The Black Classics

Origin of Classical

Classical music originated in the Medieval Time Period, but Black musicians began playing and composing during enslavement with the instruction of European immigrants.  Black classical composers used Western classical foundations and added rags to the background to create their own sound.


Newport Gardner from Rhode Island became the first Black classical music teacher and composer after winning a lottery that allowed him to purchase his freedom.  He taught music to both Black and White students. During the Antebellum period, Philadelphia was the metropolis for Black America, thus the first Black composers who could be compared with White composers came out of that city.  Some musicians taught themselves and others were taught by European immigrants, as very few were able to be formally educated on classical music. Because White people viewed Black musicians as a servant class for entertainment purposes only, they frequently hired Black musicians for events.

Notable composers:

  • Francis “Frank” Johnson
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The music nationalism movement that spread throughout Europe and to the United States caused Black musicians to focus on their musical origins and develop a Black style of concert music.  Post-Emancipation, the Black community in America was very optimistic about the idea of freedom and the possibility of men being able to vote, which resulted in cultural uplifting music. Some composers during this time period received higher-level music education that prepared them to be recognized, including John Rosamond Johnson (co-author of Lift Every Voice and Sing).

Notable composers:

  • Harry T. Burleigh

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  • Eva Jessye

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  • Shirley Graham

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Modern and Postmodern

Unlike previous Black classical composers, composers during this time period had easier access to more formal music education, had the ability to travel and perform their compositions, had the ability to publish and record their music, etc.

Notable composers:

  • Ulysses Kay

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  • George Walker

  • Hale Smith

Conclusory Opinions

I think that there are several different reasons explaining why there are not a lot of Black composers known in classical musical.  First, Black people did not originally create classical music, unlike the blues or jazz. Also, classical music is very different from the upbeat music our ancestors were developing and playing at that time.  Finally, I think Black Americans are sparse in classical music because it did not originate in the Americas.

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