Timeless: African-American Ingenuity in Classical Preservation


Unlike the previously mentioned genres of African-American music, classical music was not birthed by Black people. Dating back to as early as 500 during the Medieval Times, classical music is known as one of the oldest music genres. Classical music has existed through many Western eras, such as Renaissance (1400-1600), Baroque (1600-1750), Classical (1730-1820), Romantic (1780-1910), and 20th-century. Early on, very few African-American composers were able to become professionals in the field, mainly in antebellum Philadelphia. However, the majority of Black classical musicians were not originally accepted in the European-dominated classical community. There was not an increase in African-American classical composers and musicians until after emancipation.


Elements of the Classics

Classical music contains very precise and technical elements, so the early forms of this music did not include improvisation. Classical music usually follows a set complex form, such as the opera, concerto, symphony, sonata or cantata. Classical music can be purely instrumental, which is seen in symphonies and fugues, or can contain vocal elements, such as the opera. Instruments used in most classical pieces include strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion instruments. Post-emancipation, Black artists began to incorporate folkloristic elements into the traditional European-style classical. For example, Black composers would include hints of jazz or folk music to create an overall Black style of classical music in the United States.


Social Implications and Commodification

Despite strict racial tensions of the time, Black classical artists were able to thrive in antebellum Philadelphia, known as the cultural capital for Black America. Even though Black success was prominent in this area, historically, Black composers have been purposefully excluded from the genre due to segregation and racial discrimination. After the Civil War, an influx of African-Americans entered the classical music genre due to newly-acquired freedoms. This sudden increase was seen because of a desire for racial uniformity between Black and white cultures. Many Black individuals wanted to assimilate into white culture. Classical music was seen as an outlet for this realization.

The Harlem Renaissance was a promising time for Black classics. As Black culture flourished during this time period, works by Black composers and musicians were given a platform for commercial prominence. A prime example of this trend can be seen in Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha.” This opera composed by Scott Joplin. Even though he was a critically acclaimed ragtime artist at this time, Joplin did not refer to this piece as a ragtime opera. Scott Joplin set out to emulate the serious music he heard at the Metropolitan Opera and by touring European companies. Joplin considered the work to be a grand opera.

From a commodification standpoint, Black people did not create classical music. The commodification was not dependent upon Blacks because they inherited the genre. However, African-Americans Black artists were given a pedestal to compose, records and publish classical pieces in musical arenas, such as halls and theaters. The publishings were unique in that African-Americans were able to reconstruct rather than sample. Their cultural and social elements were conceptually integrated into the original music.


Significant Black Classical Artists


Frank Johnson (1792-1844)

  • First American to tour Europe with a classical group


Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799)

  • Not African-American, but has significant importance with Black classical music
  • Referred to as the “Black Mozart”



Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)

  • Numerous white musicians referred to him as the “African Mahler”


William Grant Still (1895-1978)

  • Referred to as the “Dean” of African-American composers


Eva Jessye (1895-1992)

  • First Black woman to receive an international distinction  for being a professional choral conductor


David Baker (1931-2016)

  • Renowned jazz musician and classical composer who founded the jazz studies program at Indiana University


Julia Perry (1924-1979)

  • Notable for her combined use of neo-classical and European classical techniques


Influence on Future Music

It can be argued that Black classical music was one of the most solidified examples of successful music fusion. In contemporary music, genre-hopping has proven to be quite prevalent in musical styling. It is not rare to see interdisciplinary integrations of various musical genres and/or styles. This phenomenon was predominantly showcased within the works of Black composers and classical musicians. The combination of folk and jazz with traditional classical elements set the precedent for this accessibility and acceptance for all Black genres to come. Black classical music also influenced later forms of the classics. Some artists chose to associate with neoclassicism as a way to restore the fundamental elements, such as clarity and order, of traditional classical music


Conclusory Opinions

Even though Black classical musicians and composers did not create the classical music genre, the incorporation of Black ideas reinvented the underlying elements of the genre. Black artists were able to circumvent racial injustices to achieve and succeed in the classical community. The textured mosaic of the genre was significantly revised and clarified by many African-American artists. Black classical music serves as a prime and essential exhibition of black ingenuity and perseverance within African-American music and music overall.

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