The Black Mozarts of Classical Music

Chevalier de Saint-Georges was born in Guadeloupe, the son of a wealthy plantation owner and slave, was a violinist and composer performing violin concertos that showed both his playing ability and ability to compose highly emotional piece and melodies. He is often referred to as  “The Black Mozart”. That name however is ironic considering that Wolfgang Mozart was inspired by Saint-Georges and his techniques, such as leaps. Similar to Chevalier de Saint-Georges many other black classical composers are not acknowledged for their influences and contributions that inspire many other classical composers. This lack of acknowledgment exemplifies how Black classical composers are continued to be treated as “Black Mozarts” in this genre of music.

There were a small amount of professional African American composers during the ante-bellium period. Many received their introduction to classical music from immigrant European composers, local practitioners, or were self taught.These artists range from Henry F. Williams, Justin Miner Holland, William Appo, and Thomas Greene Wiggins Bethune. Following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the U.S congress passed the nation’s first civil rights Acts; the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendment. They were created in order to extend protection of African Americans, grant citizenship to all Black Americans, and to give Black men the right to vote. This newly gained hope and optimism sparked creativity within Black American composers. Some African American wrote for opera, concerto, symphony essays, and composed chronicle music for student singers at Black colleges and universities. Among these classical composers that used their compositions to enrich the black community was Clarence Cameron White.

While living in Washington D.C., where black communities had active music scenes, he met the violinist and composer Will Marion Cook who gave him lessons. White continued his private studies in 1894 with Joseph Douglass, another notable black violinist and grandson of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, at Howard University.  During the Harlem Renaissance, when African Americans migrated to the north, specifically New York City, they began creating art, music, and writing that addressed Blacks struggles, augmented Black pride, and defined what it meant to be Black. They were finding their own voices. Clarence White was among the most influential composers and promoters of the movement. His nationalism showed in his works. Some of his most notable pieces are Cabin Memories, Ouaga, and Kutamba Rhapsody. 

When Clerance White visited Haiti in 1928, he explored the falling of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution. It addressed nationalism amongst Africans and explored the interconnectedness of Blacks experiences and struggles in America and internationally. It was not until 1949 that Ouaga was actually performed on stage. In 1956 the National Negro Opera Association used this performed concert versions of Ouaga at the Metropolitan Opera and CarnegieHall in NYC. Despite it’s winning of medals, it was discontinued and has not been performed since. This is typical for early African American composed works. Ouaga had a wide range of dynamics such as piano and violins. The mood is cultural and has the ability to bring out multiple emotions and tone colors such as yellow, blue, and red. Yellow for pride, blue for struggles that are shown through the pitches and step wise melody, and red for anger that is shown through the leaps and deeper tones.

While Classical music was not the only genre that contributed to jazz, it is a prominent one. Classical music has also influenced African American concerts. Today black classical composers continue to be the “Black Mozart” within and outside of the Black community. This however does not exclude the fact that there are still prominent Black composers today that are still changing classical music and leaving their impact. Similar to before, women are pivotal composers in classical music and even those abroad have impacted classical music in the Black community. Some of these composers come from within the AUC itself. Compared to classical music before, they continue to find ways to further its complexity. 



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