From the 18th-century violin master Chevalier de Saint-Georges to New York’s rising star Jessie Montgomery, BME composers have played an important role in the history of classical music. Despite their creative talent and the ability of some to capture rhythms and motifs from different cultures, racial prejudice and discrimination often hampered their careers.
Finally, however, composers from a wider range of backgrounds are being commissioned and are having their works performed. But BME composers are still overlooked by musical history. Here are a few we think you should know about.
Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799)
An acclaimed composer and violinist, Joseph Bologne (also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges) delighted the French court with his orchestral works as well as the pieces he wrote for the violin. He joined the king’s guard and was knighted after winning an impossible duel against a French swordsman, a feat which made him known across all of Europe.
Saint-Georges was later given the nickname ‘Black Mozart’. The pair met during Mozart’s early years in France, and the innovative structure of the Symphonies Concertantes they both composed, doubling the violin solo to obtain two layers of melody, prompted audiences to identify a link between them by the time the younger Mozart’s fame had grown.
In fact, historians believe that entire themes from Mozart’s Les Petits Riens ballets were borrowed from Saint-Georges’ own pieces. Chi-Chi Nwanoku, founder of the BME orchestra Chineke!, assesses the relationship between the two composers’ oeuvres in her documentary In Search of the Black Mozart.
Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
The American composer is famous for his contribution to the development of ragtime, both an instrumental and vocal style based on the two-step march, which was popular at the turn of the century and played on easily recognised syncopated patterns. However, Joplin also composed several lesser-known classical works.
After his debut as a concert pianist, he found a publisher who agreed to work with him and wrote a ballet infused with the rhythms of ragtime, accompanied by his own choreographic notes.
Again working on more than just the musical score, Joplin wrote his second opera, Treemonisha, along with the libretto and a set of directions for the performers.
While some of his earlier works were lost, Treemonisha is still occasionally performed on larger stages and his rags, like Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer, remain staples in the genre’s repertoire.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)
Not to be confused with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge-Taylor was born to an English mother and a Sierra Leonean father, and produced many acclaimed works. Similarly to Joseph Bologne, Coleridge-Taylor was commonly compared by critics to another (white) contemporary composer – Gustav Mahler in his case, for the modernity and the vivacity of his pieces.
His most famous work is Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, an ingenious three-part musical setting of a series of poems inspired by native American culture. In other works, like his African Suites, Coleridge-Taylor equally blends certain elements of African culture with classical forms.
Florence Price (1887-1953)
Born in Arkansas, Price first had to overcome harsh racial discrimination before her talent could be recognised. Although she described herself as doubly handicapped in the world of classical music by her sex and her colour, she became the first African-American woman to have a symphony performed by a major US orchestra, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the premiere of her First Symphony.
The symphony was well received and viewed as a cleverly composed work, with rhythmic elements taken from the highly popular spirituals she also wrote. She was an important member of the early 20th-century circles of African-American composers and was supported by performers such as the celebrated contralto and Metropolitan Opera star Marian Anderson.
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
When New York City Opera staged his Troubled Island in 1949, it was the first opera by an African American to be staged at a major US opera house. His Afro-American Symphony was a big hit in the 1930s.
Margaret Bonds (1913-72)
Bonds was 19 when her Sea Ghost for voice and piano won her a Wanamaker Award. Nadia Boulanger turned her down as a pupil, saying Bonds had nothing left to learn.
George Walker (1922-2018)
The West Indian-American pianist and composer was the first black man to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music. He studied in Paris alongside Nadia Boulanger and later became a professor, teaching in universities across the US and often breaking racial boundaries. He was the first black person to become a faculty member at Smith College in Massachusetts.
Walker’s Pulitzer-winning piece, Lilacs, was composed for voice and orchestra and belongs to a series of lyrical works among the composer’s modernist oeuvre. Although in his interviews he maintained that he intended to focus on writing his own music, rather than reviewing the works of past BME composers, he nevertheless produced an homage to Chevalier Saint-Georges in the form of his Foils for Orchestra.
Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)
The young composer and violinist grew up in New York during the years which saw the expansion of a more experimental scene in the city. Besides arranging works written by the members of this movement for modern performances, she also composes her own works, primarily for string ensembles.
Her short suite Break Away featured on the programme of last season’s contemporary music festival MusicNOW organised by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The piece invites the performers to engage with the score and playfully brings improvisation to the fore.
She is currently a partner of the Sphinx Organisation, a group promoting the music of African-American and Latino composers and musicians, and is also reimagining Joplin’s Treemonisha.