George Bridgetower aka Bridgewater (1778-1860), a violinist of African origin
born inpresent-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.
Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954) founded Harlem’s Negro Grand Opera Company, but his two all-black Wagnerian operas are barely staged.
An opera composer, conductor, impresario and teacher. He was the first African-American to write an opera (Epthalia, 1891) that was successfully produced. Freeman founded the Freeman School of Music and the Freeman School of Grand Opera, as well as several short-lived opera companies which gave first performances of his own compositions. During his life, he was known as "the black Wagner."
William Grant Still (1895-1978) studied with Edgard Varèse, an American composer, who composed more than 150 works, including five symphonies and eight operas.
Often referred to as "the Dean" of African-American composers, Still was the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera. Still is known most for his first symphony, which was until the 1950s the most widely performed symphony composed by an American.
In 1955, he conducted the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra; he was the first African American to conduct a major orchestra in the Deep South. Still's works were performed internationally by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the BBC Orchestra.