With the rise of massive racial justice movements both in the United States and around the world, there has never been a more important opportunity to go beyond the constraints of “standard vocal repertoire” and diversify our recital programs. Despite commonly being overlooked on concert programs, Black composers have been contributing transcendent classical music in this country for centuries. These musicians have undeniably shaped the advancement of a distinctive American musical voice and added a large number of works to American vocal repertoire regardless of this lack of representation. With more research, resources, and publications available thanks to the internet, we have every reason to elevate the music of Black composers to a more prominent position in our recital repertoire. To that end, we would love to highlight six of these musical greats.
Florence Price (1887-1953)
The music of composer and pianist Florence Price is quickly gaining more and more notoriety after decades of living in relative obscurity. Thanks to a fairly recent rediscovery of several of her original manuscripts, Price’s music is more accessible than ever before. Price is best known for being the first Black woman to have one of her compositions performed by a major orchestra in the United States when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her Symphony No. 1 in 1933. Her music encompasses a blend of Western Romantic traditions and African American stylistic idioms, some of which include spirituals and jazz.
Check out: "Hold Fast to Dreams"
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Known as the "Dean of African-American Classical Composers," William Grant Still reached many impressive milestones during his career, including being the first Black conductor of a major symphony orchestra; he conducted the performance of his own compositions with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936. Still was also the first Black composer to have an opera produced by a major company in the United States with the premiere of Troubled Island by New York City Opera in 1949. Like Florence Price, Still seamlessly blended European music traditions with jazz, blues, and spirituals to create a distinctive and wholeheartedly American sound.
Check out: Songs of Separation
Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989)
Undine Smith Moore was a prolific composer and music educator. She primarily composed vocal music, providing singers and choirs a wealth of exquisite repertoire. In conjunction with William Grant Still’s honorary title, Moore is regarded as the “Dean of Black Women Composers.” As an educator, Moore devoted much of her life to holding workshops and lectures on Black composers and ardently believed in the power of the arts to instigate social activism and change.
Check out: "Love Let the Wind Cry... How I Adore Thee"
Margaret Bonds (1913-1972)
Composer and pianist Margaret Bonds remains largely overlooked today despite the extensive array of accomplishments she achieved during her lifetime. Bonds not only studied composition under Florence Price, but she also became the first Black woman to perform as a soloist with a major American orchestra by playing Price’s Piano Concerto in D minor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. Bonds also maintained a longtime collaborative relationship with American poet Langston Hughes and actively sought to highlight fellow artists of African descent in her creative efforts. Her song cycle, Three Dream Portraits, was written around the same time that the civil rights movement was gaining traction on a national level in the United States.
Check out: Three Dream Portraits
George Walker (1922-2018)
George Walker was a highly revered composer and pianist best known for being the first Black musician to win a Pulitzer Prize in music for his work, Lilacs, for soprano and orchestra in 1996. Walker’s orchestral music is performed more frequently in the United States than the other names in this article; however, most of his other smaller works continue to be overlooked. Nevertheless, his music continues to be highly respected and admired after his recent death, and lucky for us, the vast majority of his compositional output has been recorded for posterity.
Check out: "Take, o take those lips away"
Dorothy Rudd Moore (b. 1940)
Composer and educator Dorothy Rudd Moore has long been acknowledged as one of her generation’s leading compositional voices. Having written in a variety of genres including orchestral pieces, chamber music, and opera, Moore is particularly well-known for her substantial catalogue of vocal works set to poetry by Black writers. In the 1960s, she co-founded the Society of Black Composers in New York City with the aim of promoting the music of fellow Black classical composers and helping enrich the cultural life of Black communities. Check out: Songs from the Dark Tower
These six musicians only represent a tiny fraction of the vast array of works written by Black composers, but we hope this list offers a useful starting point for creating more inclusive recital programs. Tag us on social media @moder.nsinger with any additional composers of color you’re adding to your repertoire. We'd love to know whose music you are currently studying!