In Classical music through a Caribbean lens , I looked at some current black British composers of classical music for a Windrush Day post. My research for that, together with a desire to broaden further our stock in the Music Library, led me to discover what was available out there to buy. 

Here at the start of Black History Month, let’s see what we’ve achieved so far.

Piano music of Africa and the African diaspora ed. William Nyaho (OUP)

This is an interesting series, highlighting compositions from African composers or those with an African heritage. We already had several volumes with number two now completing the range. They include pieces from the likes of George Walker and Florence Price, who I will look at separately, but there’s also plenty from other individuals who are virtually unknown in the UK.  Halim El-Dabh , an Egyptian who emigrated to the US, Akin Euba and Joshua Uzoigwe , both from Nigeria, and South African, Bongani Ndodana-Breen are only some of the composers featured.                                                                  

Here’s Ndodana-Breen talking about his music being performed:

Halim El-Dabh as well as writing piano music, was one of the early pioneers of an electronic form of composition known as musique concrete . Here’s a short piece from that period:

George Walker  Guido’s Hand – for piano 

In a long, distinguished life as a composer, Walker became the first African-American to receive the Pulitzer Music Prize for Lilacs in 1996. A substantial piece for orchestra, that’s another of his scores we bought but it’s too big for a useful photo. Looking for a performance of Guido’s Hand, I came across a very recent, substantial video about Walker. It includes information about the composer and performances of several piano pieces. Guido’s Hand is about 44 minutes in if you want to go straight there.

William Grant Still  Danzas de Panama (version for string quartet)

Starting out as a student of medicine (to please his mother), William Grant Still soon moved to studying and playing music at university and beyond. When in 1931, his Afro-American Symphony (no.1) was played by the Rochester Philharmonic, it was the first complete, major-league performance of a score by an African-American composer. 

In fact, the Wikipedia article lists an eye-opening, sobering number of firsts achieved by Still over his life:

Still was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony (his 1st Symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television.

We already stock a score of the Afro-American Symphony, so I decided to feature his Danzas de Panama which we’ve bought in versions for string orchestra and string quartet.

Florence B. Price  Two songs

Florence Price
Florence Price – ‘Two songs’

Florence Price came from the same state (Arkansas) as William Grant Still. Wishing to make a career in music as teacher, composer, and performer, Price not only had to navigate the obstacles that being a woman entailed but also overcome issues which each composer here has had to conquer. In the inter-war years and beyond, America was a country which largely patronised, discriminated against, and segregated its African-American citizens. It’s difficult enough to make a career in music, to succeed under these circumstances must have taken immense determination and courage.

Here’s how Karen Walwyn opens her website honouring Price:

[she] became the first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra when Music Director Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in E minor on June 15, 1933, on one of four concerts presented at The Auditorium Theatre from June 14 through June 17 during Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition. The historic June 15th concert entitled “The Negro in Music” also included works by Harry T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and John Alden Carpenter, performed by Margaret A. Bonds, pianist and tenor, Roland Hayes with the orchestra. Florence Price’s symphony had come to the attention of Stock when it won first prize in the prestigious Wanamaker Competition held the previous year.

You might be interested in this recent personal response to Florence Price’s place in black women’s history:

Here’s a performance of some songs composed by Price including one of the two in the score above:

And finally…

Our search for more repertoire continues. We’ve managed to obtain these contemporary scores amongst others.  And our next list includes modern editions of works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Stay tuned.