|English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912). Photograph: Unknown/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS|
In the past 200 years, dozens of prominent black composers from America and other parts of the African diaspora have fought to be recognized by the western classical tradition.
The earliest example is Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-99). Born in Guadeloupe, the son of a wealthy plantation owner and a female slave, Saint-George was brought to France at a young age. As well as being a champion fencer, a violin teacher to Marie Antoinette and a colonel in the republican army, his prodigious musical talents led to him being dubbed “le Mozart noir”. He was a prolific composer (with several operas, 15 violin concertos, symphonies and numerous chamber works to his name) and a rare French exponent of early classical violin composition. (Listen to Chi-chi Nwanoku’s radio documentary about him here, available until 3 July.)
Saint-Georges would have perhaps come into contact with George Bridgewater (1778-1860), a violinist of African origin born in present-day Poland. By the age of nine, his father (who was probably born in Barbados) had taken him to London, where he was shown off as a child prodigy, performing in front of the likes of Thomas Jefferson and George IV. Several of Bridgewater’s compositions survive, although few have been recorded. His story was also the basis for a 2007 opera, written by Julian Joseph.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was born in Croydon, the son of a white English mother and a Creole man from Sierra Leone. As a violin scholar at the Royal College of Music, he was taught composition under Charles Villiers Stanford and soon developed a reputation as a composer, with Edward Elgar recommending him to the Three Choirs festival in 1896. By the time he died of pneumonia – aged only 37 – he had already toured America three times and performed for Theodore Roosevelt at the White House.
Compositions such as Coleridge-Taylor’s African Suite attempted to incorporate African influences in the same way that, say, Dvorák used Hungarian folk themes, but much more successful is Hiawatha’s Wedding, which is occasionally performed today. Even better are Coleridge-Taylor’s works for violin and orchestra, which are elegant pieces of fin de siècle romanticism.
Maurice Arnold Strothotte (1865-1937) studied in Berlin and wrote an opera and a symphony that were highly praised by Dvorák, but his work was rarely performed and has all but dropped off the musical map – he ended up making his living teaching violin and conducting provincial operettas.
Like Strothotte, Will Marion Cook (1869-1944) also studied in Berlin and was praised by Dvorák. He was acclaimed for his Broadway shows and ragtime-influenced songs, but found it almost impossible to break into “straight” composition.
Most sorrowful of all was Scott Joplin (1867-1917). The son of an ex-slave from Texas, he started as a travelling musician around the southern states, playing piano in “gentleman’s clubs”. By the turn of the century his piano rags, such as Maple Leaf Rag, had become a national sensation, but he was desperate to be taken seriously as an orchestral composer. His opera Treemonisha was all but ignored, and he died insane in 1917 after his brain was destroyed by syphilis.
Other black American composers had happier endings. William Grant Still (1895-1978) wrote 150 works, studied with Edgard Varèse, was the first African American to conduct a major US symphony orchestra (the New Orleans Philharmonic), composed for Hollywood and found his works performed by leading orchestras around the world, including his 1930 Afro-American Symphony.
Florence B Price (1887-1953) was the first African American woman to have a work played by a major orchestra – the Chicago Symphony premiered her Symphony in E minor in 1933, but despite success during her lifetime, her many compositions are rarely played today.
And George Walker, born in 1922 and still working today, was the first black American composer to win the Pulitzer prize for music (for Lilacs, a piece for voice and orchestra, in 1996). However, for all his acclaim, he still remains a cult figure in the world of contemporary composition.