A Slight Deviation: Classical Music

The Classical genre is a slight deviation amongst the other genres we’ve discussed because African Americans did not create it. In the Medieval period, the majority of music that was sung was in the form of plainchant or “Gregorian” chant. Plainchants are characterized as songs with a single melodic line, oftentimes without accompaniment. Gregorian chants developed and became more intricate throughout the Renaissance period. In the 10th and 11th centuries  and throughout the Baroque Period (1600s-1750), composers such as Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel began adding accompaniment and underscores to plainchants. This was also the era when new styles like the Concerto and Sonata were pioneered. Over time these underscores became very complex and developed into what is more closely known as Classical music. Classical music is not highly rhythmic; it is light and clear in texture, and sound, unlike the sound of many African American-born genres. Classical tunes are generally played by orchestras or symphonies, and sang by choirs and opera singers. This genre is built on symmetry and apparent simplicity, although many classical pieces during the Baroque Period were extremely intricate and complex. About a century after the Baroque Period, African Americans began adopting and composing in this new genre.

The social implications of Classical music in the Black community were extremely positive. Classical music was considered “serious” music in the eyes of White Americans. The mastery of Classical music allowed for a sense of elevation for African Americans who played, composed, or simply enjoyed it. This genre exposed the black community to a new style of writing music that was altogether dissimilar to music they had previously created. Finally, the creation of new Classical tunes by Blacks allowed many of them to achieve a great deal of success and fame as crossover artists, since the majority of the Classical audience was white at the time.

There are, currently, an infinite number of successful African American classical composers and musicians. Although the list is quite lengthy there are a handful that paved the way for other black classical musicians: William Grant Still, Scott Joplin, and Florence B. Piece. William Grant Still is remembered as the first black classical composer; an oboist who incorporated aspects of Blues and Jazz into his piece “Afro-American Symphony” in 1931.

Afro-American Symphony by William Grant Still: I. Moderato Assai

Another extremely well known musical pioneer is Scott Joplin. Although Joplin was a Ragtime musician, he did compose Treemonisha: an opera about a young Black girl who is embarking on an educational campaign after the American Civil War. Joplin incorporated underlying specs of Ragtime into his opera.

Treemonisha by Scott Joplin

In addition to those artists, there are many influential Black Classical musicians who have relatively recently made their impact: Margaret Bonds, George Walker, Tania Leon, David Baker, Shirley Graham, William Grant, Hale Smith, Eva Jessye, George Walker, Julia Perry, Florence Price, Alvin Singleton, Olly Wilson, Harry Burleigh, Ulysses Kay, R. Nathaniel Dett, Wendell Logan, and Okoye. It is important to list these musicians so that they are represented and people understand that there are not just a couple of Black Classical musicians; there are tons!

Although black musicians did not create Classical music, many of them made a lot of money from their Classical compositions. In a way, Blacks benefitted from the commodification of Classical music. Any money that was made from this commodification was surely not dependent on the Negro, however, being that White Americans dominated the Classical audience. Both African American and Caucasian Rock bands drew a fair amount of inspiration from classical composers. Many modern Rock songs mimic the original intensity and complexity that was present in music from the Baroque Period. In addition to Rock, Classical music has some influence over Pop music.

The Classical genre is beautiful. African American’s creativity and mastery of a genre that was not created by them shows their diversity and brilliance for music.


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