1. Joseph Bologne, also known as Chevalier de St. Georges (1745–1799)
Let’s stop calling this man the “Black Mozart” and give credit where it’s due. To be perfectly clear: Mozart quoted HIM, not the other way around. Period.
Joseph Bologne was a powerhouse who was first known to the Parisian public as a champion fencer - the very best in France, in fact. Imagine their shock and delight to discover he was also a virtuoso violinist, making him a sensation after his debut solo performance in 1772. Not only that, but he was a prolific composer, composing twelve violin concertos, several large scale symphonic works, and six comic operas (just to name a few), an admired horseman, apparently quite the social dancer, and eventually the conductor of the leading orchestra in Paris, an orchestra which Marie Antoinette herself frequented. U.S. President John Adams called him “the most accomplished man in Europe.” Indeed.
Fun fact: He also fought on the side of the Republic in the first all-Black regiment in Europe during the French Revolution.
Get started on his incredible oeuvre with his Symphony No. 2, a work with an elegance, clarity and effortlessness that is the hallmark of his style:
2. William Grant Still (1895–1978)
Prolific and influential, many call him the Dean of African American composers and it’s not hard to see why.
The first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony (his first symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television, William Grant Still broke barriers. In addition to his work in Classical Music, he was known and respected for his work in Hollywood, where he arranged the music for films like Pennies from Heaven, starring Bing Crosby and Madge Evans.
Fun facts: Still also served the United States Navy in World War I. After the war, he went to Harlem where he rubbed shoulders with influential cultural icons Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Arna Bontemps, and Countee Cullen in the Harlem Renaissance.
Begin your journey into his works with his sophisticated and bluesy Symphony No. 2 "Song of a New Race" performed here by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra:
3. Margaret Bonds (1913–1972)
Margaret Bonds wrote her first musical work at the age of five and grew up in a musical home, where soprano Abbie Mitchell and composers Florence Price and Will Marion Cook were frequent guests. Bonds began her studies at Northwestern University in 1929, at the early age of 16. She would go on to complete Bachelor and Master of Music degrees in piano and composition, in spite of an environment of open racial hostility.
I was in this prejudiced university, this terribly prejudiced place…. I was looking in the basement of the Evanston Public Library where they had the poetry. I came in contact with this wonderful poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and I’m sure it helped my feelings of security. Because in that poem he tells how great the black man is. And if I had any misgivings, which I would have to have – here you are in a setup where the restaurants won’t serve you and you’re going to college, you’re sacrificing, trying to get through school – and I know that poem helped save me.
Soon after, she set out for New York, where she would study at Juilliard and become close friends with poet Langston Hughes, setting many of his poems to music. She is especially remembered for her deeply felt vocal music, and her spiritual arrangements, some of which have been favorites of singers the likes of Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, and Leontyne Price.
For the spirituals that made Bonds so famous, start with Leontyne Price’s breathtaking 1962 rendition of Bonds’ deeply moving and powerful orchestral arrangement of He's Got The Whole World In His Hands.”
4. Ulysses Kay (1917–1995)
Ulysses Kay was mentored by William Grant Still at the University of Arizona, where he began to craft his signature neoclassical style. Although he was a capable student of piano, violin, and saxophone, it quickly became clear that composition was his true calling, as he won awards, fellowships, international scholarships, and grants to continue writing (including the prestigious Rome Prize and a Fulbright, just to name a few). One year of study with prominent neoclassicist Paul Hindemith at Yale solidified his reputation as a neoclassicist to watch. Prolific, Ulysses Kay was the creator of five operas, twenty large orchestral works, and scads of choral, chamber, and film compositions.
Get a taste of his style by listening to his Tromba, an elegant solo for trumpet and piano with a propulsive harmonic motion behind it:
5. Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941)
Performed by such greats as the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra (to only name a few), Adolphus Hailstork is a contemporary master, a titan of the contemporary canon who is equally at home writing on a grand scale with orchestra and chorus as he is writing a work as intimate as a duet. Most recently performed by the President’s Own United States Marine Band at the 2021 Inauguration Ceremony, Hailstork’s idiosyncratic style is a marriage of many cultural influences, from the music of his growing up in the Episcopal church (think Samuel Barber), to the music of David Diamond, his teacher at Manhattan School of Music, to the rich tradition of Black music in the United States, spanning spirituals, William Grant Still, and more - and yet his approach to texture, harmony, melody, and rhythm is uniquely his.
Currently, he’s working on a requiem for George Floyd, which will be a large scale work for chorus and orchestra.
Start your listening journey with his hair-raising Shout for Joy, for brass quintet, timpani, organ, and chorus, here:
Then progress to his poignant Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed, on the subject of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and works, as performed by the Chineke! Orchestra, Europe’s first majority Black, Asian and ethnically diverse orchestra:
Continue your journey with the hustle and bustle of An American Port of Call:
To hear him speak about his works in his own words (including his upcoming requiem for George Floyd), watch his interview with Rei Hotoda of the Fresno Philharmonic:
6. Valerie Coleman (b. 1970)
Performance Today's 2020 Classical Woman of the Year, and described as one of the "Top 35 Female Composers in Classical Music" by critic Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, it’s no exaggeration to say that Valerie Coleman is among the world's most played composers living today, with many of her pieces becoming an established part of the standard repertoire. The Boston Globe describes Coleman as having a “talent for delineating form and emotion with shifts between ingeniously varied instrumental combinations” and The New York Times observes her compositions as “skillfully wrought, buoyant music.” With works that range from flute sonatas that recount the stories of trafficked humans during Middle Passage and orchestral and chamber works based on nomadic Roma tribes, to scherzos about moonshine in the Mississippi Delta region and motifs based from Morse Code, her body of works have been highly regarded as a deeply relevant contribution to modern music.
Start your journey with uber popular flute solo Danza de la Mariposa:
Then dive in to Wish, a dramatic tone poem for flutist and pianist alike, depicting the Middle Passage in which Africans were trafficked across the Atlantic by tall ships to be sold into slavery:
Learn more about her in this interview with Performance Today:
Also Coming Soon...
Theodore Presser Company is proud to partner with pianist Lara Downes of NPR to create the new Rising Sun Sheet Music Series. Inspired by her own mixed-race heritage and career-long engagement with diverse musical traditions, Downes will create and curate new print editions and performance recordings to shed a bright light on the music and stories of Black composers over the past 200 years. Read more about Lara Downes and Rising Sun Music.