The Classical Station Celebrates Black History Month

The Classical Station Celebrates Black History Month

On the final day of Black History Month, let’s celebrate historical African-American leaders in classical music.

A singer and teacher, Theodore Drury led the first majority-Black grand opera company in the 20th century. Until the Theodore Drury Grand Opera Company started in 1900, Black opera singers had little chance of landing a role in a full-length production. Though the company was a short-lived enterprise funded by Theodore Drury himself, its success showed that the opera stage was not exclusive to white singers in the early twentieth century.

With a life full of ‘firsts’, William Grant Still is one of the most well-known Black classical musicians of the 20th century. Still was the first African-American to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra. His Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American” was performed by the Rochester Orchester in 1930. In 1949, he was the first African-American to have an opera (Troubled Island) performed by a major opera company. Much of Still’s music was inspired by African-American styles of music, like the blues, spirituals, and jazz, making his music more accessible and demonstrating how popular melodies could be integrated into classical forms. 

George Walker became the first Black graduate of the Curtis Institute in 1945. His compositions Lyric for Strings and Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra gained national recognition, and Walker  became the first African-American recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1996. A year later, he won the Order of the Long Leaf Pine for his service to music. Walker created music his entire life and passed away in 2018.