Composer Shirley Thompson on the black composers who changed classical music forever

As part of the BBC programme Black Classical Music: The Forgotten History, composer Shirley Thompson celebrates the rich history of classical music by black composers

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It is very challenging to commend only two single composers of African heritage that have made significant innovations in the evolution of the genre of classical music.

However, I do not want the opportunity to pass without making an attempt to do so, not least the brilliant American composer Florence Price, who, in 1933, became the first African American woman to have a symphony performed by a major US orchestra.

For me, the innovations of the Franco-Guadeloupean composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 – 1799) embody the tipping point of the Classical period. While the trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved African people raged on, Europe was experiencing a significant period of decadence in culture and the arts. We think that the essence of classical music was crystallised with the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. However, Bologne was the pioneer of many of the musical forms that we associate with these composers.

He was not only a composer, but a virtuoso violinist, conductor, champion swordsman, businessman, entrepreneur and political activist. The most highly regarded works of Jospeh Bologne include six comic operas, seven violin concertos and several songs, symphonic works and chamber pieces. In 1776 he was mooted as the best person to head the Paris Opera, but protests over his ethnic heritage prevented him from obtaining the role. Today, the accomplishments of Joseph Bologne are still yet to be recognised. Imagine what his accomplishments could have been if he was afforded fair and equal opportunities in the 18th century?

The other composer that has not been afforded due recognition in classical music historiography, in my opinion, is Scott Joplin (1868-1917).

Although he is often invidiously sidelined in musicology as a Ragtime composer, Joplin is widely celebrated as a musical innovator, pianist, arranger and businessman. He became the leading exponent of a style of American music that combined popular dance and classical music, aided by his interest in work songs, gospel hymns and spirituals in his home town of Texarkana. His best know works include The Entertainer, Solace and Maple Leaf Rag for piano while his opera Treemonisha is thought to prefigure Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess in both ambition and scale.

Black Classical Music: A Forgotten History will be broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday 27 September at 9pm. 

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