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  • Writer's pictureMahaliah Edwards

In the Know: Black musicians in history

There's a whole host of black excellence across all genres in music. Here's a brief profile of some historical performers and composers you should know and most importantly, where you can find their music to play and enjoy!

The 18th and 19th centuries saw many musicians of African descent who were renowned in their day:
  • Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780): Writer, composer, actor, shopkeeper and abolitionist. He is also known for having a grocery shop in Westminster and for being the first black person to vote in a British general election.

Some of his music can be found here, also on Music by Black Composers and on IMSLP - 1 . and IMSLP 2

  • Joseph Bologne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799): Champion fencer, violin virtuoso, composer and music teacher to Marie Antoinette. He was a dedicatee of several works by prominent composers such as Carl Stamitz and Gossec. As a composer, he had a varied volume of works from the popular opera comiques to many vocal works, from 14 violin concerti to symphonies and chamber works.

  • Joseph Antonio Emidy (1775-1835). Born in West Africa and sold into slavery as a child, Emidy began playing the violin under the support of his master. Not long after learning the violin, he won a position in the second violin section of the Lisbon Opera orchestra. Unfortunately, after his fortunes in Lisbon, during the Napoleonic wars he spent some years on ship as a fiddler. Emidy eventually settled in Cornwall, England, becoming a music teacher and leader of the Truro Philharmonic Orchestra.

  • George Bridgetower (1778-1860). The son of a servant of the Hungarian Prince Esterházy, George Bridgetower was something of a child prodigy and by the age of 10 had moved to London to perform on the stages there. Did you know that Beethoven had originally dedicated his violin sonata No. 9 to Bridgetower? The two fell out over a lady and Beethoven rededicated the sonata to Kreutzer, which is why we all know it as the Kreutzer Sonata.

Some 20th century music-makers include:
  • Amanda Alridge (1866-1956): British Operatic Singer, composer, piano accompanist and singing teacher. She was the mix-raced daughter of the Shakespearean actor and playwright Ira Alridge. Amanda studied at the Royal College of Music and went on to have a stage career as well as teaching many of London's Black Elite. One of her students was the great Black Baritone Paul Robeson.

  • Samuel Coleridge Taylor (1875-1912) - hailed as the “African Mahler” (perhaps a demeaning epithet meant in a complimentary yet ultimately delegitimatising), he was a composer and conductor who studied under Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music in London and gained great repute in the USA. He also compiled 24 Negro Melodies in 1905, including Deep River, performed here by Jascha Heifetz. His daughter Avril Coleridge-Taylor followed in his footsteps and became a composer herself.

  • Florence Price (1887-1953): pianist, organist, composer and teacher. Florence gave her first piano recital aged 4 and debuted her first composition age 11. She graduated from the prestigious New England Conservatory in 1906 with an artist diploma and teaching certificate. Florence went on to become the first African-American composer to have her music played by a major orchestra (Chicago Symphony played her E minor Symphony in 1933). She was a prolific composer, with works for orchestra, solo piano, chamber ensembles and vocal works.

See some of her compositions on IMSLP

  • Lil Hardin Armstrong (1898-1791): jazz pianist, composer, arranger, singer and bandleader. Classically trained in piano, Lillian Hardin became jazz pianist on the circuit touring with jazz greats and eventually marrying Louis Armstrong. Lil Armstrong even had a hit song Bad Boy with Ringo Starr in 1978.

  • Hazel Scott (1920-1981). Born in Trinidad 🇹🇹 (my own family is there too!), Hazel Scott was a child prodigy, emigrating to the US aged 4, entering into Julliard and became a piano virtuoso. You've most likely seen viral videos of her on social media playing two pianos at once but Hazel was an extremely multifaceted musician and entertainer. Her classical skills always at the fore, she brought Liszt, Bach and Rachminov to the masses in her performances. A star on stage, she also conquered the screen, being the first African-American to host her own TV show.

  • Julius Eastman (1940-1990) who was a composer, pianist and vocalist from New York. He graduated from the prestigious Curtis Institute and had a career making music particularly in the minimalist style. As a vocalist he became noted for his recording of Nonesuch by Peter Maxwell Davies. His own compositions were often entitled with provocative titles like Gay Guerilla.

I haven't included great composers like George Walker, William Grant Still, Margaret Bonds, Undine Smith Moore as I'm still getting to know their music!

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