of them are still unperformed. His music has a jazz flair with a taste of folk, and Freeman  was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He was inspired to start writing after attending Wagner’s Tannhäuser at age 18, and by age 22, he had founded his own opera company, The Freeman Opera Company, in Denver. With his opera company, he was able to stage the first opera written by a black composer and staged by an all-black cast: his Epithalia in 1891. In Harlem, he befriended Scott Joplin and other artists, and in the 1920s he founded the Salem School of Music and the Negro Grand Opera Company.


Derek’s recommendation for further investigation:

Voodoo (1913) – first staged in New York, 1928. Excerpts here and here.

Zululand (1941-1944) – 4-opera cycle, never staged


Florence B. Price (1887-1953)

Florence B. Price was born to a well-respected family in Arkansas, and quickly learned to play piano from her mother, a piano teacher. She eventually made it to the New England Conservatory when she was 14 years old, and graduated in 1906 with honors, a teaching certificate, and a performer’s certificate in organ. Price had her Symphony in E Minor performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933 after winning the Wanamaker Prize in 1932. Her music is very romantic in feel, and there is a clear influence from Dvořák and African-American spirituals/hymns in her work.



Symphony in E Minor (1932) – first movement here.

Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint – listen to movement five here


William Grant Still (1895-1978)

William Grant Still is widely known for his Afro-American Symphony (1930) which was premiered by the Rochester Symphony Orchestra making him the first African-American to be performed by a major symphony orchestra. He also became the first African-American to lead a major orchestra when he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936 at the Hollywood Bowl. Grant Still rejected spirituals for inspiration, instead choosing drawing from the blues. He studied at Oberlin and briefly at the New England Conservatory, but one of his most influential teachers was who encouraged his musical freedom.



Troubled Island (1949) – libretto by Langston Hughes and Verna Arvey

Afro-American Symphony (1931) – listen in full here


Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896-1977)

Born Lola Shirley Graham, Jr., she later married writer W. E. B. Du Bois and was able to see much of the world. Before ever meeting him though, she moved to France to study at Sorbonne where she was introduced to many African and Afro-Caribbean people, furthering her exposure to black culture.While in Paris, she was also able to study with Nadia Boulanger, and upon returning to the United States, finally settled at Oberlin. It was at Oberlin she was able to compose her opera Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and of the Negro (1931). Throughout her life, she joined the American Communist Party, was the head of the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago, and joined the Sojourners of Truth and Justice, an African-American group advocating for global women’s liberation. She spent the later portion of her life focused on writing literature.



Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and of the Negro (1931)

Deep Rivers (1939) – a musical


Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989)

Undine wrote very tonal music inspired by African-American spirituals and hymns, and her choral works are deeply rooted in the Christian liturgy. She taught at Virginia State University from 1927-89, where she co-founded the university’s Black Music Center. Her music is steeped in the black experience and has a very soulful tone, and conservative considering the other works that were coming out during 50s-80s. Moore’s oratorio based on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., Scenes from the Life of a Martyr was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.



Scenes from the Life of a Martyr (1981)

Afro-American Suite (1969) – listen to the Andante movement here.


Howard Swanson (1907-1978)

Howard Swanson was born in Atlanta and studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music starting in 1930, and with Nadia Boulanger in France in 1938. He returned to the United States during the German occupation of Paris in 1941, where he found a job at the IRS. He eventually quit to compose a major work however, and completed his first symphony in 1943.  His music is very neoclassical in nature, but draws on the intimacy of spirituals and black culture.



The Negro Speaks of River – text by Langston Hughes. Listen here.

Symphony No. 2 (1948) – “Short Symphony” premiered by the New York Philharmonic, led by Mitropoulos in 1950. Listen to movement three here.


Ulysses Kay (1917-1995)

Ulysses Kay was a composer born in Tucson, AZ and began studying music at a young age. He completed his masters at Eastman and studied with Hindemith at Yale. Kay taught at UCLA briefly and then Herbert H. Lehman College, CUNY in 1968. He has received six honorary doctorates, the Prix de Rome, a Fulbright Scholarship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters in 1979. His music has been described as neoclassical and tonal, but highly chromatic.



Frederick Douglass (1985) – opera in 3 acts

Six American Dances for String Orchestra (1954) – Listen to movement three here.


Hale Smith (1925-2009)

Hale Smith is another composer who studied at Cleveland Institute of Music. His music is heavily influenced by his upbringing as a jazz pianist and but also trips to the Cleveland Orchestra. Smith was not influenced by traditional black folk music like everyone on this list, but rather fell in with the serialists and modernists of the ‘50s. He taught at C.W. Post College of Long Island and University of Connecticut, Storrs, and received an honorary doctorate from the Cleveland Institute in 1988.



Innerflexions (1977) – for orchestra

Ritual and Incantations (1974) – for orchestra


First, I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know some of these familiar and not so familiar faces. But PLEASE don’t think this is the master list of African-American composers, or master list of dead black composers. You’d be embarrassingly wrong and I will laugh at you (okay I probably won’t laugh at you, but maybe in my head). These are ten composers that wrote powerful music but were given less attention than they deserve (and some of them did received major recognition in their time). Secondly, please go and look more into their lives if they piqued your interest, I tried to keep the list on the shorter side and didn’t go into depth in their careers and often tumultuous lives. They don’t really fall in with the white male composers America kept pumping out, but that’s kinda the point… but also, not the point at all. Let me explain: we see here that clearly there were composers writing music, and if you give them a listen, there’ll most likely be something on the list you’ll enjoy. These composers represent a different slice of American culture, and it’s important that we recognize that. The United States prides itself on its diversity of cultures from pretty much every country, so when studying a specific sub-genre of American culture – such as western art music – we must remember that diversity is not only our friend, but in our D.N.A. Again similar to American culture, it is not always a great idea to label the diversity – ex. African-American composers, women composers – because of the unnecessary division it creates. We should be recognizing composers that write moving music, music that stands the test of time, but it is ridiculous to assume that only white men can write this music. We’ll dive more into this conversation in Part II, and I hope to see you there.

*Sources are from Grove Music Online, program notes from the American Symphony Orchestra,, and Patricia Nixon’s dissertation, “Harry T. Burleigh’s Art Songs: A Forgotten Repertory”


** I can’t back up the claim that Debussy, Satie, and Stravinsky were directly influenced by Joplin, but Joplin was the most famous and successful rag composer of his time and these composers had a clear influence from the rag genre. So I feel it’s safe to assume that Scott “the Rag King” Joplin’s influence made it into these composers work (like Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk from Children’s Corner, Satie’s Ragtime Parade from his ballet Parade, and Stravinsky’s Ragtime for 11 Instruments).


*** I also couldn’t find any recordings of Hale Smith’s music to link, but you can find it on Spotify!




Derek Carter

Jan. 31, 2017

Chicago, IL

Kris Casey