The Irony of Classical Music

The irony of African American classical music is in its semblance to white Americans takeover of Black genres of music. While making this statement, however, it is essential that one recognizes the use within white classical music of elements of African influence.”In his 2006 book, Listening to Artifacts: Music Culture in Ancient Israel/Palestine, Theodore Burgh suggests that classical music ultimately has its roots in North Africa, in the art music of Ancient Egypt”(Music Workshop Company). In this recognition, classically music spiraled from its original point of inspiration, northern Africa, to Europe to become a western dominated genre. This statement envokes questions about what the true origin of black classical music is. This being said, classical music as a defined and set genre originated as a white musical genre. The transition into the black adoption of the music speaks, however, to black people adaptability.  Prior to emancipation from slavery, during the antebellum period, this adaptive talent was already being cultivated. During this time in Philadelphia black classical music artists held an unusual amount of liberty over their expression of talent due to the fact that classical music artists were not held to the same level of social status as the rest of society. Because of this, there was little to no interference in their musical production.

Black classical music consisted of an amalgamation of string instruments as well as the unique musical components aided by African American historical influences.  The foundational elements of classical remained, however, black classical music also was held with the obligation of remaining true to the conversation of what it means to be black. Classical music did this by incorporating subtle twists to the western genre in order to create a slightly different sound. This influence stemmed from the strategy of spirituals, the freedom of expression, and the emphasis on collectivism as a means of promoting liberty.

The trailblazers for black classical music include composers such as Francis Johnson, James Hemmenway, William App, and Aaron J.R. Connor. Frank Johnson was a teacher who rose to the attention of listeners during the time through the creation of “A Set of New Cotillions”.  He went on to compose and tour along the east coast. This music proved to be a tool of movement for black composers as Johnson also traveled to London to perform with his other band members. James Hemmenway directed a band, composed music, and was known for being the creator of “The Fifth Set of Quadrilles” as well as many other classical songs. Post-emancipation many students followed in their trailblazer’s footsteps. Hall Johnson, a composer who graduated from the University of Pensylvania, Dawson from Horner Institute of Fine Arts, and J. Rosamond Johnson from the New England Conservatory were just a few of the early classically trained Black composers. Harry T Burleigh was one of the most prominent Black artists of the genre becoming one of the first nationally recognized artists. Moving on, the future of classical music looked like Tania León, Cuban composer; Wendell Logan, former director of music at Oberlin Conservatory; and Fredrick Tillis.

The commodification of Black classical music lies rooted in it’s origin. The beginnings of classical music, already being established, allowed for the laying of a foundational basis for black classical to stand on. The missing element was the acceptance of the masses. this would come with difficulty and strain, however, by the 1950s many composers had not only become active within the genre but gained membership to organizations such as ASCAP ensuring the intellectual property right over their music. The conversation of commodification is also one of social implication. As the civil liberties of Black people were furthered through the depression and into the civil rights movement, there was tremendous change was seen in peoples ability to accept and adopt the idea of Black people in a traditionally white genre. Many Black performers eventually then attained professorship at schools such as Oberlin and the Brooklyn College of the University of New York. As this social movement occurred, so did the normalization of Black people in areas of classical music. While this is said, it can also be brought to the attention of researchers that although Black performers and composers were acknowledged for their presence in the genre, they were not seen as a demographic of esteem within the genre. Because of this much of the credit due to black composers has been lost even to this day. This is indicative of both the limited amount of actualized commodification and the resistance against the push against the boxed in the image of blackness. As Black people strived to expand their view of what it meant to be black for them by merging into areas of predominantly white spaces they were not necessarily met with acceptance.  This further emphasizes the idea that black people can provide entertainment but never ask for recognition for it as an individual. In this was the individual is suppressed and the black creative contribution loses its element of humanity that seals in its relevance within society.  Without the faces and humanity of those within spaces of whiteness acknowledged it is hard to bring attention to the music and contributions of artists in a significant way. This being said many black performers were featured on Broadway musicals as well as in regular theater and film.

Classical music has had little influence on future genres until its arrival in Hip Hop and RnB. Many artists have incorporated the sounds of classical music as background samples. Outside of this classical music stands as an entity of its own in singular and categorized relevance.


the classical genre as it relates to black people marks black peoples segwayinto invention and creation in predominantly white areas of existence. this pivotal movement is important to me as it mirrors my experience in the world growing up. Black classical music is the story of perseverance and the holding onto of identity regardless of the space that we enter- It is a story of acceptance and of the flexibility of the creativity of black people. In making this statement it can be easilly recognizes that black peoples relevance expands far past traditionally black genres and flows into every crack and crevice of creative expression. In this lies clasical musics saliency

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