Origin & Characteristics

There was a small presence of  Black composers originated prior to Emancipation. These early pioneers wrote short compositions based upon European American models (e.g., ballads, anthems), and social dance music (e.g., waltzes, polkas). Their music featured straightforward tuneful melodies with simple diatonic harmonies. It was not until the 20th century when African Americans had a heavier presence of Black composers. This caused a new sound of classical music to emerge. One type of classical music was called “Third Stream” music. This style combines jazz improvisation with instrumentation and compositional forms associated with classical music.

Important Classical Artists

Newton Gardner

  • Earliest Black singing schoolmaster and composer
  • Opened up a school in Newport where he taught Black and white students how to sing
  • Composed a choral composition “Promised Anthem” (c. 1974) which was reported “lost”

Francis “Frank” Johnson

  • Leader of the Black composers during the Antebellum period
  • First African American composer to have his music published as sheet music

William Grant Still

  • First African American composer to apply sounds of blues and jazz to symphonic music
  • His Troubled Island, was the first full-length opera by a Black composer mounted by a major American company

Tania Leon

  • Cuban American composer created music that had a syncretic sounds of her native country where the cultures of Afro-Cuban, Yoruba, Congolese, and Creole Spanish comingle
  • Rejected the ideals of ethnic, racial, or gender labels in her work

Social Implications & Commodification

During this time of classical music the Depression, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s caused dramatic social and political changes in the United States. This worked in the favor of Black composers  because they gained access to quality higher education, the ability to travel extensively and reach a wider audience internationally, as well as the ability to have their music published and recorded. African Americans also had access to licensing organizations which allowed them greater protection of of their intellectual property rights. Even though African Americans did not create this genre, black composers were having more sheet music published and traveling so they were making money off of their work. 

Influence on Future Genres & Conclusory Opinions

This genre influenced a later form of classical musical known as Neoclassical. These artists wanted to compose a restored sound to the traditional elements of classical music. This genre was interesting to read about because even though Africans Americans did not create this genre we still made it our own in a sense. We added our own style to the original elements and made a profit off of it.


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