I’m a regular contributor to the #ClassicsaDay feed on Twitter. At a speech in Poland on 7/6/17, the President said, “The world has never known anything like our community of nations. We write symphonies.” The next day #WeWriteSymphonies appeared on Twitter, citing all the non-Western — and non-white — composers who do indeed write symphonies.
To celebrate composers of color, I used both hashtags in my feed for the month of September. The selections, though, seemed especially appropriate for Black History Month. Below is annotated list for the first week of posts.
Florence Price (1887-1953) Symphony No. 1 in E minor
Florence Price was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a classical music composer. She was also the first composer of color to have their work played by a major symphony orchestra. Her Symphony in E minor was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1932. It was the first of four symphonies she would write.
George Walker (1922 – ) – Sinfonia No. 3
George Walker attended Oberlin Conservatory, the Curtis Institute of Music, and studied with Samuel Barber. Walker was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. Walker prefers writing sinfonias to symphonies. “Things that are overly embellished, or that are too rich, just don’t suit my temperament. The sinfonias are all extremely concise works,” he said in an interview.
H. Leslie Adams (1932 – ) – Piano Etudes
Leslie Adams has served as a music educator, composer, ballet pianist, and church organist. He’s most known for his vocal and choral music, but he’s written for all genres, including orchestral and chamber music. His Etudes for Solo Piano are some of his most popular works.
William L. Dawson (1899-1990) – Negro Folk Symphony
Trombonist William Dawson played with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. He would later teach at the Tuskegee Institute. His 1934 Negro Folk Symphony was premiered by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Dawson is best remembered for his arrangement of spirituals (several of which he used in the symphony).
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) – My Cup Runneth Over
Technically, R. Nathaniel Dett isn’t an African-American composer — he was born in Canada. Dett was one of the first composers of color to join ASCAP. He attended Harvard and studied briefly with Arther Foote. The majority of Dett’s catalog features singing — either solo vocal music or choral works.
Ulysses Kay (1917 – 1995) – Symphony
Although the nephew of King Oliver, Ulysses Kay wrote in a strict, neoclassical style. Kay one the Rome Prize and a Fulbright Scholarship which furthered his career as a composer. Among his works are five operas, the last premiered just four years before his death.