Peoria Symphony Orchestra's music director showcases African American Contributions to Classical Music

There's a tendency to think that African-American contributions to music lie pretty much in the fields of jazz, blues, spirituals and other so-called popular art forms.

African-American contributions to classical music are acknowledged to a degree in music textbooks - when it comes to figures such as William Grant Still and Coleridge Taylor.

Before the Civil War, legions of free African-Americans, who also happened to be composers, left the United States for Europe - especially France, where they began to produce a large body of fascinating classical music, most of which has gone unacknowledged and unperformed in any major way. They include figures such as Edmond Dede (1827-1901), a New Orleans-born Creole and child-prodigy who was forced to flee to Mexico because of white hostility.

He eventually returned, working as a cigar maker and eventually saving enough money to continue his studies in Belgium and Paris. Nevertheless, these composers exerted a big influence on the countries they adopted.

Decades after the Civil War and into the 20th century, industrialization lured many African-Americans to northern cities in quest of work.

One of this migration's greatest cultural creations was jazz and blues. But what's less known is that classical music resulted as well - song cycles such as "Out of the South" by Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953), which sets to music poetry by Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Price, by the way, also wrote for orchestras. In fact, she's the first black woman in the United States to win recognition as a symphonic composer, according to George Stelluto, the Peoria Symphony Orchestra's music director.

"It's a really interesting aspect of American music history that we just don't pay attention to," Stelluto said.

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Gary Panetta is the fine arts columnist and a critic for the Journal Star. He also has a blog, Bach and Lemon Shakeups, at Panetta can be reached at 686-3132 or

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