Last summer, as Black Lives Matter protests heated up the streets, it seemed like every American orchestra sent out press releases condemning racism — even those who regularly go multiple seasons without programming work by a single Black composer. With bewigged maestros occupying so many plinths in the pantheon of the Western classical canon, Black composers have long been treated as an afterthought or novelty by much of the concert-music world. But recently, a new wave of ensembles (and listeners) has begun to explore this music in earnest, treating it with the gravitas it has always deserved. Four local Black musicians with roots in the classical tradition spoke with the Globe about composers they think deserve more attention.
ASHLEIGH GORDON, violist, Castle of Our Skins
“We often recognize Scott Joplin [1868-1917] as being the king of ragtime, for only his rags and piano music, but he very much wanted to be considered a ‘serious composer.’ He wrote an opera that we no longer have access to, called ‘A Guest of Honor,’ that was about Booker T. Washington’s dinner with Teddy Roosevelt at the White House. We only have a record of it as being titled for copyright but don’t actually have his music. Because there’s a lot of inaccurate record-keeping and total erasure of his music right now. I would love to have people know more holistically about his life and his contributions and his artistry.
Chevalier de Saint-Georges [1745-99] was born in Guadeloupe as an enslaved person and went to France at a time when slavery was abolished, and was able to become a fantastic violinist, and composed violin sonatas and concertos. He helped really advance a genre, the Sinfonia Concertante, a small chamber ensemble that has their solo with a large backup band, and premiered Haydn’s Paris Symphonies. But shortly after his death, when Napoleon took over and reenacted slavery, he banned his music from being programmed and published. We’re having a bit of a resurgence now with knowing him and really saying his name and honoring his music, but even though he was born 11 years before Mozart, he’s still called the Black Mozart.”
NEDELKA PRESCOD, singer, New England Conservatory & Berklee College of Music
“When we think composers, we tend to think classical music. I sing gospel music, and there are some composers in the gospel realm we don’t talk about enough that I think should be brought to the table. One of them is definitely Richard Smallwood, who has a classical background. When you listen to his music, he writes in the gospel tradition [but] you can hear his classical background.
Those who know gospel ... you don’t know gospel unless you’ve heard of the Clark Sisters. In terms of composers, Twinkie Clark wrote most of the music of their repertoire. She’s a significant composer in the gospel idiom, and her being female is huge, too. They’re coming out of the COGIC religion, Church of God in Christ, which is very strict in terms of conduct. Twinkie was heavily influenced by Stevie Wonder when she wrote the song “You Brought the Sunshine,” and one story is that they were scared their mother might know it was based on a secular song. They tested it out on her and she said she liked it, and this song became a huge hit. A lot of them didn’t know that it was coming out of Stevie Wonder!
In the ’90s it was Kirk Franklin, who is probably my favorite gospel composer, and he has completely revolutionized the genre. When I say Black composers, my mind and soul and spirit lean more toward gospel, and I want to elevate that because it needs to be known. For Black folks who become famous at making music, who are respected as songwriters and composers, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to be classical. We can look to the forms and traditions that come straight out of Black culture and Black struggle. I’m the daughter of a classical musician, and so I honor and respect the fact that I’ve had that training and I know what it does for me. But for me classical music is a style just like all the others, and I think we’ve gotten used to it being the standard. They all have beautiful qualities. I just don’t believe that one should be elevated over the other.”
REGGIE MOBLEY, countertenor, Handel and Haydn Society programming consultant
“When I did come into classical music, my world had mostly been focused on choral and vocal music. So much of that had been centered on spirituals and gospel, the things that people kind of expect Black composers to write. Brahms gets to be called a composer for arranging various folk tunes. But when Black composers [do that] with spirituals, they’re called arrangers. They don’t get to stand at the same level. But the truth is ... this is our community. These are our compositions. For too long, so many have been locked in this world of ‘that’s just what Black composers do.’
I always have to mention Florence Price [1887-1953] because of the depth and quality of her music, her ability to weave in and out of idiomatic styles and forms without the hint of a stumble. This is someone who is worthy of standing not just in the American canon, but the Western classical music canon. She should be a household name next to the likes of Britten and Brahms.
Daniel Bernard Roumain does a lot of compositions that meld various idioms like hip-hop and classical and spoken word and slam poetry. He draws from these cultures he was raised in because they’re worthy of being noticed as great expressions of who we are as humans. It just happens to be that these styles and forms come from the Black community. Jonathan Woody is mostly known as a bass-baritone, but he’s also a brilliant composer. With the ‘Nigra sum’ that he composed for H&H, he so effortlessly melds themes and concepts that are relevant to now with understanding of Renaissance and Baroque styles. Trevor Weston ... is a fantastic composer who refuses to be constrained by form or style.
There’s one [historic] composer who I think should be heard and known more, and that is Ignatius Sancho [c. 1729-80]. Sancho was born on a slave ship ... and this man became the first Black person to vote in parliamentary elections in England. But he was also a violinist, and keyboardist. He wrote tons of songs and minuets, some galliards. People should know him not just because he’s an early Black composer, but because of how interesting of a character he was.”
JULIUS WILLIAMS, composer and conductor, Berklee College of Music
“When I was growing up, people would come up to me and say ‘are you a jazz musician?’ I said yeah, I can play jazz but I’m a classical concert composer and conductor. But now things are changing. There’s composers like Clarence Cameron White [1880-1960], Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson [1932-2004], my teacher — and my other teacher Ulysses Kay [1917-95]. He deserved to be played a lot more. TJ Anderson. My good friend Tania León, William Banfield, Olly Wilson. ... We have so many that I’m just afraid of missing anybody. Adolphus Hailstork: The Boston Symphony just did one of his pieces. I recorded his Symphony No. 1, which is a great piece. But other composers, women like Undine Smith Moore [1904-89]; there’s a great piece she wrote called ‘Scenes From the Life of a Martyr.’ But they’re not seen. People may read about them in books, but the music needs to be heard and played by different orchestras.”
Interviews were condensed and edited. A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.