IN: News & Features

Juneteenth Thoughts on Boston & Current African American Composers


Gate to Ashton Villa

Four years ago, Liane Curtis, President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, wrote a review for BMInt entitled “Black Composers Matter,”  highlighting the work of Boston’s concert and educational series Castle of Our Skins, named for a line from celebrated poet Nikki Giovanni’s Poem (for Nina). You can hear the original, read by the author, HERE.

After this month’s tragic events, peaceful protest, riots, and renewed calls for unity, Giovanni’s words ring loudly in my ears (“for we spirit to spirit will embrace this world”). Castle of Our Skins has begun to present community-based, multi-disciplinary projects (Ain’t I a Woman?) [reviewed HERE],  “I Am a Man,” 2019), and concerts featuring the works of local African American composers such as Trevor Weston, [reviewed HERE], but they make me want to hear more, to listen more deeply, and to explore Boston’s rich, local heritage of African American music.

Anthony R. Green, the director of Boston’s Castle of Our Skins, has presented new works in Boston almost every year since 2004: he has been commissioned by Make Music Boston, Celebrity Series Boston, and the Landmarks Orchestra. Excerpts of nine of his works can be heard HERE. His recent arrangement of Chouconne – Haitian Folk Song (for string quartet and orchestra) premiered at the Hatch Shell on Boston’s Esplanade in August 2019, and his recent youth orchestra commission Catto’s Courage premiered online in April 2020. Green’s prescient article on representation in the New Music community is available at NewMusicBox HERE.

Local ensembles such as Landmarks Orchestra have begun to devote whole programs to the issue of race and music, such as the August 1st 2019 outdoor performance of songs and spirituals by African American composers, paired with music from Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein’s  Showboat (based on Edna Ferber’s novel against miscegenation statues).

Last April, BMInt’s publisher Lee Eiseman  presented soprano Sirgourney Cook in a Palm Sunday “concert/meditation” which contrasted spirituals with Bach-Busoni chorale preludes. He produced similar events with the late Robert Honeysucker for several years [Listen HERE]. And to celebrate MLK’s birthday weekend in 2017, baritone James Dargan showcased the songs associated with five African American concert singers (“Oh Glory! Black History Matters”).

Boston and the Problem of Black Music

Before 1900, few American composers incorporated indigenous materials into scores for the concert stage. Notable exceptions were Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) from New Orleans, who performed his “créole-inspired” piano showpieces in Europe, and Fisk University’s touring Jubilee Singers (founded in 1871), who showcased (seated) concert arrangements of work and spiritual songs. Yankee composers began to study and incorporate Native American and African influences around the turn of the century: these included Charles Wakefield Cadman (who performed extensive field research among the Winnebago and Omaha tribes in Nebraska for the Smithsonian), George Chadwick (whose burlesque operetta Tabasco included plantation songs, 1894) and Charles Ives (ragtime songs such as The Circus Band, 1894).

The Boston Symphony has a storied history of presenting American composers and musical works that deal with American history, but some compositions celebrating African American music clashed with the preferences of early conductors. Henry Gilbert (1868, Somerville, Massachusetts, USA – 1928, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA) attended NEC, studying violin with Emil Mollenhauer and composition with Edward MacDowell. He built on student successes such as Two Episodes (1896), which quoted melodies from Slave Songs of the United States and was heralded in France as “the first autochthonous American writing.” Gilbert was one of the first Americans to follow Antonin Dvořák’s celebrated advice (1893): any truly American music must be based on “native” melodies. Dvořák had directed the National Conservatory (New York City) in the 1890s: his copyist and best pupil was the African American composer and voice teacher Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949). Burleigh sang authentic spirituals for Dvořák and published early arrangements of “Negro folk melodies” such as Deep River and My Lord, What a Mornin’. He and his wife would go on to become regulars of the Boston concert scene.

Gilbert has been called “a musical Mark Twain”: he had profound respect and admiration for American folk and popular music, ranging from slave songs and blackface minstrelsy to Native American vocal music and sea chanteys. Early publications include the three-movement orchestral suite Americanesque on Negro-Minstrel Tunes (later called Humoresque, 1903); Shout (1912, later Negro Rhapsody); Dances in Ragtime Rhythm (1915); and the surviving Comedy Overture on Negro Themes (1905, rev. 1910-11) from his unfinished dialect-based opera based on the Uncle Remus tales. The Overture brought international attention to Gilbert after Reinhold Gliere featured it in Russian concerts in 1914. Gilbert abandoned the opera to compose his most celebrated composition: The Dance in Place Congo.

The inspiration for the work’s theme and title comes from George Washington Cable’s essay in Century magazine (February 1886), peppered with extracts of music heard in the Square. Cable (1844-1925) was a noted author of the once best-selling stories Old Creole Days (1879) and of the novel The Grandissimus (1880), from which composer Delius drew the libretto for his opera Koanga. The illustrations, especially of the bamboula dance, together with the article’s April 1886 supplement “Creole Slave Songs,” brought to life the Sunday afternoon revels of off-duty New Orleans slaves in a “no’count open space [Congo Square] at the fag-end of Orleans Street.” Several creole themes — including the same bamboula quoted by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Gottschalk — form the thematic substance of the freely developed work.

This work should have been premiered in Boston in 1908, instead of New York City in 1918. German-born conductor Karl Muck was the director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1906-1908 and from 1912-1918, accepting and (mostly) rejecting a wide variety of new work from American and European composers, including scores of Henry Gilbert. He championed the Romantic German symphonic repertory and made important recordings with the BSO for Victor (1917) and in Germany for HMV (excerpts from Wagner’s Parsifal at the 1927 Bayreuth Festival and in Berlin from 1927-1929). During the end of World War I, he and his wife were interned as “enemy aliens” in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia for 17 months; during this time he conducted an orchestra of 100 interned musicians in performances of works such as Beethoven’s Eroica.

Muck exerted a powerful influence on the choice of music for the BSO, building the ensemble into what the New York Times called “a virtuoso orchestra” and emphasizing Germanic opera and concert masterworks over French repertory and new American works. The night before he was arrested, he was preparing to conduct Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and federal agents claimed that his markings in the conductor’s score were “code indicative of pro-German activity,” [see our article on the subject HERE].

Henry Gilbert offered Muck the chance to premiere The Dance in Place Congo in 1908, but Muck refused to perform the work, calling it “niggah music.” Gilbert withdrew the work, eventually recasting it as a ballet score. Once the United States had entered World War I in the spring of 1917, there were more opportunities for new American (and especially nationalist) orchestral scores. The Dance in Place Congo (in Gilbert’s revised version of 1916) was first performed at the end of the 1918 spring season by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, conducted by Pierre Monteux.

Gilbert dedicated the score “in friendship to Otto H. Kahn,” a New York financier and patron of the Metropolitan Opera. Ottokar Bartik directed and choreographed the ballet, and Livingston Platt created the décor. Pierre Monteux conducted the ballet on programs with Cadman’s Shanewis (an American opera with “primitive tribal music”), L’Oracolo by Franco Zanoni, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia in both New York and Boston (beginning on April 26th). Monteux also led the first performance of The Dance in Place Congo as a symphonic poem, with substantial cuts, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on February 2nd  1920. At the end of Gilbert’s career, the composer was a guest of honor at the International Festival of Contemporary Music (Frankfurt-am-Main, July 1st1927), and his Dance in Place Congo caused a sensation on a concert also showcasing Bela Bartók playing his first piano concerto.

Black Composers Heard in Boston

W.E.B. Du Bois and Harry Burleigh challenged black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)  to utilize African elements in his music: the BSO played his Bamboula in 1920 and his African Suite, op. 35 in 1946, 1947, 2008, and 2019 [watch HERE];  BU showcased a biographical film elucidating his connections to Boston in 2014 [BMInt article HERE].

In the early 20th century, the Boston Pops had a number of “Afro-American folksongs”, minstrel songs, and marches in its repertoire: favorites included a folksong medley arranged by Agide Jacchia (president of Boston Conservatory from 1920-1932), James A. Bland’s “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” (in the 1920s), W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues March (performed over 175 times in Boston) [watch HERE], and the music of Duke Ellington (over 350 songs and suites heard in Symphony Hall, on the Esplanade, and at Tanglewood). The Pops has performed arrangements of James P. Johnson’s Victory Stride” and “The Charleston,” dozens of piano pieces by Scott Joplin (1868-1917), and music from Joplin’s opera Treemonisha, (a choral suite in 1974 and the overture in 2019).

NEC alum J. Rosamond Johnson’s anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has been included in nine BSO programs. He studied piano and at NEC for four semesters in the 1890s. Florence Price (1887-1953), a 1906 graduate of NEC in both organ performance and piano/education, was the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and to have a symphonic work performed by a major American symphony orchestra (Chicago, 1933) HERE. In the last five years, her music has been heard on eight BSO/Boston Pops concerts and discussed in several BMInt articles, such as the one HERE.

William Grant Still (1895-1978) was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra (Rochester Philharmonic), to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and to have an opera performed on national television. Arthur Fiedler conducted his Afro-American Symphony with the Boston Pops in 1937, and the BSO/Boston Pops has presented his music on 33 programs between 1945-2019. Conductor Dean Dixon (1915-1976) was the first African American to conduct the New York Philharmonic (in 1941, at age 23). Over the next three years, both Philadelphia and Boston invited him to guest conduct.

Lyric tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1976) was the first African American soloist to appear with the BSO, singing both spirituals and classical repertoire from 1923-1944. A former member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, he secured professional management with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Concert Company, reportedly making $100,000 per year in 1924, teaching voice in Boston, publishing settings of spirituals, and becoming the first African American to sing in Carnegie Hall. Starting in 1926, he controversially performed in integrated theaters and received national sympathy after being assaulted by a white police officer in 1942 (the officer was fired and brought up on federal charges): Langston Hughes wrote a poem about the incident (How About It, Dixie). Hayes was awarded an honorary doctorate in Music by The Hartt School of Music in 1966 and gave his last concert at the Longy School in Cambridge at the age of 85. Click HERE for an illustrated of his life and work by Christopher Brooks (author of a detailed biography of Hayes).

Other well-respected African American singers and composers have ties to Boston. While the legendary African American contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) was banned from other concert halls, she sang at Boston’s Symphony Hall from the 1930s to the 1960s, and she returned to narrate Copland’s Lincoln Portrait in 1974. Nathaniel Dett’s spiritual Listen to the Lambs was featured on a Boston Pops concert in 1947, and songs by Margaret A. Bonds (Three Dream Portraits, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, and the piano solo Troubled Water) have been presented in Symphony Hall in 1986, 1995, 1998, and 2019. Adolphus Hailstork was the focus of three Boston Pops Esplanade concerts in 1993, and the BSO has played his An American Port of Call and the Finale from his Symphony No. 1. George Walker (1922-) was the first black American composer to win the Pulitzer prize for music for his Lilacs for voice and orchestra, premiered by the BSO in February 1966.

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s first string quartet was played by members of the BSO in 2003 (in Boston and at Tanglewood), and the Boston Lyric Opera developed a concert series entitled “Crossing the Line to Freedom,” featuring the works of Margaret Bonds, Undine Smith Moore, and Dorothy Moore in 2018 HERE.

Isaiah Jackson (1945-) graduated from Harvard in 1966 and was the first African American to be appointed to a musical directorship in the Boston area (Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra). The BSO appointed Thomas Wilkins as their first African American staff conductor in 2011, and Dr. Julius Williams, a composer in residence with the BSO and Berklee Professor of Composition, has just been named the first African American president of the Conductor’s Guild. Last season featured a BSO concert of almost-all African American composers (March 2019, Hailstork, Price, and Ellington). Full sets of songs by jazz pianist Eubie Blake have been featured twice by the Boston Pops (1973 and 1983); he composed “The Boston Pops March” for Arthur Fiedler in 1979, but he died before the work was presented, so it wasn’t heard until Keith Lockhart included it on a Boston Pops concert with works by Blake, Coleridge-Taylor, Billy Strayhorn, Margaret Bonds, Florence Price, pianist Hazel Scott [1920-1981, the first African American woman to host her own network TV show], and MacArthur Fellow Rhiannon Giddens in May 2019.


Current local groups feature African American contributions to music: these begin with student ensembles such as NEC’s Gospel Ensemble, Music of the African American Experience Ensemble, and Black Student Union groups; Harvard’s Kuumba Singers; Boston University’s Inner strength Gospel Choir; the Tufts Gospel Choir; Boston College’s B.E.A.T.S. soul/r&b a cappella group and three majority black dance groups; Boston Arts Academy Spirituals Ensemble; and Yale’s Shades a cappella group. Professional and community vocal ensembles include the Martha’s Vineyard Slave Songs Project (formerly the NAACP Spirituals Choir), [BMInt review HERE]. New England Gospel Ensemble (founded at NEC in 1977), the Boston Community Choir, the Millennium Gospel Choir (founded through NEC in 2000), and the Boston Pops Gospel Choir.

Choral Arts New England, a local organization supporting choral music excellence through grants since 1985, has funded several local projects featuring African American music: free concerts of music by African American composers (New Haven Chorale, 199XX), performances and school residencies of Duke Ellington’s three Sacred Concerts by The Monadnock (VT) Chorus and the Brookline Chorus (2008 and 2012), Bella Voce Women’s Chorus of Vermont’s 2013 concert featuring Underground Railroad songs, RPM Voices of Rhode Island’s Youth Voices intensive summer workshops on “music from Black American culture” (2012 and 2014), Manchester Choral Society’s Spring 2019 performance of William Grant Still’s For Those Who Wait, the Andover Choral Society’s premiere of a new piano/vocal edition of Florence Price’s Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (May 2019), and the Montpelier (VT) Community Gospel Choir’s 25th-anniversary showcase (December 2019). Upcoming funded projects include Music on the Hill’s day-long Festival of African American Spirituals with guest conductor/clinician Dr. Rosephanye Powell in Fairfield, CT.

Jazz masters have frequented Boston, performing in the many local clubs and occasionally collaborating with symphonic ensembles. Dr. Frederick Tillis wrote his Festival Journey for Max Roach and the New Orchestra of Boston in 1993 (recording released on Blue Note in 1996) and the Hartford Chorale premiered his A Symphony of Songs in 1998. Pulitzer Prize winners Wynton Marsalis and Henry Threadgill visit Boston regularly, with the BSO and the ICA presenting them in small group settings. Marsalis’ Quintet and the full ensemble Jazz at Lincoln Center have played Symphony Hall (almost every year since 1992), and the Tanglewood Chorus performed Marsalis’ oratorio All Rise in 2003 and 2004. This Spring, he began a weekly online series called Skain’s Domain, an intimate weekly “conversation about how to stay connected, optimistic, and creative in this crazy moment in time.”

Boston musicians have been crucial in the teaching and mentoring of African American students of classical music. Anne Hobson Pilot was the Boston Pops/BSO Principal Harpist from 1969/80-2009 and leading teacher of harp in Boston after holding positions with the National Symphony Orchestra (1966-69, she was its first black member) and Pittsburgh. In contrast, clarinetist Anthony McGill became the New York Philharmonic’s very first African American section leader in 2014. Professor Marcus Thompson celebrated his 50th year as a leading violist and teacher with a recent recital commemorating his debut at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on the infamous date of the assassination of Martin Luther King. As one of the earliest prominent African Americans in the classical string world, it made an ominous start for a career, but his legacy is a growing number of outstanding young string players of color from both MIT and New England Conservatory [BMInt review HERE].

Other African American musicians are reaching out to students through the internet. Gospel artist and opera conductor Damian Sneed, recently commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, has begun an online series of two-hour conversations entitled “Dialogues,” with episodes dedicated to the “Performing Artist as Educator” and the Harlem Renaissance. He made his Carnegie Hall conducting debut with Wynton Marsalis’ Abyssinian 200: A Celebration (2008).

Recent local commissions by African American composers include the Sanders Theater remix of D. W. Griffith’s Civil War epic “Birth of a Nation” (“Rebirth of a Nation” by DJ Spooky [Paul D. Miller] March 11th, 2005), Berklee professor Jonathan Bailey Holland’s Dream Elegy (Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble, 2016), The Battle of Bull Run Always Makes Me Cry (Boston Opera Collaborative, 2018) and El Jaleo (2019, for Boston’s Phoenix Orchestra, founded 2015); Daniel Bernard Roumain’s 2010 Woodbox Violin Concerto for the Boston Pops and A Boy Called King for the Boston Children’s Chorus (2013); Anthony R. Green’s poignant duo for flute and saxophone (Longy, 2019), Jeffrey Mumford’s 2019 cello concerto of radiances blossoming in expanding air for Deborah Pae and Boston’s Phoenix Orchestra, and Brian Raphael Nabors’ 7 Dances, played by Boston’s Musica Viva in January 2020.

Advocacy and Academia

In the last five years, several new voices and ensembles have made an impact in Boston’s musical scene. As a 2016 MLK Graduate Fellow at Northeastern University, harpist Angelica Hairston presented an NEC-funded concert called Challenge the Stats, showcasing African-American and Latinx performing artists: this is now an incorporated organization, existing “to empower artists of color by creating communities devoted to diversity, inclusion, and euity in the classical performing arts. CTS seeks to equip audiences and artists with the tools needed to advocate for justice both inside and outside of the concert hall. Hairston’s has also founded the Atlanta-based Urban Harp Project, providing free harp instruction to over 80 at-risk students [pictures HERE].

Harvard’s Du Bois Orchestra, founded by NEC-Prep and Yale grad Nathaniel Meyer “in 2015, to make music a means of overcoming social exclusion” has featured the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor HERE, works by Florence Price

HERE, including the April 2019 premiere of her oratorio Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, and Sachiko Murata’s new Sorrow Songs (2019), inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. The Arlington Philharmonic also recently played Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor [BMInt review HERE].

A Far Cry featured the music of Jessie Montgomery (former violinist with the Providence String Quartet) at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in 2018 HERE, and Berklee brought experimental artist/singer Pamela Z from the SF Bay area to perform a full evening of her works for New Music Gathering 2018. The keynote speech on equity and representation is HERE.

Academia and presenting organizations have made contributions to equity as well: the BSO’s Project STEP (String Training Education Program) has served over 1,500 Boston-area music students since 1982 (100% going on to attend college or conservatory). Richard T. Greener was the first African American student to graduate with an A. B. from Harvard (1870), although both Middlebury, Amherst, Bowdoin, and Dartmouth had awarded degrees to African American students in the 1820s. Rachel Washington was the first African American graduate of NEC, graduating with a major in voice in 1872. Nellie Brown Mitchell (1845-1924) studied voice at NEC in the early 1870s, founding her own opera company. Matilda Sissieretta Jones (known as “The Black Patti”) attended both NEC and the Boston Conservatory in the 1880s; in 1887, she performed at Boston’s Music Hall before an audience of 5,000. Maud Cuney Hare (1874-1936) studied at NEC in 1890 and later published the landmark Negro Musicians and Their Music.

W. E. B. Du Bois was a member of the Harvard Class of 1890, earning a master’s degree the following year, and a PhD in 1895 (the first African American to do so). In 1896, educator Booker T. Washington became the first African American to receive an honorary degree from Harvard University. Mary S. Locke (A. M. 1893) and Alberta Virginia Scott (A.B. 1898), were the first African Americans to receive those degrees from Radcliffe College. In 1932, Anna Bobbitt Gardner was the first African American woman to be awarded a Bachelor’s degree from NEC: she went on to found Boston’s Academy of Musical Arts (on Claremont Street), operate five piano studios, produce local radio and television programs, and manage “Colored American Nights” featuring African Americans at Symphony Hall. Drue King’s membership in the 1941 Harvard Glee Club sparked a debate that contributed to the desegregation of venues for college musical groups touring the South.

Author Howard Thurman was invited to Boston University in 1953, becoming the first African American Dean of Chapel at a majority-white American university: Marsh Chapel diversified its musical repertoire as a result of his leadership (1953-65). Thurman served as a spiritual advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, Jr., and Pauli Murray (the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest). The two oldest university departments of African American Studies (founded in 1969) are in the Boston area: Harvard and the Boston University African American Studies Program, which hosted an influential international scholarly conference on “African-American Music in World Culture: Art as Refuge and Strength in the Struggle for Freedom in March 2014.

Online research institutions with extensive Africana and African American collections include Digital Schomburg (New York Public Library), the Amistad Research Center, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (Smithsonian), and the Center for Black Music Research.

Local institutions with exhibits on African American culture and music include the Museum of African American History (Boston and Nantucket), Boston African American National Historic Site (administered by the National Park Service), the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, the Museum of the National Center Museum of Afro-American Artists, the National Black Doll Museum of History & Culture in Mansfield, MA has thousands of dolls from present and past history on display, and Medford’s Royall House Slave Quarters Plantation has artifacts from the time Boston’s largest slave plantation was operating, and Henry Louis Gates directs the diverse public programs at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

Across the Pond

Europe’s first BME (Black Minority Ethnic) orchestra was founded in 2015 by Royal Academy of Music double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku: Chineke! has presented some of England’s best up-an-coming composers, including Daniel Kidane and Errollyn Wallen (both commissioned by the BBC this year). Kidane’s recent chamber quartet Continuance was inspired by the recent lockdowns: he writes, “In these unprecedented times, when we are all alone yet all together, music lives on. During these weeks of isolation, I choose to be optimistic because it feels better. My inner anxieties manifest as a calm yet resonant work for electric guitars, filled with the hope that this too shall pass.” Its premiere (by Sean Shibe) plays on YouTube HERE.

Addenda from readers:

We would be remiss if we were to forget several other prominent African-American composers in Boston. To wit, composer Dr. T.J. Anderson who was the first African-American chairman of Tufts University Music Department and the famed Elma Lewis and The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts who was a major contributor to arts and education in Boston for decades to hundreds of young students of color.

T.J. Anderson Jr was/is a tireless advocate for Black representation in the BSO! Not only did he advocate that they play the work of Black composers; he also insisted that they hire more Black musicians, and make their concert programs move available to communities of color. HERE is his website.

And among those very much alive, there is impressive composer and performer Donal Fox who lives in Boston, has been the recipient of an Academy Award in Music, Guggenheim, and Bugliasco Fellowships; was composer-in-residence with the St. Louis Symphony.

See related article HERE.

Laura Prichard teaches throughout the Boston area as a certified K-12 teacher of music/dance/art, as a theater pianist (Winchester Cooperative Theater), and at the university level (Harvard Libraries, Bunker Hill CC, and formerly at Northeastern and UMass). She was the Assistant Director for the Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Symphony Chorus from 1995-2003, under Vance George.


17 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thank you for this exhaustive amount of research and information! For those of us who have been searching for repertoire beyond Euro-centric male it is a superb resource. Congratulations and fingers crossed all of these composers – for me especially the women – will enter the canon.

    Comment by Amelia LeClair — June 18, 2020 at 11:41 am

  2. And this is not meant to be an complete list – just a start!

    One more important recent concert should be mentioned: Berkshire Choral International (150+ singers and 20+ staff in residence at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, MA) devoted an entire summer week to a modern African American spirituals concert program in July-August 2013. It was curated by guest singers Sweet Honey in the Rock, and contemporary composers and arrangers featured included Dr. Rosephayne Powell, David Düsing, Pamela Warrick-Smith, Henry “Harry” Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949), Jack Halloran (1916-1997), Undine Smith (1904–1989), William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), Dr. Uzee Brown, Jr. (1950-), and Michael Abels (1966-).

    Comment by Laura Prichard — June 18, 2020 at 12:16 pm

  3. We would be remiss if we were to forget several other prominent African-American composers in Boston. To wit, composer Dr. T.J. Anderson who was the first African-American chairman of Tufts University Music Department and the famed Elma Lewis and The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts who was a major contributor to arts and education in Boston for decades to hundreds of young students of color. And among those very much alive, there is impressive composer and performer Donal Fox who lives in Boston, has been the recipient of an Academy Award in Music, Guggenheim, and Bugliasco Fellowships; was composer-in-residence with the St. Louis Symphony and several orchestras and festivals in Europe; has taught as a visiting artist and scholar at Harvard and MIT, and had his work performed at Tanglewood, Carnegie Hall and Jazz at Lincoln Center. He certainly belongs on any survey of African-American composers in Boston.

    Comment by David Rotenberg — June 18, 2020 at 1:43 pm

  4. Thanks to Laura Prichard for this enlightening narrative and compendium. I’d like to mention a handful of other white composers with Boston connections from the pre-Modernist era who incorporated, in an appreciative way, music from Native and African American traditions: Arthur Farwell (1872-1952) was an influential proponent of the former–and inspiration to Cadman; he also started the Wa-Wan Press, which published music of Native American and “American Indianist” sources. The string quartet (1921) by Amy Beach (1867-1944) is based on what we now call Inuit themes; and Daniel Gregory Mason (1873-1953) wrote a string quartet on African American themes (a wonderful piece, by the way) in 1918 (rev. 1930). Of course, nowadays all such work, including Gilbert’s, would be subjected to condemnation as “cultural appropriation,” but I have no doubt they were sincerely intended as tributes to their musical sources.

    Comment by Vance Koven — June 18, 2020 at 1:48 pm

  5. Also starting at Noon on Friday, June 19, 2020, there will be a 10-hour virtual live music marathon entitled “Songs of Freedom: A Black Music Month Celebration & Fundraiser” from Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen in Boston. The 10-hour line up includes: Black Owned, Valerie Stephens, Pat Loomis, Gregory Groover Jr., Sympli Whitney, The Christman Collective, Zeke Martin, NwaSoul, and a special tribute to the late great flutist, Lance Martin — featuring Jonathan Singleton and Joe Sumrell.

    Comment by Laura Prichard — June 18, 2020 at 2:32 pm

  6. WCRB Boston Classical Radio (99.5) will feature African American composers, musicians, and conductors all day on Friday, June 19. Read the article here, featuring some rising stars in Chicago and Seattle, in addition to historical greats:

    Comment by Laura Prichard — June 18, 2020 at 2:36 pm

  7. Thank you Laura. You mentioned Harry Burleigh’s arrangements of Deep River and My Lord, What a Mornin’; what stunning and moving arrangements they are.. I sang them in college and used them when I was teaching high school. Also, you mention Dr Fred Tillis. He was a prof at UMass Amherst when I was an undergrad. A real force and a kind gentleman who I liked so much. I studied theory with him and he composed works that our Chorale premiered and kept in repertoire.

    Comment by Karen Wilcox — June 18, 2020 at 5:32 pm

  8. I completely agree with David Rotenberg’s comment. T.J. Anderson Jr (my father) was/is a tireless advocate for Black representation in the BSO! Not only did he advocate that they play the work of Black composer,s he also insisted that they hire more Black musicians, and make their concert programs move available to communities of color. Here is his website for more information:

    Comment by T. J. Anderson III — June 19, 2020 at 12:27 pm

  9. Thank you for this rich and comprehensive history, Laura. I look forward to accessing all the music cites you have so generously provided for us.
    Regarding the Boston Pops Gospel Choir, with whom I’ve sung since 1999 – Charles Floyd, a pianist, composer and conductor educated at Oberlin and based in Los Angeles, has conducted Gospel Night each year since Isaiah Jackson premiered the event. He has occasionally programmed his own work along with spiritually-based classical compositions (first third), performances by current gospel artists (second third), and gospel music for choir from spirituals to contemporary (third). Virtually all of the second and third segments are his arrangements, many of which he hears for the first time at our single orchestra rehearsal on the morning of the performance. Local instrumentalists, mainly Berklee faculty members, are led by Bro. Dennis Slaughter in an ‘unscheduled’ post-concert finale when we truly rock the house with praise anthems. Lead singers are drawn from the choir throughout the evening and compris outstanding church soloists in the Greater Boston-Brockton gospel community. This year’s presentation was set for June 13, until the virus forced its cancellation along with all of Symphony’s spring and summer schedule. What an amazing event it would have been. Hope to see you there next year!

    Comment by Elizabeth Clifford — June 19, 2020 at 4:38 pm

  10. Beyond today, local basses looking for post-plague gospel opportunities might wish to get in touch with this outfit:

    Comment by David R Moran — June 19, 2020 at 5:33 pm

  11. Dear Dr. Prichard,

    I have several corrections I would be remiss if I did not make as well as concerns with several points raised in this article.

    Regarding Castle of our Skins, the non-profit I co-founded in 2013, our mission has always been to celebrate Black artistry. Our work – which includes programming works by composers from the African diaspora; leading educational workshops around Black history, music and culture; engaging in high school and college residences; actively commissioning both composers and creatives to create new work; promoting narratives, histories and stories of Black excellence from centuries past through present day on our various social media channels, etc, etc, etc… – did not just start in reaction to recent events as your article makes it seem. A review of our website ( and look at any of our seven concert series would show this. Furthermore, a quick look at our publicly accessible repertoire page (also on our website) would also illustrate our long-standing commitment to programming the music of Black composers from the African diaspora. It is and has been our mission from inception to do so. Those in our repertoire who are not Black were commissioned through an open call for proposals to collaboratively write a work inspired by some aspect of Black culture, or strategically paired with other music from Black composers to illustrate a theme we were exploring.

    Other points of corrections to your article are below (listed in no particular order):

    ~George Walker, the Pulitzer-prize winning composer you mentioned, died August 23, 2018. The news of losing such a pioneer to the field is something many of us cannot forget. He would have turned 98 this Thursday, June 27th.

    ~The Boston Lyric Opera “Crossing the Line to Freedom” program from 2018 and 2019 that you mentioned was collaboratively created with Castle of our Skins. Myself, along with co-founder Anthony R. Green, were hired to create a program for adults. What resulted after months of research and close communication with the educational team at BLO was the world premiere musical-narrative you mentioned involving art songs and opera arias by Dorothy Rudd Moore, Adolphus Hailstork, Undine Smith Moore, Margaret Bonds, Nkeiru Okoye, spiritual settings, and poetry by Samuel Allen and Stephen Spender.

    ~The Challenge the Stats concert you referenced was sponsored by the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute and Northeastern University College of Arts, Media and Design. Other partners included the Boston branch of the NAACP and the Museum of African American History. New England Conservatory was not involved in the production.

    ~For readers curious to learn more about the late great Robert Honeysucker, I wanted to point out the correct spelling of his first name: Robert not Rober.

    ~While not yet commonplace although certainly gaining traction in scholarly writing and media, I wanted to also point out the use of a capitalized Black when referring to the community of peoples sharing common histories, identities and cultures. This shift from an adjective describing color to a noun describing identity is one I strongly advocate for.

    I would also like to voice my concerns on several points raised – and also omitted – from your article (again, listed in no particular order):

    ~I am unsure why you chose to devote an entire section in your Juneteenth article on “Black Music,” African American composers, and Boston to the non-Black composer Henry Gilbert. I found it curious that such a section only briefly mentioned Harry Thacker Burleigh, for whom Dvorak owes his introductions to spirituals, and omits other Black composer-peformers at the time such as William Lawrence who championed spirituals as concert worthy music. Only a brief mention of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who sang at the World Peace Festival in Boston in 1872? And no mention of the formerly enslaved Bostonian James Monroe Trotter’s 1878 anthology “Music and Some Highly Musical People” (published in Boston) that was in essence a rolodex of Who’s Who in African American music at the time?

    ~I was struck with the seemingly easy depiction you portrayed of lyric tenor Roland Hayes’ artistic life and gravely missed any mention of the struggles he faced in Boston and certainly globally. His concerts, including his first sold out concert in 1917 in Symphony Hall, was self-produced and self-marketed because no one would take him seriously as an artist. Like many other Black performers, he first gained attraction in Europe, singing for royalty among others in various halls, before being received in the States (and management from the BSO). His success was due to his perseverance despite a highly racial climate. A point well worth clarifying.

    ~In your mention of Florence Price in an article focused on Boston connections, I’m also surprised that you did not mention her widely known letter to former BSO conductor Koussevitzky. Penned in 1943 imploring the conductor to program her music despite her obvious “handicaps” of race and gender, the letter received no reply. Needless to say, her request was denied. It would take the BSO 76 years to program her music in the concert you referenced in March 2019. This is certainly an important point to underscore the long-standing erasure of Black contributions the BSO (and countless other organizations in and outside Boston) have chosen to uphold with regards to programming.

    ~In addition to living legend T.J. Anderson, other crucial Black figures and initiatives related to Boston missing from this article include Dr. William Banfield, composer, scholar, author, and former director of Berklee’s Africana Studies department. Also the recording label Videmus, founded in Boston in 1986 by pianist Vivian Taylor and currently helmed by Dr. Louise Toppin with the mission to promote the music of women and Black composers, deserves recognition for its tireless advocacy of marginalized composers.

    I would be more than happy to discuss any of the above corrections/points and look forward to the continued dialogue around Black excellence as it relates to Classical music in Boston and beyond.


    Ashleigh Gordon
    Artistic & Executive Director, violist
    Castle of our Skins

    Comment by Ashleigh Gordon — June 21, 2020 at 2:31 pm

  12. Sometimes the links in our articles are hard to see (they are indicated by the word HERE in dark green capital letters): remarks on the BLO recital, on Hayes, and on Florence Price have links provided for those interested in reading more (the Boston Musical Intelligencer has also published several other reviews and articles on Florence Price worth reading).

    Thank you for your additions and the link to the useful and timely works of Castle of Our Skins.

    This is the first of two articles and did not propose to be a complete listing of every African American musician in the history of Boston. I did not state that Castle of Our Skins was founded in response to recent events, but I acknowledge my phrase “has begun” would have been clearer as “since 2013, has begun.” I appreciate the historical details you mentioned.

    Challenge the Stats was originally partially funded by one of the first “Arts leadership Grants” through “From the Top,” often broadcasted from NEC: but you are correct that the project has gone on to attract a wide variety of diverse funding, and is a thriving, community-based artistic endeavor (now in the Atlanta, but started in Boston). See link: (year 2017)

    Since the second section was titled: “Boston and the Problem of Black Music,” Henry Gilbert’s experience with the BSO was chosen to represent one instance of specific problems with the promotion, composition, and programming of any music perceived as or influenced by African or African American music at the turn of the century. It marked a turning point in the way the BSO approached the issue at hand.

    A second article (in progress) will deal will earlier historical precedents including Burleigh and his wife’s many Boston appearances & contributions of Bostonians during the Harlem Renaissance.

    Comment by Laura Prichard — June 23, 2020 at 3:02 am

  13. Many thanks to Laura Pritchard for posting this extensive article, and to those who have added such informative comments. To follow particularly from posts by David Rotenberg, T.J. Anderson III, and Ashleigh Gordon, I’d like to mention that when TJ Anderson, Jr arrived in Boston in 1972 to become Professor and Chair of the Music Department at Tufts University (hot on the heels of having served as Composer in Residence of the Atlanta Symphony and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Morehouse College), he brought heartening change to the predominantly non-Black Tufts campus and to the larger Boston-area musical community. One of my favorite things he wrote about Black composers shortly before his arrival in New England is:

    We are not coming to negate or forget. We are coming to humanize…This is a responsibility of Blacks—to humanize the society. [Bruce Thompson 1971 Interview, page 27]

    TJ will turn 92 in August, and he is actively composing. In fact, he has written more music since his Tufts retirement in 1990 (at age 62) than he had up to that point, including works of all sizes and in all imaginable genres. In 2015, at his request, I embarked on the challenge of writing a biography of Anderson equipped with the vast on-site resource of his archive at Tufts Digital Collections and Archives and with his constant availability to talk, provide information, and encourage new avenues of inquiry ever at the ready. Preparing Stirring Up the Music: The Life, Works, and Influence of Composer T(homas) J(efferson) Anderson, Jr. for Borik Press during large parts of the last five years has tested my knowledge and ability each day, and as a non-Black music worker attempting to characterize the accomplishments of this legendary Black composer, it has been the most daunting, refreshing, abiding, and eye/ear-opening learning experience of my professional life.

    Many of the names of Black composers, performers, and artists mentioned in these BMINT pages (both article and comments) thread through this Anderson biography. Among his closest friends were novelist and journalist Leon Forrest (1937-1997), psychologist and Harvard Medical School Professor Chester Middlebrooke Pierce (1927-2016, who coined the term microaggression in 1970, wrote the story that was adapted into a libretto for Anderson’s as-yet-unperformed operetta The Shell Fairy (1977), among many other remarkably varied contributions), and the prolific, visionary Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt (born 1935). His many remarkable former students and mentees include Uzee Brown (born 1950), Donal Fox (born 1952), Trevor Weston (born 1967; his Castle of our Skins Portrait Concert was a recent highlight), and many others Black and non-Black. Anderson’s 90th Birthday Celebration and Mini-Conference in Atlanta welcomed a panel of six Black composers who presented a “Composer’s Share” hosted by Dr. Anthony Kelly: B.K. Boykins, Dr. Dwight Andrews, Dr. Trevor Weston, Dr. Stephen Newby, Anthony Green, and Dr. Mark Lomax. Dr Louise Toppin (renowned soprano and Artistic Director of Videmus since 1997, the organization mentioned in Ashleigh Gordon’s comment; founded by Vivian Taylor in 1986 while she was part of the Tufts faculty) and Dr. William Banfield shared roles as performers and producers of the event.

    I could go on pretty much endlessly. But please allow me to conclude what was intended as a brief comment with a more recent published statement by TJ Anderson, Jr:

    The future of the American orchestra will depend on its ability to improvise. The concept of improvisation is part of the musical history of mankind and is connected to the idea of freedom. [Floyd, Zeck, and Ramsey; The Transformation of Black Music; Oxford University Press, 2017; Epilogue, page 193]

    As orchestras and musical organizations increasingly struggle to survive, especially amid pandemic shutdowns and complications, the Black example is ever more important. T.J. Anderson, Jr.’s career and orbit is proof of this fact. Black concert music writ large is no passing fancy, and the health of classical music performance is dependent on Black music and Black artistry. To paraphrase composer Kareem Roustom, my Tufts colleague, will this future potential for large-ensemble vitality be able to emerge unless repertory studies, music theory primers, orchestration texts, and other scholarly efforts using the rich reservoir of examples from Black composers become ubiquitous?

    To be continued, with appreciation…

    John McDonald
    Composer and Pianist
    Professor of Music and Director of Graduate Music Studies, Tufts University

    Comment by John McDonald — June 27, 2020 at 7:04 pm

  14. To Dr. Pritchard:

    Apologies for such a delayed response to this article. I wanted to wait and form a more calm response than my initial one. Before delving in, I want to express gratitude for your intentions of this article. Thank you for your support of my work and practice, and of Castle of our Skins, an organization created formed with love with my good friend Ashleigh Gordon, who is the Artistic Director (I’m the Associate Artistic Director, not “the director” as it states in the article). While your intentions may be noble, forgive my frankness, the end result is a failure for a myriad of reasons.

    Firstly, I second all that Ashleigh Gordon wrote in her comments. It boggles me how often articles about myself, Ashleigh, Castle of our Skins, and a myriad of BILPOC artists and creatives are published without prior proofing, resulting in online documents full of incorrect information. This is rather dangerous, and I implore you in the future if you are creating an article with facts that can be verified from living artists/creatives, please run the article by these people BEFORE publishing.

    Secondly, I know you are paraphrasing when you included the way Karl Muck described “The Dance in Place Congo”, but this word is triggering. PLEASE next time either use “the n word” or “n***** music”, and explain that “ah” replaced “er” in the gross racial epithet. This comment does not come from a place of being hypersensitive – it comes from the simple idea of respect. A word with such power does not exist for white people in the United States, and while there are some contenders (perhaps honkey, ofay, white trash, and cracker), there is still no equivalency. Please respect the power of this word and try your best not to use it either in your spoken language or in written text like this.

    Thirdly, for an article about “Juneteenth Thoughts” and “Current African American Composers” (why not African composers as well? Or Afro-British, like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who is mentioned? Or Afro-Caribbean, like Errollyn Wallen, who is also mentioned?), why have about one-fourth of the article focused on composers who are not Black? I understand you wanting to get this information out, but wouldn’t such information be more appropriate in a separate article rather than one whose title centers Blackness?

    Lastly, and this is where I will stop (even though I can go on), the biggest point that should be made about this article and related articles is this: try writing such an article about white composers. Perhaps people will walk away from this article thinking: “wow, there is so much Blackness in classical music in Boston!” and be proud. The reality is that such is not the case, but an article like this makes it seems as such. Ashleigh Gordon and others alluded to the fact that there is little commentary about the struggles of Black composers and musicians in this article – Florence Price never had her symphony programmed by Koussevitsky; T. J. Anderson underwent gross mistreatment with regards to his work with Joplin’s “Treemonisha”; Roland Hayes faced blatant racism in Boston when he returned; and so on and so forth. This article reads as though these artists had wonderful opportunities, and readers should be content with how they were treated. The reality of the situation is this: if these Black artists and creatives were justly respected in the way their white counterparts were, then this article AS WELL AS Castle of our Skins would not exist. THIS is the reality that must be stated loudly, clearly, and often. THIS is the reality that MUST BE CORRECTED!!

    Anthony R. Green
    Associate Artistic Director,
    Castle of our Skins

    Comment by Anthony R. Green — July 4, 2020 at 2:22 pm

  15. I sent the subsequent article to Ashleigh Gordon for comments immediately pre-publication. She thanked me, but was too busy to respond. And I should add that we are always pleased to make corrections to errors of fact on our articles and reviews.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 4, 2020 at 2:41 pm

  16. >> I know you are paraphrasing when you included the way Karl Muck described “The Dance in Place Congo”, but this word is triggering. PLEASE next time either use “the n word” or “n***** music”, and explain that “ah” replaced “er” in the gross racial epithet. This comment does not come from a place of being hypersensitive … Please respect the power of this word and try your best not to use it either in your spoken language or in written text like this.

    Per many online sources, the well-known Muck quote is accurate as reported by Prichard, and if so it is not right to accuse her of ‘paraphrasing’.

    Comment by David Moran — July 4, 2020 at 8:20 pm

    This (first of 3) article is based on primary research using documentary sources and on the leading documentary biographies of the composers mentioned. All spellings come directly from academic sources. There is no paraphrasing of quotations in this article.

    For a detailed, book-length treatment of wider African American experience, I would suggest beginning with Eileen Southern’s “Music of Black Americans” (now in its third edition), and then explore her extensive biography. But even that excellent resource, written by a longtime resident of Cambridge, avoids focusing very much on Boston.

    Southern was Harvard’s first Black female tenured professor, teaching there from 1974-1987. I did a 6-week research internship with her in March-April 1987 during my freshman year in college, while she was beginning to collect information for her 1990 article “African American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale and Dance 1600s-1920.”

    She is the one who brought up to me the need for more exploration of Gilbert and similar composers in the early twentieth century who had musical interests that crossed racial divides. I can tell you that she also keenly felt the frustration of not being able to include everyone’s story, and the full version of every story, in her published work. Her main advice to me was, “Don’t play the role of critic when you can lift something up instead, and only rely on excellent sources.” Here is a link to a summary of her career, full of further details on the very issues raised in these comments:

    As stated in the second section of this article (titled “Boston and the Problem of Black Music”), Henry Gilbert (regardless of his race) provided a crucial link for the BSO in starting to program music with any reference to African American tunes, rhythms, and dances. Henry Gilbert himself used the spelling of the racial epithet in question (see his letter to his wife in his archive at Yale, MSS 35, Box 28), and Charles Hamm’s panoramic study of American music (first published in 1983) “Music in the New World,” is an early source of Karl Muck’s quotation in question.

    This website already has a posted 7000-word follow-up article dealing with many of the issues you raise, roughly covering the period 1650-1900, with extensive links to full biographies and research websites, for those interested in more of the struggle behind the success of those mentioned:

    All comments always warmly received by the author. Feel free to write me directly with questions, comments, and concerns at

    Comment by Laura Stanfield Prichard — July 6, 2020 at 2:53 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.