Joyfully uncovering a few more musical masters

So much of the classical music scene focuses on revisiting a core repertoire of masterpieces and their composers. Ideally, that leads to deeper understandings and discoveries within the most inspired scores, although superficial repetition and familiarity are more common. Even so, it is exciting when new faces are admitted into that circle. Within my own lifetime I’ve seen that happen with Mahler and Vivaldi, as well as to a lesser extent with Charles Ives.

Adding to the excitement is the reality that the repertoire is no longer exclusively dead white (European) males.

Americans, north and south, are gaining recognition after having long been excluded, though it should be much more. From a more global selection, so are women and people of color.

Sometimes, a composer can embody all three, as is the case for Florence Price (1887-1953). A substantial portion of her surviving work, discovered and recovered in 2009 in her abandoned summer home, is only now gaining an airing and a growing admiration. This Little Rock, Arkansas, native was, it turns out, the first Black American woman to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra – Chicago – and her style has a lightness that blends her own roots, the America of her time, and classical expectations. As a choral singer, I can attest to her unique touch underpinning the scores we’ve performed.

Among other Black composers finally gaining overdue attention, let me mention:

Julius Eastman (1940-1990), an eclectic, genre-crossing American trailblazer whose tragic life included seeing his own works largely scattered to the wind when he was evicted from his apartment and officials threw his possessions out into the street. What remains of this Curtis-trained original is well worth exploring in its large, provocative vision of time, space, classical, jazz, pop, politics, sex, and utter wonder.

Edmond Dede (1827-1903), a New Orleans-born Creole who lived much of his life in France as a successful pianist, conductor, and composer. If he sounds a bit like toe-tapping John Phillip Sousa, remember he came along a generation earlier. He emerged from a lively scene of free Black classical musicians in New Orleans who even had their own symphony orchestras. As far as serious music in America goes, only New York seems to have had more going on in the years before the American Civil War. Don’t overlook this when you’re thinking of the origins of jazz, either.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), is remembered as a man of many talents in Paris, including his abilities as a fencer and as the French Mozart. Among his many achievements are commissioning and premiering Haydn for what are known as the Paris symphonies. For his own work, I’d start with his 14 violin concertos, especially as championed by soloists Randall Goosby or Rachel Barton Pine.

The one who excites me the most is Vicente Lusitano (roughly 1520 to sometime after 1561). He was the first Black to have his music printed, along with some crucial musical theory texts. A Portuguese-born priest and musician, his sonorous choral pieces are said to equal Palestrina’s. I’d agree with that. After some intense rivalry in Rome, he turned Protestant, married, and moved to Germany, where he disappeared. The little we know of him still redefines the history of Black composers as existing all the way back to the high Renaissance rather than being much more recent and marginal. Oh, my, I am hoping my choir will soon be attempting something of his, no matter the challenge.


While that’s a sampling of Black masters from the past, a lot is happening now, too. Two living composers of special note I’ll mention are Jessie Montgomery and Terence Blanchard.

That said, keep your ears open!

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