pioneers of american classical music

Mention the early pioneers in African-American music, and most people will probably think of Scott Joplin or Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington or Ella Fitzgerald. Fewer might consider Florence Price, William Grant Still, or of a host of classical composers. 

But the decades of the 1930s and ‘40s were an especially fertile period for composers who set out to use African-American forms — including jazz, spirituals and the blues — as the basis for a distinctive classical music. Their achievements were often eloquent, vivacious, poignant, and a great deal of fun.

In celebration of Black History Month, here are five standout figures and achievements.


Florence Price (1887-1953) gained trailblazer status when her Symphony in E minor was performed in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, becoming the first work by an African-American woman to be played by a major American orchestra.

As a teenager, Price studied composition and organ at the prestigious New England Conservatory after the white teachers in her native Little Rock refused to take her on.

After graduating with two degrees, she taught music at historically black colleges. But financial strains and news of a brutal lynching in Little Rock prompted Price and her family to relocate to Chicago. She divorced an abusive husband, made connections with the black intelligentsia, and won the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Prize. This honor brought her First Symphony to the attention of Chicago Symphony music director Frederick Stock.

A Naxos recording by the Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra and conductor John Jeter allows us to hear what caught Stock’s ear. The Symphony No. 1 opens with sturdy, brooding evocations of black spirituals, at times recalling the American music of Dvořák. This is followed by a hymn-like brass chorale, and a juba, a syncopated, antebellum slave dance. The Symphony No. 4 also features a strutting juba, as well as an apparent homage to Duke Ellington’s “jungle style.”

Price also composed concertos, keyboard works and arrangements of spirituals, the latter of which Marian Anderson sang at Carnegie Hall. She also found time to raise two children, work as an organist for silent films, compose radio jingles and write educational pieces for children. In 2018, the music publisher G. Schirmer acquired the worldwide rights to her catalog, allowing for greater dissemination of her music.


Langston Hughes, the young rebel of the Harlem Renaissance, celebrated the authenticity of “hot” jazz in the rhythms and cadences of his poetry. In turn, his writing inspired numerous composers.

On “Songs from Chicago” (Cedille Records), baritone Thomas Hampson and pianist Kuang-Hao gather three settings of Hughes’ poetry, including Florence Price’s bittersweet “Song to the Black Virgin” and “My Dream,” a song that envisions a world free of prejudice. Also included are song cycles by Margaret Bonds and John Alden Carpenter.

A more expansive survey of Hughes-inspired songs is featured on the Naxos release, “Dreamer: A Portrait of Langston Hughes.” Tenor Darryl Taylor includes richly emotive settings by Price, Bonds, John Musto and Ricky Ian Gordon, which are interspersed with poetry readings by the great baritone William Warfield. Of particular note is a number from Street Scene, Kurt Weill’s Broadway musical with lyrics by Hughes. In researching this score, Weill and Hughes rambled through Harlem, visiting jazz clubs and absorbing the cadences of residents’ speech. The result suggests a canny fusion of Tin Pan Alley and Puccini.


Unlike Florence Price, whose music is enjoying a fresh surge of interest, Mississippi-born composer William Grant Still (1895-1978) has never entirely faded from concert halls. Even so, he managed to overcome a host of societal impediments.

Still was the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra, and the first to have an opera produced by a leading company. He was also the first black composer to have a symphony played by a major orchestra, his “Afro-American” Symphony, introduced by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931.

A lush score tinged with the blues and ragtime, the "Afro-American" Symphony is the first in a series of recordings by the Fort Smith Symphony dedicated to Still’s music. The cycle continues with an album featuring the Symphony No. 2, “Song of a New Race,” with its sinuous string textures and call-and-response brasses, and the Symphony No. 3, “The Sunday Symphony,” expressing a day in the life of a devout worshipper.

The Fourth and Fifth Symphonies are graceful and reverent works that together reveal a master’s hand at orchestration.

Still studied for a time with the confrontational modernist Edgar Varèse, arranged songs for W.C. Handy, and played oboe in Broadway pit orchestras, enabling him to master whatever stylistic challenges came his way. His Suite for Violin and Piano is a small gem, inspired by three African-American visual artists. Violinist Rachel Barton Pine and pianist Matthew Hagle present the piece on Blues Dialogues, a program of blues-influenced violin works by composers of African descent.


In January 1943, a black-tie crowd flocked to Carnegie Hall for the premiere of Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige, which the bandleader called “a tone parallel to the history of the American negro.” The 45-minute score, which traces the history of African-Americans from slavery to freedom and the Great Migration, wasn’t well received by early critics.

But that has changed. Biographer Terry Teachout in 2014 described it as “a compendium of Ellington’s musical language at its most advanced — now suavely lyrical, now earthily plainspoken, on occasion as dissonant as anything by Schoenberg or Bartok — as well as the embodiment of his feelings of what it meant to be black.”

An inspiring Naxos recording by the Buffalo Philharmonic, conducted by JoAnn Falletta, presents Black, Brown, and Beige in a suite arranged by Ellington and orchestrated by Maurice Peress. The album also includes “Harlem” and “Take the ‘A’ Train” plus two late ballet scores: The River Suite, and Les Trois Rois Noirs (The Three Black Kings), highlighting a lesser-known chapter in Ellington’s sweeping career.

sissle & blake

Our survey of mid-century African-American music is fittingly capped by the 1921 all-black musical comedy Shuffle Along. The show not only launched the careers of noted performers (Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, Frances Hall Johnson), but introduced future standards including “Love Will Find a Way” and “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” Langston Hughes often suggested that Shuffle Along marked the arrival of the Harlem Renaissance itself (and among the musicians in the pit orchestra was a young William Grant Still).

Years later, in 1950, creators Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle decided to revive Shuffle Along, making an acetate recording of their revision to attract potential investors. It features the two men singing through the revised score, interspersed with Sissle’s spoken description of the plot. The recording has been rediscovered and issued by Harbinger Records. Though the eventual 1952 revival of Shuffle Along didn’t enjoy the success of the original — perhaps because of too much tinkering by co-producers — this album offers a fascinating glimpse at the show’s highs and lows.

- Written by Brian Wise

Brian Wise writes about classical music for BBC Music Magazine, Musical America, and is the producer of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s national radio broadcasts.


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