The stereotype of a classical composer is an old, long-dead, white man. But Black musicians have been integrating the classical genre for decades.
In honor of Juneteenth, the day that commemorates Emancipation, our sister station 91Classical has been celebrating Black classical composers and their contributions to the field.
One composer getting a long-overdue boost these days is Florence Price. In 1933, she became the first African-American woman to have her music played by a major orchestra.
But that performance by the Chicago Symphony was a one-off. For the most part, she couldn’t even get conductors to look at her scores, so most of her orchestral music went unperformed and unpublished in her lifetime. But a few years ago, the people who bought a house where she used to live found a big stash of manuscripts, and now her music is finally getting performed and recorded the way it always should have been.
“I think she’s especially good at making the orchestra sound like it’s dancing,” says 91Classical Music Director Nina Cardona.
While there’s a wide variety of themes that Black classical musicians tackle, many at some point in their career try to make sure that Black history gets the benefit of classical music’s unique ability to present an idea.
For instance, Nashville composer Gary Powell Nash has written an orchestral homage to Sojourner Truth, with bombastic sounds that allude to her fighting spirit. The backbone of the piece is the rhythm of how her name sounds.
Composers are using classical forms to grapple with more recent events, as well. In the last couple of years here in Nashville, there have been intense and stirring performances of music that Hannibal Lokumbe wrote to honor the victims of the Mother Emanuel church shooting, as well as “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” a choral piece by Joel Thompson, with lyrics that consist entirely of final words of black men killed by police officers, including Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner.
In both of those compositions, the music sorts through a complex mix of emotions, with anger, hurt, a sense of mourning and a great deal of tenderness.
On 91Classical, the Juneteenth holiday is being marked throughout the day with music by Black composers and recordings by Black performers. Listen at 91.1 FM or 91Classical.org.