Black composers: Shaping America’s music

Jessie Montgomery playing violin on stage (© Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)
Jessie Montgomery performs in New York in 2018. (© Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

American classical pianist Lara Downes is on a mission to popularize classical music by Black American composers.

Scott Joplin (© MPI/Getty Images)
In 1976, Scott Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to American music. (© MPI/Getty Images)

Downes, the host of her own radio show, cites Scott Joplin (1868–1917) as one of the seminal figures in this landscape. While his influence is felt primarily in America’s popular music, she grounds him in the classical realm as well.

Joplin is known as the “king of ragtime,” having created his most famous works for piano — “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899) and “The Entertainer” (1902). But he also composed an opera called Treemonisha (1911), featuring elements of Black folk songs and spirituals, along with choruses and arias.

When Joplin appeared in Chicago for the 1893 World’s Fair, “ragtime had reached the broader public for the first time,” and it was a sensation, Downes says. Ragtime was a precursor to jazz, “a bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries,” she explains, and Joplin influenced jazz pianists such as Jelly Roll Morton (1890–1941) and Duke Ellington (1899–1974).

Ragtime’s syncopated beat “was the innovation,” according to Downes, and caught the world’s imagination. “Every kind of popular music we listen to has the syncopated beat” that ragtime introduced, she says: jazz, the blues, rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop. “It all traces back to ragtime.”

A rich musical heritage

While Black musicians and composers are widely recognized for their outsized role in American popular music, they’ve also made sizable inroads in classical circles.

Downes admits that she herself grew up thinking that classical music was a European tradition. After studying piano for much of her life, as a young adult she explored her own African American heritage by seeking out the works of Black composers, and learned that Black Americans had written concertos, symphonies and operas.

Lara Downes sitting on chair (Courtesy of Max Barrett/Lara Downes)
Lara Downes (Courtesy of Max Barrett/Lara Downes)

In addition to discovering Joplin’s Treemonisha (which many scholars believe inspired George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess), Downes came across the works of Florence Price (1887–1953), the first African American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra, and William Grant Still (1895–1978), whose prolific output includes five symphonies and eight operas.

In recent years, an awareness of African American composers has been “exploding within the community of [classical] artists and music lovers,” Downes said.

21st-century arrangements

Today’s African American classical composers bring a fresh perspective, Downes says, citing Carlos Simon, composer-in-residence at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington; and Jessie Montgomery, composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Simon, an Atlanta native grounded in gospel music, frequently composes for the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera and has written commissioned pieces for the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “Music is my pulpit. That’s where I preach,” he told The Washington Post.

Carlos Simon standing with arms open (© Lester Cohen/Getty Images/The Recording Academy)
Carlos Simon attends the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles this month. (© Lester Cohen/Getty Images/The Recording Academy)

Montgomery, from New York, has written solo, chamber, vocal and orchestral works. “Her music interweaves classical music with elements of vernacular music, improvisation, poetry and social consciousness, making her an acute interpreter of 21st-century American sound and experience,” according to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra website.

Music written by today’s Black composers contains “echoes of jazz and spirituals, embracing the fullness of American music,” Downes says. For example, she cites the music of Michael Abels, which includes orchestral pieces, concertos, operas and genre-defying film scores. She also notes that Rhiannon Giddens, who studied opera, explores wide-ranging musical traditions in her work too.

Downes says she collaborates with many Black composers who reflect “the kind of world we want to live in and our shared humanity” by creating “something beautiful and timeless” from their most searing experiences. She adds: “What makes me most proud about American music is its capacity to imagine something better, and to convey that hope to audiences.”