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Five Essential Symphonies by Black Composers

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William Grant Still, Joseph Bologne, William Levi Dawson, Florence Price
Carl Van Vechten, Tuskegee University, Naxos USA
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Clockwise, start top left: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William Grant Still, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, William Levi Dawson, Florence Price

As Black History Month wraps up, we’re taking a look at some of the groundbreaking symphonies written by Black composers.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Symphony in A Minor (1896)

It can be a little odd to realize that sometimes in classical music, we’re essentially listening to someone’s homework. Coleridge-Taylor wrote his only symphony as a school project, while studying at the Royal College of Music. A remarkably talented student, he won the school’s top prize for composition in back-to-back years. He also made quite an impression on Edward Elgar, who remarked that Coleridge-Taylor was “far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the younger men.”

But even the cleverest fellows can have difficulty composing, and in this case Coleridge-Taylor just could not figure out what he wanted for an ending. In fact, this symphony originally premiered unfinished, with no final movement. He went through at least two other finales before settling on the one in this recording. As someone who has often struggled to complete (well, also to start) my own homework assignments, it’s nice to know that it happens to the best. In this case, Coleridge-Taylor opted for a finish that is both uplifting and peaceful, a hopeful ending to a symphony with plenty of drama and angst.

Florence Price, Symphony No. 3 (1938)

That we can even hear three of Florence Price’s four known symphonies today is a minor miracle. Her Fourth Symphony was thought to be lost for decades, until a chance find in the attic of her former home in Illinois brought it (and a lot more) back to light. We can only hope that her Second Symphony, also assumed lost, is sitting somewhere waiting to be rediscovered. Check your attic!

Price spent much of her career fighting for recognition. She also pushed back against the limitations that others placed on her and her music. She knew that her Third Symphony didn’t quite conform to what audiences expected of a Black composer. After being asked by a conductor for some music that reflected Black folk dances, she sent it along but took pains to tell him that in this piece, “no attempt…has been made to project Negro music solely in the in purely traditional manner.” Instead, Price took equal inspiration from traditional sounds and modern musical ideas to create a brilliantly original symphony.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Symphony No. 2 in D (1779)

I’ve written before about my admiration for Joseph Bologne, whose real-life athletic and military exploits would be unbelievable even for an action movie character. He was one of the brightest stars shining in the City of Light just before the French Revolution, and even had a personal friendship with Marie Antoinette. His music, though, is our focus here, and it’s wonderful. He conducted, composed, played violin, and was even known as one of the best dancers in the country. This symphony was written at the height of his musical career, when he could seemingly do anything and everything all at once.

Overall, this is a light, cheery piece, from its bouncy opening melody to its exuberant finale. Bologne ended up using this as the overture to his comic opera The Anonymous Lover, and it’s easy to imagine this warming up the audience for an evening of love and laughter. The opera ended up being his biggest success to date, and brought him international acclaim. Had history worked out a bit differently, we might have gotten even more music from Bologne. Instead, the causes of revolution and abolition pulled him and his enormous talents in a different direction.

While Bologne only left two symphonies of his own, it’s worth noting that he also played a large role in six of Haydn’s symphonies, Nos. 82-87. Bologne helped commission them, conducted their premieres, and edited them for publication. They were a massive success, and soon became concert staples across Europe.

William Levi Dawson, Negro Folk Symphony (1934)

A premiere at Carnegie Hall, played by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by the legendary Leopold Stokowski, would be a feather in any composer’s cap. The fact that the audience couldn’t even wait until the end to begin applauding, giving a standing ovation after the second movement, is a clear sign of a resounding success. Why is it, then, that Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony was left gathering dust for so long, sparsely played or recorded for decades after it made a huge impression on music’s biggest stage?

It might have something to do with the fact that Dawson made sure to write a symphony that, in his words, is “unmistakably not the work of a white man.” In fact, Dawson revised it after a trip to West Africa, trying to work even more African influence and rhythm into the music. Many of the melodies come from spirituals, and Dawson wrote that he was inspired by “a people whose bodies were baked by the sun and lashed with the whip for two hundred and fifty years; whose lives were proscribed before they were born.” White audiences may not have felt comfortable with such an unapologetic account of the Black experience. Despite the rapturous reaction and glowing reviews at its premiere, Dawson's symphony has only recently returned to the limelight.

William Grant Still, Symphony No. 2, “Song of a New Race” (1937)

If Dawson’s symphony focuses more on the first half of the term “African-American,” Still’s “Song of a New Race” focuses on the second. As Still put it, Black Americans were “a totally new individual produced through the fusion of white, Indian, and Negro blood.” It’s a hopeful piece, celebrating the integration of cultures at a time when racial segregation was a powerful force. Still was keen to show not just a remembrance of the past or a vision for the future, but a portrait of contemporary Black life.

William Grant Still’s life was a series of firsts, with just about every premiere and conducting engagement groundbreaking in some way. But his career was nearly dead before it even started, as he struggled to afford his musical education at Oberlin Conservatory. Taking on janitorial work and waiting tables, he showed enough promise that one composition professor agreed to teach him for free. Even later in his career, things never came easy. After being turned down by NBC for a prime gig he put it bluntly: “they don’t want a Negro conductor.” He was also unafraid to stand up for what he believed in, once giving up a movie contract with 20th Century Fox over concerns that their depiction of Black people was degrading. Through ups and down, his goal was simple and steadfast:

I have now but one great desire. That is to serve humanity. It matters not if I fail to amass money or to win great esteem. But it does matter if I fail to help others.

For more on William Grant Still, read Laura Carlo’s appreciation from earlier this month.

Listen to a playlist of all of these symphonies here:

Tyler Alderson is a Host and Producer for CRB.