12 Classical Black Composers to Add to Your Playlist
February is Black History Month and we wanted to celebrate by amplifying Black and African American composers who have made amazing contributions in the classical music field. Throughout the centuries of music history, Black artists have not received equitable (or, at times, any) access to training, opportunities, or recognition. However, Black musicians have contributed beautiful, canonical pieces throughout history and today. Here are just a few of those composers (in no particular order) that we recommend you add to your playlist compiled by the AYS staff.
William Grant Still
William Grant Still became known as “The Dean” of African-American composers,” and his work made history in a number of ways. Still was the first Black person to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have an opera produced by a major opera company, the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. Still’s musical prowess is highly impressive, and will forever be etched into the history of classical music.
Jessie Montgomery’s style emerged from the artistic and political movements prominent in Manhattan’s lower East Side. These influences can be seen in her work, which, according to Montgomery’s website, “interweaves classical music with elements of vernacular music, improvisation, language, and social justice.”
In November 2020, the AYS strings ensemble performed Montgomery’s beautiful piece, Starburst.
In 1933 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor making her the first Black American woman to have her work played by a major symphony orchestra. She wrote over 300 works for piano, symphony orchestra, organ, and voice contributing greatly to the field. The influences of the African-American Church music of her upbringing as well as European Romantic composers can be heard in her music.
Derrick Spiva Jr.
Derrick Spiva Jr. is a Los Angeles based composer and musician whose music shows a wide range of cultural influences. Spiva has Ghanian, Nigerian, British, Irish, and Native American ancestry. Per his website, his ancestry has “led him to claim and develop an “American” aesthetic that incorporates many cultural influences into his work, reflecting the diverse communities he is part of.” Spiva has had works performed by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), Los Angeles Master Chorale, Berkeley Symphony, Sphinx Virtuoso, Dayton Philharmonic, Albany Symphony, and more. His pieces, titled Mother of Bravery and Mind the Rhythm, premiered at LACO in January.
The work of Kris Bowers has scored major television hits like When They See Us, Dear White People, and, most recently, Netflix’s hit show Bridgerton. In February of 2020, Bowers premiered his concerto “For a Younger Self” at Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of AYS’ Korngold Commission Project. Kris’ premiere was featured by Breakwater Studios in the op-doc titled “A Concerto is a Conversation,” which was featured in The New York Times and an Official Selection at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival!
Self-taught composer Kelijah Dunton hails from Brooklyn, New York. It was there that he began playing the saxophone as a high schooler, and it is from the city’s diverse inhabitants that he still finds inspiration. His piece titled Stillwater was written in 2019, and premiered by the Brooklyn Wind Symphony that same year.
Hailing from Albany, New York, Adolphus Hailstork is a composer whose work was recently featured as part of the Presidential Inauguration. Hailstork’s work explores his “dual cultural heritage” as a Black American, and engages with Black history to tell stories that have been largely overlooked in the world of classical music.
Atlanta born composer Howard Swanson’s musical journey began at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and advanced when he studied under Nadia Boulanger in Paris, France. Just one day before the city fell to the Nazis in 1940, Swanson escaped on foot and began his two year journey back to the United States. In 1952, Swanson’s piece Short Symphony was awarded Best Orchestral Composition by the Music Critics’ Circle.
Johnathan Bailey Holland
Johnathan Bailey Holland hails from Flint, Michigan and is currently the Chair of Composition, Contemporary Music, and Core Studies at Boston Conservatory at Berklee College of Music. Holland was also the first to hold the title of Composer-In-Residence with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Wynton Marsalis is an American composer, producer, educator, and the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Marsalis exhibited musical excellence from a very young age, and his debut recording won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Soloist with an Orchestra. In 1983, he made history as the first person to win Grammys for both Jazz and Classical Records. He remains the only artist to ever win Grammy Awards in five consecutive years. Marsalis co-founded Jazz at Lincoln Center, a constituent of Lincoln Center to which he currently serves as artistic director.
Composer Alvin Singleton was born in Brooklyn, New York and attended New York University and Yale School of Music. His musical career has taken him around the world, studying at Goffredo Petrassi at Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, Italy and serving as a Composer in Residence in Tirana, Albania. Back in the states, he served as Composer-in-Residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Resident Composer at Spelman College in Atlanta (1988-91), and was the Composer in Residence with the Ritz Chamber Players of Jacksonville, Florida.
William L. Dawson
An alumni of the Tuskegee Institute, William L. Dawson returned to the University to organize and head the School of Music. It was there that he founded the Tuskegee University Golden Voices Choir, which is still in existence today. His Composition titled Negro Folk Symphony was premiered by Leopold Stokowski and the Philidelphia Orchestra, where it received national acclaim for its distinct sound. In 1975, the American Choral Directors Association honored him for “pioneering leadership, inspiration, and service to the choral art.”
These twelve artists are a great start for your enriched listening, and we hope that you enjoy them as much as we do! We have compiled a playlist featuring eight of these artists, which you can listen to on Soundcloud here. This month, and every month, continue to build upon your musical library. Celebrate, explore, and support new and diverse artistic voices.
- Still – Symphony No. 1 – Moderato Assai
- Montgomery – Starburst
- Price – Negro Folk Songs
- Bowers – Excerpt from AYS’ performance of For a Younger Self
- Dunton – Stillwater
- Hailstork – Three Spirituals for String Trio
- Holland – Forged Sanctuaries
- Singleton – Mestizo II
BONUS! Trilloquy Podcast by Garrett McQueen and Scott Blankenship
AYS Alum Garrett McQueen and Scott Blankenship reevaluate the meaning of “classical” music in Trilloquy, a podcast available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. Trilloquy features fascinating conversations with artists and other professionals who are typically left out of the Eurocentric context of classical music.