Black Composers, Classical Quartets
There is a substantial amount of Classical music written by Black composers from the 1700s to the 1900s. In many cases, the music exists today only in manuscript form, making it difficult to access for the average performer. To make the music of these Black composers more easily accessible, I am creating printed editions with downloadable scores and parts, as well as releasing video recording demos periodically. All of the music is either originally for String Quartet or arranged by myself. As the project develops, more music will be added to this page. Please contact me if you have suggestions!
Use the coupon "BlackComposers" at checkout if you'd like to download any of this music for free! A portion of the sale price goes toward creating a larger library of music by Classical Black Composers, but I also want this music to be as accessible and available as possible. Thank you for your support!
Joseph Bologne (1745-1799)
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a French violinist, composer and conductor. A contemporary of Mozart, Saint-Georges is recognized as the first known classical composer of African ancestry: his mother was a Senegalese slave in the French-Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe. Among his many talents, Saint-Georges was a prolific composer. He wrote six operas, eight symphonie-concertantes, and over a dozen violin concertos. The Op. 1 string quartets are his first compositions, and draw inspiration from Haydn’s early quartets. Later in his life, Saint-Georges conducted the Concert de la Loge Olympique, and commissioned Haydn’s six “Paris” Symphonies. He performed all of his violin concertos as the soloist with his orchestra. To top it all, Saint-Georges was a champion fencer, beating the top masters in France when he was still a teenager.
Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780)
Ignatius Sancho is thought to be the first person of African origin to vote in Britain. He was born on a slave ship sailing to the Caribbean, and became an orphan soon after. While he was a slave, his intellect impressed the Duke of Montagu, who lent him access his library. He ran away at age 18 to the Montagu house, where he developed his skills in music, poetry, reading and writing, eventually becoming a prominent abolitionist. By 1774 he was able to open his own grocery shop in London, and owning property allowed him to vote. The 12 Country Dances were written in 1779, shortly before his death, and dedicated to Miss North. The dances were performed in line-dance formation, and the original score includes instructions. While only the themes were published, Crosmer created original variations in a similar style, which will be included here.
George Bridgetower (1778-1860)
George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower was a virtuoso Afro-European violinist and composer. During his early childhood, his father John Frederick was a servant of the Hungarian Prince Esterházy, who was the patron of Joseph Haydn. By age 11, he had moved to London and was giving concerts in Paris, London, Bath and Bristol. He eventually became friends with Ludwig van Beethoven, who dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 9, Op. 47, to Bridgetower. After a falling out, Beethoven later changed the dedication to Rudolphe Kreutzer, who never performed the work. Bridgetower was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians in 1807, and performed in the first season of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1813. While primarily a violinist, Bridgetower wrote a few compositions, including Henry: a ballad for medium voice and piano.
Listen to "Henry: a Ballad" here, arranged for String Quartet.
Thomas Wiggins (1849-1908)
Thomas Wiggins was a talented American pianist and composer from the late nineteenth century. Born to slave parents, Wiggins was blind at birth and was not given usual slave labor. Instead, he learned to play piano by ear, and wrote his first composition at age 5. He was hired to tour throughout the US as a performer when he was only 8 years old, and earned an estimated $750,000 for his owner, General James Neil Bethune, making Wiggins arguably the most highly compensated pianist of the nineteenth century. Reportedly Wiggins could hear a performance only once and was able to reproduce the music at the piano. He continued to perform extensively until he was 55, when he allegedly suffered a stroke. Even after retiring, however, neighbors said they could hear Wiggins playing piano at all hours at his home in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Listen to "Water in the Moonlight" here, arranged for String Quartet.
José White “Lafitte” (1836-1918)
José Silvestre White y Lafitte was a Afro-Cuban-French violinist and composer. He was a virtuoso violinist praised by Louis Gottschalk, Gioachino Rossini, and many others, and wrote music mainly for his own instrument. He played on the famous “Swansong” Stradivarius. White studied at the Paris Conservatory, winning the acclaimed First Grand Prize for his violin skills. He toured the United States, and served as director of the Imperial Conservatory in Rio de Janeiro, eventually returning to Paris where he lived until 1918.
José Maurício Nunes Garcia (1767-1830)
José Maurício Nunes Garcia was a Brazilian Black composer and priest. As a child, he was recognized for his "sharp musical memory" and was allegedly able to reproduce any music he heard, as well as write his own music. By age 17 he was already recognized as a professional music teacher. He eventually became the Master of Music of the Portuguese Royal Chapel in Rio de Janeiro, despite aggressive actions taken against Catholic priests with "visible physical defects." He lived and worked in Rio through Brazil's appointment to a United Kingdom with Portugal and its independence in 1822, writing mostly religious music. He wrote a treatise on Harmony and Counterpoint late in his life, it is now lost.
Francis Johnson (1792-1844)
Francis Johnson, born in Philadelphia, was the first African American to have his works published as sheet music, and first became famous when his Collection of New Cotillions was published in 1818. Johnson is also credited as the first director to bring an American ensemble on tour abroad to Europe, in 1837. Despite the racial discrimination of the time, Johnson successfully received patronage and participated in racially integrated concerts in the U.S., and introduced the U.S. to the "promenade concert" style, which was a combination of strolling through beautiful gardens and dancing to waltzes, quadrilles, cotillions, and other styles. While much of his music only survives as piano transcriptions, reviews and accounts from audience members describe a lively and unique method of improvisation that some have labeled as an early nineteenth century jazz.