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Amazing Ways Black Composers Shape Orchestral Music

Music moves us all. It also breaks boundaries and blends traditions and cultures in ways that transcend single genres. This transcendence is especially clear and moving in orchestral music.

Orchestral music has Eurocentric roots, meaning much of the music and sounds used come from white European countries and composers. However, Black composers have also shaped and influenced orchestral music throughout the centuries. From Black women who’ve composed stunning orchestral pieces, like Florence Price and Undine Smith Moore, to Black men who’ve shaped orchestral composition, like George Walker and Scott Joplin, orchestras owe much of their storytelling and musical origins to Black composers. 

A Beautiful Influence: From Diverse Sounds to Social Commentary

Diversifying musical themes and styles

African American and Black composers have brought new cultural influences to the historically Eurocentric genre. By blending sounds and styles from jazz, blues and gospel music with the orchestral instruments and sounds, they’ve expanded the scope of orchestral compositions. Black composers can be credited with bringing new rhythms, melodies and storytelling techniques to orchestras, including syncopated rhythms, improvisational techniques, call-and-response patterns and expressive use of brass and percussion. Notably, Florence Price’s Symphony No.3 in 1938 blended traditional orchestral sounds with modern (at the time) music and techniques.

Educating the next generation

Another powerful way Black composers have shaped orchestral music is through inspiring and educating the next generation of musicians. Because they promote diversity and inclusion by shaking up a traditionally white and Eurocentric style of music, they show younger musicians that it is possible to pursue music in various forms. As mentors, teachers and advocates for music education, Black composers bring other musicians from underrepresented backgrounds into the orchestral scene.

Impacting the social and political

Music is a language of its own, something that can be used to communicate across barriers and differences. Black composers have used their compositions and music as avenues for social commentary and political activism. The notable Nkeiru Okoye composes music that amplifies Black voices while criticizing racist and sexist ideologies. Her composition, Voices Shouting Out, “is a march to acknowledge those fighting on behalf of our safety, yet a sparkling celebration of life for those of us who continue living.” Carlos Simon celebrates Black artists and African American culture in urban cities and rural America. Simon has been credited with using “music as a platform for discussions and ultimately, change.” 

Celebrate Black History Month with Beautiful Orchestral Music

There are countless other ways Black and African American composers have shaped orchestral music. During Black History Month, celebrate the influences and impact of Black composers by listening to and sharing their work! Check out these three contemporary composers:

  • Omar Thomas: Thomas is a composer, arranger and educator. His work centers on the lived experiences of Black and LGBTQ+ folks. His work, Come Sunday, won the 2019 National Bandmasters Association/Revelli Award. 
  • Valerie Coleman: Coleman was named one of the Top 35 Women Composers in Classical Music and the 2020 Classical Woman of the Year. She is a flutist and composer with recognition for her advocacy and mentorship. 
  • Michael Abels: Abel’s compositions include the scores for Oscar-winning films, including “Nope” and “Get Out.” His Composers Diversity Collective strives to increase the visibility of composers of color in popular media, including games, films and TV music. 

From composers in the 1800s and 1900s to contemporary composers of today, there is music for everyone to enjoy. The La Porte County Symphony Orchestra is proud to celebrate outstanding Black composers each year. Consider getting tickets to an upcoming event to continue supporting local musicians.