Celebrating Black Voices in Classical Music
All Classical Portland celebrates the music of Black composers and artists year-round, and this month, we invite you to join us as we take a closer look at the contributions that Black composers and musicians have made to classical music. Let’s meet a few of the artists whose music you’ll hear on the air this month, and year round on All Classical Portland.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, French Composer
Composer and violinist Joseph Bologne (1745-1799) lived one of the most adventurous lives in the history of classical music. His father was a white French planter in Guadaloupe, and his mother was an enslaved woman of African descent. Unlike many biracial children in his position, Bologne’s father acknowledged his son and provided him with an education and the family title of “Saint-Georges” upon the family’s ennoblement in 1757.
Bologne studied in France with a renowned fencing master and became a Chevalier (knight) and a Gendarme de la Garde du Roi–a member of the royal police guard. He quickly earned a reputation as one of the finest swordsmen and boxers in Europe. Bologne was appointed the colonel of a French regiment of “citizens of color” in 1792. One person who served under Bologne was Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, whose military service inspired his son Alexandre Dumas to write swashbuckling novels like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.
Concurrently with his career as a swordsman, Bologne became known as one of Europe’s finest conductors and violinists. He directed several orchestras throughout his career, including one which he founded, the Concert de la Loge Olympique. It was as director of this ensemble that Bologne commissioned Haydn’s Paris Symphonies. Bologne was also considered as a potential director for the Paris Opéra, but was blocked from the appointment when four of the company’s prima donnas objected to taking direction from a biracial person. Instead, he achieved success as a composer of opera for the musical establishments of aristocratic clients. He also composed extensively for orchestra and for his own instrument, the violin.
Our celebration on February 1 will include a couple works by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, including his Symphony in G Major, Op. 11 No. 1.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, English Composer
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was a prominent voice in English music’s late Romantic era. Born in London, Coleridge-Taylor was raised by his mother, a single parent. His father had been unable to establish a career as a Black physician in England, so he returned to his native Sierra Leone when Samuel was a child.
A violinist and composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor studied under Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music, and he received one of his first composition commissions at the suggestion of Edward Elgar. Coleridge-Taylor established a career in England as a professor at the Trinity College of Music and as a choral conductor, including a long tenure as director of the Handel Society of London.
Coleridge-Taylor was deeply interested in the music and society of African Americans, particularly after hearing a touring performance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. He made three professional visits to the United States, during which he met President Teddy Roosevelt, collaborated with Black composer and baritone Harry Thacker Burleigh, conducted the Marine Band, and toured with the Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, a Washington, D.C. ensemble of Black musicians that had been formed in his honor. Coleridge-Taylor became an inspirational figure to African American composers, including William Grant Still, and in turn, African American music became a strong influence in Coleridge-Taylor’s compositional style.
Coleridge-Taylor’s career was cut short by his early death in 1912, but his legacy continued in the work of his daughter and biographer, the composer Avril Coleridge-Taylor.
Our celebration on February 1 will include a performance of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 80 (1911).
R. Nathaniel Dett, Canadian Composer
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) was born in Drummondville, Ontario, Canada (now part of Niagara Falls, Ontario). His ancestors and were among the freedom-seekers who had escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. In fact, Drummondville was a community founded by freedom-seekers.
Dett distinguished himself at Oberlin Conservatory and the Eastman School of Music, as well as studying with composers Arthur Foote and Nadia Boulanger. Dett was a dedicated choral conductor who taught for almost two decades at the Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, a historically Black university. Under his leadersip, the Hampton Singers rose to artistic prominence, touring internationally and singing for President Herbert Hoover. Among the many students whose musicianship he encouraged was Dorothy Maynor, who would go own to record Aida under Toscanini, and to found the Harlem School of the Arts. You can read more about Maynor in another of our blog posts: Nine Black Women Who Changed Opera Forever.
Dett’s music exhibits a warm, Romantic musical language. Many of his compositions reflect his love of sacred choral music, including spiritual arrangements as well as original vocal compositions. Dett also composed extensively for his primary solo instrument, the piano, especially suites of programmatic pieces.
On February 1, you will hear Dett’s lyrical 1922 suite of character pieces for piano, Cinnamon Grove.
Florence Price, American Composer
The music of Florence Price (1887-1953) has been enjoying a renaissance since 2009, when a cache of her scores was rediscovered in her former summer home in Chicago. Price achieved many firsts during her career as a composer and educator, which more than merit a reacquaintance with her body of work.
Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and was an intellectual prodigy–she graduated high school, as valedictorian, at the age of fourteen. Price studied at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, one of the few conservatories that accepted students of color at the turn of the twentieth century. She pursued an academic career in the South, becoming head of the music department at Clark College in Atlanta, but racial violence and professional discrimination led her to move with her family to Chicago in 1927.
In Chicago, Price gained recognition as a composer. In 1932, her Symphony in E minor won the Wanamaker Competition, which led to its 1933 premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Frederick Stock. This made Price the first Black woman to have a symphony performed with a major American orchestra. Particularly gifted as a vocal composer, Price’s art songs were taken up by singers like Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. Her Songs to the Dark Virgin, a setting of Langston Hughes, is a particularly fine example of her musicianship.
We’ll hear several works by Florence Price during our celebration, including her Concerto in One Movement for Piano, performed by pianist and Price scholar Dr. Karen Walwyn.
William Grant Still, American Composer
The wide-ranging, trailblazing career of William Grant Still (1895-1978) has earned him the title “Dean of African-American Composers.” He accomplished a significant number musical firsts. In 1930, his Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American,” was the first symphony by a Black composer performed by a major orchestra: it premiered under Howard Hanson in a performance by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Still was also the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, directing the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936. And in 1949, New York City Opera’s production of his Troubled Island, with a libretto by Langston Hughes and Verna Arvey, made Still the first African-American to have an opera performed by a major American opera company.
Still was born in Mississippi and educated at Wilberforce University and Oberlin College. He studied with George Whitefield Chadwick and Edgard Varèse, and built a career in Los Angeles arranging music for television and film. His prolific concert music output includes eight operas, five symphonies, and choral works including the stark work of protest, And They Lynched Him on a Tree (1940).
Our celebration on February 1 will include a broadcast of Still’s historic, blues-inflected “Afro-American” Symphony.
James DePreist, American Conductor
James DePreist (1936-2013) was the beloved long-time conductor of the Oregon Symphony. Born in Philadelphia, DePriest grew up surrounded by music, thanks in great part to the encouragement of his aunt, contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993). DePreist credited Anderson with nurturing his love of music by sharing classical recordings with him when he was a child. Their tie remained strong for a lifetime: Marian Anderson spent her last days with her nephew in Portland.
Our celebration will include a vintage recording of Marian Anderson singing the spiritual “Heaven, Heaven.” Read more about Marian Anderson.
James DePreist studied at the Philadelphia Conservatory, originally specializing in composition and jazz. In 1962, he traveled to Bangkok as a jazz specialist under the auspices of the State Department. During this visit, DePreist discovered his love of orchestral conducting, but he also contracted polio, which would lead to a permanent disability. Despite this setback, DePreist won the coveted position of Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in 1965.
In 1980, DePreist became Music Director of the Oregon Symphony, where he served until 2003. During Maestro DePreist’s tenure, the Oregon Symphony grew from a respectable regional orchestra to the ensemble of national standing we enjoy today. In addition to his career as a conductor, DePreist was also a poet, whose works include the collections This Precipice Garden (1986) and The Distant Siren (1989).
You’ll hear several recordings by James DePreist in our February 1 celebration, including a performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27, with the Oregon Symphony.
Adolphus Hailstork, American Composer
Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941) is among the most distinguished composers working in America today. A student of David Diamond and Nadia Boulanger, Hailstork’s works have been conducted by Kurt Masur, Daniel Barenboim, James DePreist, JoAnn Falletta, and many other leading international conductors. He has received commissions from arts organizations including the Detroit Symphony, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Hailstork also serves as Professor of Music and Eminent Scholar at Old Dominion University.
In interviews, Hailstork has explained that he is a musical eclectic. He finds inspiration in the liturgical music of the Episcopal Church, where he received his first musical training as a child; in the music of Samuel Barber and other American neo-Romantics in the European classical tradition; and in musical traditions that are distinctly African-American. In a a June 2020 interview with San Francisco Classical Voice, Hailstork explained,
“I like to tell people that I’m a cultural hybrid and sometimes it’s agonizing. Sometimes I feel like I was hanging by my thumbs between two cultures. And then I just said to myself — after years of this, I said, “Look, I accept myself as a cultural hybrid, and I know I have trained in Euro-classical skills and I also am very interested — and since I went to school in an African American college — I am aware of that culture too. And I use them both.”
Hailstork’s music is often highly topical. In 2008, he completed Set Me On a Rock, a commission for the Houston Choral Society exploring the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. As of this year, one of his current projects is a work for choir and orchestra with text by Dr. Herbert Martin, entitled A Knee on a Neck–a tribute to George Floyd.
We’ll hear several works by Adolphus Hailstork throughout the day on February 1, including a performance of his Adagio for Strings by the Ambrosia Quartet.
Valerie Coleman, American Composer
Flutist and composer Valerie Coleman (b. 1970) is one of the many exciting Black women working in contemporary classical music. She is the recipient of multiple accolades: in 2020 she was named Performance Today’s “Classical Woman of the Year,” and the Washington Post recently named her one of the “Top 35 Women in Classical Music.”
Coleman hails from Kentucky, and she achieved distinction in music from an early age: her artist biography recalls that she “began her music studies at the age of eleven and by the age of fourteen, had written three symphonies and won several local and state performance competitions.”
Coleman enjoys a busy schedule of composition commissions and solo flute appearances. She serves on the music faculty of the University of Miami, and is the founder and first director of the internationally–acclaimed, Grammy-nominated chamber ensemble, Imani Winds.
You’ll hear Imani Winds performing Coleman’s music in our Feburary 1 celebration. Our programming includes selections from her 2007 work for wind quintet, Portraits of Josephine. This suite explored the life of another remarkable Black woman, the singer, performer, and activist Josephine Baker.
Lara Downes, American Pianist
The Piano Magazine has said that Lara Downes (b. 1973) is “A trailblazing pianist who combines exquisite musicality with an acute awareness of how an artist can make a positive and lasting social impact.”
Downes is a concert pianist whose artistic education included studies at European centers like the Hochschüle für Musik in Vienna, the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and the Paris Conservatory. She has cultivated an artistic perspective seamlessly integrating classical and vernacular traditions.
Downes’s performances focus particularly on underrepresented composers. She has recorded works by Clara Schumann and Margaret Bonds, and Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in D minor is a central part of her concert repertoire. In addition to her concert and recording work, Downes is the host of NPR’s Amplify with Lara Downes, in which she interviews Black musicians from across genres.
Our celebration on February 1 will feature several recordings by Lara Downes, including her interpretation of Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain with cellist and vocalist Leyla McCalla.
We encourage you to explore the following resources in order to learn more about composers of African heritage.