When we think of musical composers, there are certain names that typically come to mind. Beethoven; Bach; Chopin; Handel. These composers are legendary, no doubt, but isn’t it time to celebrate the diversity in the industry?
Between historical icons and modern legends in the making, these are just some of the many Black composers that should be on your radar.
Back in 1933, Florence Price made history when she became the first African-American to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra. After the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance, critics called her “Symphony No. 1” a “faultless work.” Inspired by European Romantic composers, Price also brought a new twist to her compositions. Apart from being talented, the Arkansas-born composer was also very religious. As a result, she brought a touch of African-American church music into her work.
An accomplished composer, George Walker was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996. His shining accomplishment at this time? Lilacs, which made use of the iconic Walt Whitman poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” This wasn’t Walker’s first brush with being a history-maker though: he was also the first black musician to play New York’s Town Hall, among other firsts.
Jazz composers deserve love too! Born in 1961, Wynton Marsalis made waves in 1997 when he became the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his oratorio “Blood On The Fields,” just a year after George Walker’s win. His compositions are notable for their mix of jazz, gospel, and spiritual influences.
At just 23, Omar Thomas became the Assistant Professor of Harmony at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a massive achievement at such a young age. Since then, he has taken the music world by storm with his compositions, which are largely for big band and wind ensembles. He also isn’t afraid to take a stance: his work often includes themes of racial experience and LGBTQ+ equality. “Of Our New Day Begun” is a perfect example of this.
Nkeiru Okoye is an interesting type of composer, who prefers to write about historical events and people. She is perhaps best known for her opera, “Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom,” which dramatizes Tubman’s personal life, but Okoye also received acclaim for “Black Bottom,” her 2020 interactive concert production celebrating the 100th anniversary of Detroit’s Orchestra Hall.
Did we miss your favorite composer? Drop their names in the comments!