In the mid-to-late 1700’s, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges was an Afro-French composer who was also France's best fencer. After Napoleon reinstituted slavery in France, de Saint-Georges’ works were rarely played, though lots of his stuff has been recorded since the 1970’s.
In 1791 vocalist and composer Newton Gardner opened one of the first Black-owned singing schools in the US.
In 1803, virtuoso violinist George Bridgetower, who had studied under the leader of the Royal Opera, played with Beethoven. Beethoven then dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major to Bridgetower, and they premiered the piece together. Later, the two had a falling out – something to do with a lady – and Beethoven changed the piece’s name. It’s now called the Kreutzer Sonata. Poet Rita Dove wrote a book about Bridgetower and Beethoven’s relationship.
In 1817 José Mauricio Nunes Garcia, wrote Brazil's first opera, Le Due Gemelle (The Two Twins). Sadly, it was destroyed by fire.
In 1819 Francis B. Johnson a band leader and African American composer in Philadelphia, published his first work, A Collection of New Cotillions.
Around 1830, the Negro Philharmonic Society was formed in New Orleans. The orchestra had over 100 performers, included a few white members. Racial tensions rose, and the Society ended just before the Civil War.
In the late 1800’s, Thomas Green Bethune – aka, Blind Tom – was the first black concert pianist to gain recognition.
In 1853 Soprano Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield – people knew her as the “Black Swan” – made her New York debut at the Metropolitan Hall. While she could sing, her skin color would have denied her entrance to the concert.
That didn’t stop Greenfield. In 1854, this classy lady sang a command performance before Queen Victoria.
In 1868, innovative composer and pianist Scott Joplin was also born in Texas. Joplin wrote 2 operas, one ragtime ballet, and 44 original ragtime pieces before he died.
In the 1870’s the Colored American Opera Company was formed. It was the first opera company of any kind in Washington DC.
In 1878 James M. Trotter published Music and Some Highly Musical People, the first overview of African American music.
In 1883 Marie Selika Williams gave a command performance for Queen Victoria.
Amelia Tilghman became the first black publisher and editor of a music magazine, The Musical Messenger in 1886.
In 1892 The World's Fair Colored Opera Company, with soprano Matilda Sissieretta Jones (aka Black Patti), became the first African American group to perform at Carnegie Hall – just a year after the hall opened.
Jones also sang before US President Benjamin Harrison that year.
From 1892-95, Antonin Dvorak – not black as you might know, but stick with me – was director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. The woman who founded the school, Jeanette Thurber, opened the school to men, women, blacks, and whites – pretty unusual for that time. Dvorak felt that a true American style of music should grow out of African- and Native-American music. Harry Burleigh, one of the earliest African-American composers and one of Dvorak’s pupils, introduced Dvorak to American spirituals.
In 1898, Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor wrote the musical Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. It was wildly successful during his lifetime. Coleridge-Taylor also visited the States and inspired American blacks to become composers.
The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) formed in 1914. Dvorak’s former pupil, Harry Thacker Burleigh was a charter member.
In 1919 the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) held its first convention in Chicago, Illinois.
In 1921 Tenor Roland Hayes gave a performance before King George V of England. In 1923, Hayes debuted at Carnegie Hall. He became one of the world’s greatest Lieder interpreters.
In 1926, Undine Smith Moore graduated cum laude from Juilliard. She was the first graduate of Fisk University, a historically black university, to receive a scholarship to Juilliard.
1927 saw Lillian Evanti debut in the title role of Delibes' opera, Lakmé, in France.
In 1930 Caterina Jarboro debuted in the title role of Verdi’s Aida, at the Puccini Theater in Milan.
1931 was the year William Grant Still became the first Black American composer to have a symphonic work performed by a major American orchestra. The Rochester Philharmonic performed his “Afro-American Symphony”. Stills had another big “first” in 1949 when his opera “Troubled Island” – based on a libretto by Langston Hughes – was performed by the New York City opera, becoming the first opera by a black person to be performed by a major company. William Grant Still was also the first black man to conduct a major orchestra (LA Phil) and he won 2 Guggenheim fellowships.
In 1933 Hall Johnson’s “Run Little Chillun” was the first Black folk opera produced on Broadway.
That same year Caterina Jarboro became the first black woman to appear in a leading role with a major American opera when she again played the title role in Aida with the Chicago Opera.
Also in 1933, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed Florence Price’s Symphony in E Minor. She was the first female African-American composer to have a symphonic composition performed by a major American symphony orchestra.
In 1934 Four Saints in Three Acts, with music by Virgil Thomson and libretto by Gertrude Stein, was the first all-African American cast opera performed on Broadway.
In 1935 George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway, with baritone Todd Duncan as Porgy, and sopranos Anne Brown as Bess and Ruby Elzy as Serena.
The Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow contralto Marian Anderson to use Constitution Hall. So, in 1939, she gave her concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead, drawing a crowd of 75,000 – not to mention the millions who listened on the radio.
In 1945 Todd Duncan became the first African American to sing with a major American opera company, when he played the role of Tonio Leoncavallo's I pagliacci with the New York City Opera.
Soprano Camilla Williams signed a contract with the New York City Opera in 1946, becoming the first African American to do so with a major American opera company. She debuted with the title role in Madama Butterfly.
The 1940’s were big for African-Americans in opera! In 1947 soprano Helen Phillips was the first African American to sing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
In 1951 William Warfield and Muriel Rahn were the first black concert artists on TV – they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Howard Swanson’s “Short Symphony” won the New York Music Critic’s Award for best symphonic work in 1952, making him the first black composer to do so.
In 1953 Soprano and educator Dorothy Maynor was the first black person to sing at a US presidential inauguration when she performed the National Anthem for Dwight Eisenhower
Robert McFerrin made his Met debut in 1955 becoming the first African American male to do so, as Amonasro in Verdi's Aida.
In 1963 pianist Andre Watts became the first black instrumental superstar, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.
Margaret Bonds, who frequently collaborated with Langston Hughes, was one of the first black composers and performers in the US to gain recognition. In 1965, when the Freedom March on Montgomery Alabama took place, she wrote Montgomery Variations for orchestra, dedicating it to Martin Luther King, Jr..
In 1968 Henry Lewis became the first black permanent conductor of a major American orchestra when he was appointed to the New Jersey Symphony
1972 saw Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha finally premiere – 55 years after his death – at the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center.
In 1976 Joplin posthumously received a special Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to American music.
In 1983 and 1984, Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis became the only artist ever to win Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical records. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1997 for Blood on the Fields, a three-hour oratorio for three singers and a 14-member ensemble. The oratorio follows the story of an African couple sold into slavery in the U.S.
In 1987, black conductor Paul Freeman became Founding Musical Director of the Chicago Sinfonietta. This orchestra’s mission is “Musical Excellence Through Diversity”. Dr. Freeman served for 24 years.
Violinist Aaron P. Dworkin founded the non-profit Sphinx Organization in 1996 to cultivate the development of young black and Latino musicians in the classical music profession. The Sphinx Competition, spotlights young Black and Latino string players on a national platform.
The same year that Sphinx was founded, Composer George Walker received the Pulitzer Prize for Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra, a work commissioned by the Boston Symphony as part of its tribute to tenor Roland Hayes. This was the first time a living African American won the prize for music.
In 2001 Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves sang at the National Prayer Service at the Washington National Cathedral following the September 11 attacks.
In 2005, James DePriest, a black man and one of classical music’s most accomplished conductors, received the National Medal of Arts.
Tim Brooks won a 2007 Grammy award for Best Historical Release with his Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, which includes performances by Harry Burleigh, Roland Hayes, and Edward Boatner.
Other contemporary black performers and composers include Jeffrey Mumford, whose orchestral works have been performed by numerous major orchestras in the US; classical pianist and professor, Andre Watts has done so many important things for classical music that we can’t list them all, and let’s not forget David Baker, Awadagin Pratt, and the Imani Winds!!