Uncovering the History of African American Composers

by Franck Mercurio

The phrase “American music” conjures images of jazz, blues, country-western, gospel, rock-n-roll, hip-hop, and even Broadway—musical traditions born and cultivated here in the United States and now known and enjoyed by listeners around the world.

But what about classical music in America? The distinctly American brand of contemporary classical often gets lost in the mix when speaking of American musical traditions. When it is recognized, the genre is often represented by older, white, males—Aaron Copland, Philip Glass and John Adams—yet this stereotype doesn’t fit the range of American classical composers, which includes African Americans, both male and female. Theirs is a body of work that uniquely reflects American life, but through a classical lens.


Historically, the work of many of these African-American composers has been undervalued or even lost—“hidden” from history until rediscovered by scholars and musicians in recent years. One such “find” turned out to be a landmark moment in music history: A young couple bought an old house in St. Anne, Illinois. As they began to renovate it, they came across a number of hand-written musical scores tucked away inside the dilapidated structure. Many displayed the signature of Florence Price. But who was Florence Price? After some research, the couple learned the house once belonged to the pioneering African-American classical composer. The scores represented some of her unknown and lost works—music that at last would be brought to light.

Price died in 1953 at age 65, right before the Civil Rights movement began gaining momentum. (Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1954.) Life as an African-American classical composer was difficult during this era—not to mention life as a female composer—yet Price overcame both obstacles and received a fair amount of recognition during her lifetime.


But it was a hard-won battle, as evidenced by the number of works that languished inside Price’s summer home in the years after her death. Only within the past few decades have her compositions re-entered the classical repertoire, including her Piano Concerto in One Movement (1933), which did achieve moderate success in its day with performances in Chicago and Pittsburgh before the original orchestral score was lost. Swiss pianist Louis Schwizgebel performs this piece, in its re-orchestrated form, with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in the American Life concerts (November 15–16).

Guest Conductor Thomas Wilkins leads the Orchestra in this program celebrating the varied works of African-American composers from different time periods. Among them, William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony (1930) and Duke Ellington’s Harlem (1951) are most closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

Contemporary African-American composers are also represented. Adolphus Hailstork’s An American Port of Call (1985) conjures images of the composer’s hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, and captures what Hailstork describes as “the strident and occasionally tender and even mysterious energy of a busy American port city.” James Lee III’s Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula (2011) recalls the parallels between the Biblical Hebrews’ exile in the Wilderness and 19th-century African-American journeys from slavery to freedom.

The autumn festival of Sukkot, referenced by Lee, not only commemorates past events, but also promises a better future. From this viewpoint, American Life is an exciting exploration of the threads linking great African-American composers, both past and present. It recognizes the “hidden histories” by bringing once-neglected musical gems back to life while celebrating current achievements and looking forward to future accomplishments.