Honoring African American Classical Composers

In honor of Black History Month, WDAV pays tribute to African-American musicians whose work has made a lasting impact on classical music.

Part one of our series honors prominent African American classical composers:

Florence Beatrice Price 

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played Symphony in E Minor by Florence Beatrice Price, it was not only a big moment for Price but for American music itself: it was the first time that music composed by an African-American woman was performed by a major symphony.

Florence Beatrice Price was born into a musical family. The daughter of a music teacher, Price began playing and performing piano as a very young girl and she went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music. She led a life of performing, teaching, and – most of all – composing. By the time of her death in 1953, Price had composed over 300 works.

Listen to Symphony in E Minor.

Scott Joplin

He’s known as the the “King of Ragtime Writers” and the composer of favorites such as the Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer. But Scott Joplin has a long repertoire that extends far beyond these well-known and much-beloved works. In addition to his 44 ragtime pieces, Joplin also composed two operas and a ballet.

The son of a former slave, Joplin is rumored to have taught himself to play piano in a home where his mother worked. He began to take music lessons from a German teacher, and soon, he composed music in a new style that blended African-American and European styles into a new sound. Ragtime was born.

Joplin died in 1917. “This was the passing of the king of all ragtime writers,” said jazz historian Floyd Levin, continuing, “the man who gave America a genuine native music.” Joplin was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in honor of his contributions to American music.

Duke Ellington

It’s ironic: the composer who’s widely credited for elevating the perception of jazz didn’t care to be confined to the genre. To Duke Ellington, his music wasn’t jazz; it was “American Music.”  Then again, Ellington was an artist who resisted being confined to much at all: not only did he compose, but he played piano, he led orchestras, he recorded for music companies, and he even appeared in movies. “Music was indeed his mistress,” wrote Gunther Schuller of Ellington. “It was his total life and his commitment to it was incomparable and unalterable.”

Ellington won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, and the Legion of Honor awarded by France. His legacy lives on in the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, D.C.


George Walker

The first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in music, George Walker has left a large mark upon the world of classical music. His prestigious musical career began early: after a distinguished academic career, Walker won the Philadelphia Youth Auditions in 1945. His prize? Performing Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. Walker continued to play, to compose and to teach music around the world, breaking through barriers and earning honors and accolades along the way. He’s composed nearly 100 pieces that have been composed by almost every orchestra in the country.

Not only is Walker a Pulitzer Prize winner for his Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra, he’s also been inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.