February celebrates Black History Month and as the Classical Programmer at Pandora, I am excited to share the ‘Black Classical’ Mode on Classical Radio. ‘Black Classical’ features Black composers, vocalists, instrumentalists, and conductors from the 18th to 21st Century.
Classical Music has a notoriously white-male dominated canon. I studied music (Musicology and Ethnomusicology) at the University of Michigan and the University of Texas, and I only learned about Black Composer contributions to the genre after leaving academia and doing my own research along with the help of organizations like the Institute for Composer Diversity. I am heartened to know that there is a large push to educate Classical Music lovers about artists of color who have contributed to, and continue to contribute to, the world of “Classical” Music. However, there is still much work to do.
Below is just a taste, in no particular order, of the artists you will hear on the ‘Black Classical’ Mode on Classical Radio.
‘Black Classical’ is available year round, so give your favorites a thumbs up! Check out the mode here.
American Composer Carlos Simon explores themes of social justice, with his music ranging from concert music for large and small ensembles to film scores with influences of jazz, gospel, and neo-romanticism.He is currently the Composer-in-Residence for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the inaugural Boston Symphony Orchestra Composer Chair, and was nominated for a 2023 GRAMMY award for his album Requiem for the Enslaved.
Florence Beatrice Price
Florence Beatrice Price was the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered her Symphony No. 1 in E minor in 1933. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Price lived and worked in Chicago, Atlanta, and Little Rock. She was widely unknown in the years after her death in 1953 until the discovery of dozens of her scores in an Illinois attic in 2009 which led to renewed interest in her instrumental music. Listening to Price's music, you'll hear a combination of rich and romantic symphonic idiom with the melodic intimacy of folk songs and emotional intensity of African-American spirituals.
Composer Valerie Coleman is a professor of Composition and Woodwinds at the Manhattan School of Music and the creator of the wind quintet Imani Winds. Her piece “Umoja” was chosen by Chamber Music America as one of the “Top 101 Great American Ensemble Works” and is now a staple of woodwind literature.
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was not only a composer, conductor, and violinist of the High Classical Era, he was also a champion fencer. Born on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe to his enslaved mother and her white slave master, Bologne defied all odds, eventually rubbing elbows with Mozart. During the French Revolution he fought as a colonel of the Légion St.-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe, fighting on the side of the Republic. He composed numerous string quartets and other instrumental pieces, as well as operas. The film “Chevalier” released in 2023, is inspired by his life.
I’m partial to Shirley Verrett, or as I called her, Professor Verrett, because she was my voice teacher at the University of Michigan. From the 1960s to 80s, Verrett performed roles for mezzo-soprano and soprano, sharing the stage with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti all over the world from Carmen to La Scala. Later in her performing career she made her Broadway debut in the Tony Award-winning revival of Carousel playing Nettie Fowler. I always admired her for balancing a family life (she was married and had a daughter) with her career, something that, especially for that time, was difficult to do for women.
Samuel Coleridge Taylor
Late 19th Century English Composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was particularly known for his three cantatas on the epic poem, "Song of Hiawatha" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow which first premiered when he was 22. Building on Romantic Era stylings, he combined African American folk melodies and the classical idiom. Coleridge-Taylor died when he was only 37.
Isata & Sheku Kanneh-Mason are only two of the seven siblings of their highly accomplished musical family. Sheku won the 2016 BBC Young Musician award and played at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Two of my favorite of Isata’s projects have been Romance: the Piano Music of Clara Schumann, which entered the UK classical charts at No. 1, and Childhood Tales, a collection of music inspired by a nostalgia for youth with compositions by Mozart, Dohnányi, Debussy & Schumann. Isata and Sheuku released Muse, a collection of Barber and Rachmaninoff cello and piano duets.
Have a listen and comment who your favorites are, and enjoy Black Classical on Classical Radio!