Black Americans in Classical Music

Though classical music is an old, western phenomenon, many black artists have contributed to the history of this genre. Classical music is mainly homophonic, or clear  melody above a subordinate chordal accompaniment.  Some of the most popular instruments used to play classical music are the flute, violin, and piano.

Since the eighteenth century, black composers have been flourishing in the US. Philadelphia, PA became a city for black musicians such as Francis Johnson, James Hemmenway, and William Appo, to thrive during the antebellum period, or before emancipation. James Hemmenway for instance, composed music arranged for band, flute, and violin including The Fifth Set of Quadrilles (1828).

The end of the civil war brought much influence of arts to black americans. Composers who worked following the Emancipation Proclamation include but are not limited to Francis Hall Johnson, William Grant Still, and William Levi Dawson. William Grant Still was the first black American to conduct a professional symphony orchestra, and is best known for his Afro-American Symphony (1931). He is also known to have been the first black composer to add blues and jazz characteristics to classical music.

In the last century or so, much change has taken place in the US which has had much influence on African Americans especially. It has been a transition period and through desegregation and the civil rights movement, composers such as Wendell Logan, Frederick Tillis, and Tania León have benefitted by the opportunity to be members of licensing organizations, receiving commissions to compose, and teaching at Universities. Tania León is a Cuban-American composer who has played large roles in the Arthur Mitchell Dance Company, as well as Alvin Ailey. In addition, she has taught conduction and composition at the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York as well as directed orchestra, As an afro-Cuban American woman, she has defied many stigmas and standards to contribute to a widely European genre of music.

I would argue that other genres would have more of an influence on classical music than classical has had on other genres. Blues, jazz, and hip hop can all be incorporated into compositions of classical music. Though it is a western genre, black musicians and composers have found ways to contribute largely in a changing society to classical music.


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