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Black Composers: A Selection of Black Composers

This guide to Black composers offers a sampling of resources on their lives, works, and social contexts. Like Duke Libraries' "5 Titles" blog, this guide is meant to offer a selection of resources rather than serve as a comprehensive list.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 - 1799)

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is widely recognized as the first consequential European classical music composer of African descent. He was a composer, violinist, and conductor -- and a champion fencer!

Discover music by Joseph Bologne.

Francis Johnson (1792 - 1844)

Photo credit:  en.wikipedia.org

Francis Johnson was an early American antebellum Black composer.  A virtuoso violin and bugle player, Johnson wrote compositions in various styles and is the first African American composer to have his works widely published. (photo credit:  imslp.org)

Discover music by Francis Johnson in the Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection at Johns Hopkins University.

Thomas Wiggins (1849 - 1908)

Thomas Wiggins, also known as Blind Tom Bethune, was an African American composer and pianist.  Born to enslaved parents, his blindness from birth afforded him the opportunity to hone his talents, and in the latter part of the 19th century, he became one of the United States' best-known and most widely toured musicians.

Discover music by Thomas Wiggins.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 - 1912)

English composer and conductor Samuel Coleridge-Taylor achieved fame both in his home country and in the United States after three tours in the early 1900s.  His cantatas based on American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" helped to cement Coleridge-Taylor's reputation in America.

Discover music by Samuel Coleridge Taylor.

Florence Price (1887 - 1953)

Florence Price was an African-American composer, pianist, organist, and music teacher.  She is generally credited as the first female African-American classical composer, and the first to have her compositions performed by a major symphony orchestra.

Discover music by Florence Price.

Duke Ellington (1899 - 1974)

Groundbreaking pianist, composer and big band leader Edward "Duke" Ellington was pivotal in establishing jazz and swing in the American music canon, though he refused to accept the label "jazz" to describe his music, preferring to consider it simply American Music.  Ellington was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1999.

Discover music by Duke Ellington.

George Walker (1922 - 2018)

Composer, pianist, and organist George Walker was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.  His work "Lilacs" won the prize in 1996.  Walker was also the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and a John Hay Whitney Fellowship in 1957.  Walker's works are said to reflect influences of the classical composers he studied in his youth, as well as those of church hymnody, jazz, and folk songs.

Discover music by George Walker.

Undine Smith Moore (1904 - 1989)

Photo credit:  musicbyblackcmomposers.org

Known as the Dean of Black Women Composers, Undine Smith Moore trained as a classical pianist.  However, her preferred genre as a composer was vocal music.  She wrote many choral works based on African spirituals and folk music, and taught piano, organ, and music theory at Virginia State University for over 40 years.  (photo credit:  musicbyblackcomposers.org)

Discover music by Undine Smith Moore.