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12 Black Male 'Classical' Composers You Need To Know

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799)

Joseph was born in Guadeloupe but moved to France when he was 7. At the age of 27, after being known as a world-class fencer, Joseph made his debut as a solo violinist to the amazement of the audience. He composed a variety of different works in his life, including violin concertos, symphonies, sonatas and 6 operas. In 1775, Joseph was set to be named as the director of the Paris Opera by Louis XVI, but a petition was written by several artists at the Opera to stop this from happening, on accounts that they didn't want " be subjected to the orders of a mulatto". He volunteered to fight in the French Revolution, but legend has it, that he continued to give weekly concerts. He is often regarded as the first classical composer of African origin, and U.S. President John Adams referred to him as ‘the most accomplished man in Europe’.

Listen to Joseph Boulogne Chevalier de Saint-Georges on Spotify

Scott Joplin (c.1868-1917)

Joplin grew up hearing his father play the violin, and his mother sing and play the banjo. He soon started playing the piano and was given free piano lessons by a Jewish man by the name of Julius Weiss who recognised his talents. Joplin studied classical and folk music, but found his playing option limited. He started to compose, and after a few publications did well, and ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ (1899) became the best selling rag in history. A string of hits followed, but Joplin began to write larger works and wrote his first opera called A Guest of Honor. He wrote the opera Treemonisha in 1911, but it wasn’t until 1972 that it was finally fully performed. In 1970, Joplin was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Joplin was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

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Will Marion Cook (1869-1944)

Cook spent a year with his grandparents when he was 10, which exposed him to the roots of what he called ‘real Negro melodies’. He decided to study the violin at Oberlin Conservatory, which led him to travel to Germany to study at the Berlin Hochschule für Music. He went on to study with composer Antonin Dvořák back in America, and in 1890, was appointed as the director for a touring chamber choir. He composed for the black-owned George Walker-Bert Williams Company, which produced musicals such as Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk (1898) and In Dahomey (1903) which is considered to be the first musical to be written by black people to have been performed in a major Broadway theatre. He was also a teacher of Duke Ellington and the founder of the New York Syncopated Orchestra.

Listen to Will Marion Cook on Spotify

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)

Coleridge-Taylor was born in London, and showed his musical ability from an early age. He enrolled at the Royal College of Music when he was 15, and concentrated on composition, teaching at the Crystal Palace School of Music. Coleridge-Taylor’s work was highly sought after, and his cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, resulted in him being invited to tour the U.S.A. three times and meeting President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House in 1904 (it was extremely rare for a black man to be invited to the White House). Even though he died at the age of 37, he and his music were held in such high esteem, that King George V gave his widow £100 a year, and a memorial concert was held at the Royal Albert hall in 1912. In 1995, his opera called Thelma was discovered, and it was performed for the first time in Croydon, South London in 2012. His daughter Avril Coleridge-Taylor, went on to become a well-respected composed and conductor in her own right.

Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960)

White’s mother was an accomplished violinist, having studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. White started playing the violin after he was given a violin by his grandfather. He met the composer Will Marion Cook when he was 12, and began to have violin lessons with him. He continued playing the violin, studying at his mother's old conservatory and even travelled to London to have composition lessons with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. In 1916, he tried to form an organisation with Robert Nathaniel Dett called the National Associate of Negro Music Teachers but World War 1 interrupted the plans. It was formed in 1919, and White was named as a charter member. Like many of his peers, much of his music is based around the black American experience such as From The Cotton Fields (1920) and Legend d’Afrique (1955).

Listen to Clarence Cameron White on Spotify

Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943)

Dett was born in Ontario, Canada, and began playing the piano at 3, and started lessons at 5. He grew up playing in church, and attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio; the same conservatory William Grant Still would go on to attend. He toured as a concert pianist and was the first black student to finish the 5-year course in 1907. Not only did he become the first black music director of the Hampton Institute, but he founded the Hampton Choral Union, School of Music, Institute Choir and Musical Arts Society, all within a 20 year period. One of his most important pieces called Magnolia, was performed at the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor club in 1914, and he won a Holstein prize for the collections Religious Folksongs of the Negro (1927) and The Dett Collections of Negro Spirituals (1936). Much of his music is inspired by African-American folk melodies, which he often wrote in a European Romantic style. In addition to his musical exploits, he won the Bowdoin Prize in 1921 for his essay ‘The Emancipation of Negro Music’.

Listen to Robert Nathaniel Dett on Spotify

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

Still was surrounded by classical music as a young child, and by his teens was able to play multiple instruments including the viola, clarinet and double bass. He won a scholarship and studied with the composer Edgard Varèse at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music before he served in the US Army during World War I. During his career, he performed and recorded with the likes of bandleader Fletcher Henderson, clarinettist Artie Shaw and Paul Whiteman, before he became a full-time composer. His first symphony called Symphony No.1 “Afro-American” was performed all over the world, and he composed and arranged for films such as Pennies from Heaven (1937) and Blind Spot (1944). He received 10 honorary doctorates and won three Guggenheim Fellowships in his remarkable life.

Some of Still's accomplishments include

  • The first African American to conduct a major American Symphony Orchestra

  • The first African American to have an opera performed on national TV

  • The first African American to have an opera produced by a major opera company

  • The first African American to have his symphony performed by a major orchestra

Listen to William Grant Still on Spotify

George Walker (1922-2018)

Walker was born in Washington D.C., and after having piano lessons for about 9 years, gave his first public recital when he was 14. He studied at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio and upon graduating, studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and began a career as a pianist, teacher and composer. He was the first black performer to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and a few years later, travelled and performed across Europe in 1954. He studied piano with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and went on to compose many works for a variety of different ensembles. He was the first black man to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1996, and received many honorary doctorates and other awards, including the Aaron Copland ASCAP Award in 2012.

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Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson


Perkinson was named after Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and to some extent, followed in Coleridge-Taylor’s footsteps by becoming an accomplished composer and teacher himself. He studied at various schools around New York and New Jersey, including the Manhattan School of Music and Princeton, before teaching at Brooklyn College and studying conducting in Austria and the Netherlands. As well as composing orchestral works, he also arranged music for Marvin Gaye, composed music for films such as Montgomery to Memphis (1970) and a ballet called For Bird, With Love, inspired by saxophonist Charlie Parker. He co-founded the Symphony of the New World, and even had the time to perform with the Max Roach quartet in 1964. In 2006, a music critic wrote that Perkinson’s Sinfonietta No.1 for Strings (1955) “…might have been considered, if composed by a young Caucasian, the work of a wunderkind”.

Listen to Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson on Spotify

Julius Eastman (1940-1990)

Eastman started to play the piano when he was a 14-year-old living in Ithaca, New York, and while studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, majoring in composition. He was also an accomplished singer, and his performances led him to join a program to study avant-garde classical music at the SUNY Buffalo Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. He was a founding member of the S.E.M. Ensemble but left Buffalo after a big disagreement with composer John Cage. He returned to New York, and was soon performing internationally, and having his works performed by various ensembles in America. A biography was released in 2015 called Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music.

Listen to Julius Eastman on Spotify

Wynton Marsalis (born 1961)

Marsalis was born into a very musical family, including his father Ellis Marsalis Jr, older brother Branford and young brothers Jason and Delfeayo all being internationally recognised jazz musicians and educators. Marsalis was given his first trumpet when he was 6, and performed a Haydn trumpet concerto with the New Orleans Philharmonic when he was 14. After his studies at Juilliard, he went on tour with Art Blakey and The Jazz messengers, Herbie Hancock, and later, his own quintet featuring his brother Branford. In 1983 when he was only 22, he became the first musician to win a Grammy Award in classical, and jazz music. So far, he has won the National Medal of Arts, 11 honorary doctorates and is an NEA Jazz Master. Some of his most notable compositions include Blood On The Fields (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1997), Congo Square (2006) Blues Symphony (2009) and Swing Symphony (2010).

Listen to Wynton Marsalis on Spotify

Michael Abels (born 1962)

Abels started his musical journey playing the piano when he was 4 years old. He composed his first orchestral work when he was only 13, and studied at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music. He composed Global Warming in 1992, which became one of the first works performed by a black composer, by the National Symphony of South Africa after Nelson Mandela was elected President. He composed a ballet called FALLING SKY (2020), but is best known for his score for the 2017 Oscar-winning film Get Out and the World Soundtrack Award-winning film Us (2019). His work on Us won him a Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle Award for Best Original Score, as well as a Critics Choice Award nomination for the same film. He co-founded the Composers Diversity Collective, which helps to give opportunities to film and game composers of colour in the US.

Listen to Michael Abels on Spotify

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