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12 Black Female 'Classical' Composers You Need To Know

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847-1935)

Gonzaga was a Brazilian composer and the first recognised female conductor in the country. Her main instrument was the piano, and she composed her first piece when she was aged 11. After a turbulent marriage, she devoted her time to composition, and became known as a prolific composer of many different styles, including tangos, waltzes and polkas. Some of her most famous compositions include the polka, Atraente (1877), the waltz Walkyria (1884) and Ó Abre Alas (1899). She created the first society for copyright protection in Brazil called The Brazilian Society of Theatrical Authors (SBAT). On the 17th October 2018, Google honoured her with her own Google Doodle.

Further reading:

Chiquinha Gonzaga on Spotify

Florence Price (1887-1953)

Price was something of a musical prodigy – she gave her first performance when she was only 4 years old, and wrote her first composition when she was 11. She was a well-respected teacher, and was appointed head of music at Clark Atlanta University. Amongst her many achievements, Price had her 'Symphony in E minor' performed by the Chicago Symphony in 1993, which made her the first African-American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra. She also worked closely with another African-American composer named Margaret Bonds, vocalist Marian Anderson and poet Langston Hughes. The Florence B. Price Elementary School was named after her in 1964, and the first International Florence Price Festival will be held in 2021.

Further reading: Guide to Florence Price (written by Shirley Thompson OBE) Florence Price on Spotify

The Why Music Podcast episode on Florence Price ft Elizabeth De Brito

Undine Smith Moore (1904-89)

Moore grew up in a musical family and started taking piano lessons when she was 7. She was awarded the first scholarship by the prestigious Julliard School to a student at Fisk University, so she could continue to study. She became known as an important educator, travelling the US and lecturing about black composers. She won many awards including the Virginia Governors Award, she was named the Music Laureate of the state of Virginia, and an honorary doctorate from Indiana University. Her composition Scenes from the Life of a Martyr was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, even though many of her compositions were only published after she died.

Further reading:

Undine Smith Moore on Spotify

Zenobia Powell Perry (1908-2004)

Perry was born in Oklahoma, and met the infamous Booker T. Washington when she was very young. She had only been playing the piano for a few years, when she won her first piano competition and decided to pursue a career in music. She finished school and moved to New York to study privately with another black composer called Robert Nathaniel Dett. She started to compose in the 1950's, and wrote an opera in 1987 called Tawawa House. She won many awards, including a Music Citation for distinguished service in 1987, a Woman of the Year Award in 1999, and the Ohio Cultural Arts Award in 2002.

Zenobia Powell Perry on Spotify

Margaret Bonds (1913-72)

Bonds wrote her first piece called Marquette Street Blues when she was only 5 years old. Her mother was her first piano teacher, but she received composition lessons with Florence Price when she was still in school. As a singer, she was the first black soloist to perform with the Chicago Symphony at the Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1933. She had a good career as a pianist after she received her Master's degree, and even performed Florence Price’s piano concerto in 1934. During this time, she became such a good composer, that when she showed Nadia Boulanger (who had previously taught composers such as Aaron Copeland, Astor Piazzolla and Philip Glass) her piece The Negro Speaks of Rivers, she told her that she didn’t need to study with her! In 1965, she wrote the piece Montgomery Variations (for orchestra), and dedicated it to Martin Luther King Jr. To honour her, the Mayor of Chicago declared the 31st January 1967 to be Magaret Bonds Day.

Further reading:

Margaret Bonds on Spotify

Julia Perry (1924-79)

Perry was born in Kentucky, U.S.A., but travelled across Europe, studying with world-renowned teacher and composer Nadia Boulanger in France, and Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy. She taught at Florida A&M from 1959, and composed her Vivaldi inspired Requiem for Orchestra in the same year. One of her most famous pieces is called Stabat Mater. She later went on to teach at Atlanta University. Unfortunately, she suffered a stroke which left the right side of her body paralysed, but she learnt how to write with her left hand, and carried on composing until her death in 1979.

Further reading:

Julia Perry on Spotify

Tania León (born 1943)

León is a Cuban composer who started learning the piano when she was 4 years old. She studied in Havana before moving to New York in 1967, and helped to found the Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969. She was commissioned to write the opera Scourge of Hyacinths in 1994, and subsequently won the BMW Prize for Best New Opera. She has won awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) amongst others, as well as being awarded two honorary doctorates.

Tania León on Spotify

Eleanor Alberga (born 1949)

Alberga was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and began composing when she was only 5 years old. She won a scholarship and moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music in 1970, and worked as a concert pianist until becoming a full-time composer in 2001. In that same year, she won the NESTA Fellowship of composition award. She has had her music performed across the world, including her piece ARISE ATHENA! which opened the Last Night of the Proms in 2015, played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In 2020, she is set to be named 'Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music'.

Eleanor Alberga on Spotify

Pamela Z (born 1956)

Pamela Z is an American composer who works with her voice, often in live settings using loops, samples and other electronic techniques. She became active in the contemporary music scene in the 1980's and has been performing regularly around the world ever since. She has composed music for Eighth Blackbird, Kronos Quartet and Stephan Koplowitz, as well as creating sonic installations at places such as the Trondheim Elektroniske Kunstsenter in Norway and the Dakar Biennale in Senegal. She has won numerous awards including the Herb Alpert Award, the Guggenheim and the Rome Prize.

Pamela Z on Spotify