Black Classical

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Origin of the Genre

Unlike other African American music genres. The classical genre was not created by blacks. The earliest recorded classical time period is the medieval period ( 500-1400).  Although the term ” classical music” was not used until the 19th century during the time of Johann Sebastian Bach. Even though this genre was preexisting, African Americans still made contributions to the history of classical music.

Social Implications

Before the emancipation proclamation, the number of black composers was slim to none, Newport Gardner is considered the earliest known black composer. The emancipation increased the opportunities for professional black composers. Musicians that were born after the emancipation would have the greatest impact on the genre during the first half of the twentieth century. Harry T. Burleigh was the first nationally accepted post-emancipation black composer. During the 1900s, A small number of musicians were writing for operas, symphonic essay, concertos, and sonatas. The majority wrote choral music to be performed by singers at black colleges and universities. During the twentieth century, black composers really began to incorporate their own unique characteristics into classical music.

Important Performers

Newport Gardner

William Grant Still

Olly Wilson


The Great Depression caused an economic strain in the United States. Composers dedicated their time composing music and sustaining themselves through commissions, grants, freelance work, or private teaching.

Characteristics/ Influence on Future Genres

African Americans’ experimentation with techniques and styles brought a new life to classical music. They incorporated the sounds of urban Black America in their compositions. Neoclassical composers during the twentieth century, one example being  Ulysses Kay, sought to return to the more traditional aspects of classical music. This is evident in his compositions which were inspired by eighteenth-century concepts. Composers such as Alvin Singleton and Hale Smith preferred avant-garde, or unusual, techniques. Composers such as Tania Leon and Nkeiru Okoye provided international influences within their music. Black Classical music gave birth to a post-national style of African American concert music.

Conclusory Opinions

Classical music is a genre that is typically not categorized with African Americans. As Nina Simone stated in the quote above, “Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music” I believe this message is very powerful. Although blacks are not often credited as classical composers, it is evident within different types of music such as ragtime, jazz, and classical, blacks are capable of composing. It is inspiring to see African Americans thriving in all aspects of music, not only the genres we created but ones that were already established as well.

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