February 2018 marks the 43rd observance of Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, in the United States. While African American history should be taught and honored all year round, the celebration of Black History Month allows us to pay special tribute to the monumental struggles and triumphs of generations of African Americans.

In the words of President Gerald Ford in 1976, on the first observance of Black History Month, “we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” One such ‘area of endeavor’ is the world of classical music composition. A key aim of Sphinx is to empower current composers of color and introduce more of their works, as well as the works of those who paved the way before them, into the lexicon of popularly performed pieces.

Though hardly an exhaustive list, these seven significant classical composers of color have made unique and groundbreaking contributions to the industry, and we salute them during this important month of learning and reflection.

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

Often referred to as “the Dean” of African-American composers, William Grant Still was a prolific American composer whose works include symphonies, ballets, and operas. He studied at Oberlin, and later received honorary degrees from the Wilberforce, Pepperdine and Howard Universities, Oberlin and Bates Colleges, Peabody Conservatory of Music and the University of Southern California.

Still was a trailblazer in many ways: he was the first African American to conduct a professional symphony orchestra in the United States (Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1936), the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra (Symphony No. 1, “Afro-American”, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in 1931), the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company (Troubled Island, New York City Opera in 1949), and the first to have an opera performed on national television (A Bayou Legend, on PBS in 1981).

Roque Cordero (1917-2008)

Panamanian-born composer Roque Cordero’s unique style of writing blended nationalism with more modern schools of composition such as serialism. Much of Cordero’s music is notable for its balance of folklore with advanced techniques. He trained in Panama and the United States, where he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition and conducting. He later served as Director of the National Conservatory (later called National Music Institute) in Panama, greatly improving the country’s quality of music instruction.

His legacy includes volumes of chamber music, especially for unusual combinations of instruments, as well as many significant orchestral works, including four symphonies and concertos for piano, violin, and viola.

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004)

Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, named after Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor, was an African-American composer whose work crossed genres from the classics, to jazz, to scores for film and television. Perkinson was the Artistic Director for the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College. He cofounded the Symphony of the New World in New York, and later became its Music Director. Throughout his career, he did arranging for Marvin Gaye and Harry Belafonte, was composer in residence for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and the Dance Theater of Harlem, scored the 1973 Sidney Poitier film “A Warm December,” and much more.

His last major work was commissioned by Sphinx to commemorate its 5th anniversary, entitled “Symphony of the Sphinx”, with text by Nikki Giovanni, celebrating the African and African American heritage.

Tania León (b. 1943)

Tania León was born in Cuba and completed her studies there at the National Conservatory before coming to New York in 1967. She was a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and served as the group’s musical director for more than ten years. She has been New Music advisor to the New York Philharmonic, Latin American Music Advisor to the American Composers Orchestra, a professor at Harvard and Yale universities, and more.

She has been profiled on ABC, CBS, CNN, PBS, Univision, Telemundo, and independent films, and commissioned by Los Angeles Philharmonic, the International Contemporary Ensemble, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, New World Symphony, National Endowment for the Arts, The Library of Congress, and The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, among many others. She is currently working on the two-hour score for the opera The Little Rock Nine, based on the true story of the nine African-American students who enrolled at the formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in September 1957. The opera was commissioned by the University of Central Arkansas College of Fine Arts and Communication.

Valerie Coleman (b. 1970)

Flutist and composer Valerie Coleman was recently named one of the “Top 35 Female Composers in Classical Music” in the Washington Post. Coleman began her music studies in Louisville, Kentucky at the age of eleven – by the age of fourteen, she had written three symphonies and won several local and state performance competitions. Today, she is the founder, composer, and flutist of the Grammy® nominated Imani Winds chamber music ensemble. She has been featured as a composer and performer by Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Walt Disney Hall, The Juilliard School, Montreal Jazz Festival, Paris Jazz Festival, and many more.

She is a prolific recording artist, sought-after recitalist, educator and mentor, and strong advocate for diversity in the arts. In 2011, she launched the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival, a summer mentorship program for collegiate and post-graduate musicians.

Daniel Bernard Roumain – DBR (b. 1971)

Haitian-American composer, performer, violinist, and band-leader Daniel Bernard Roumain (DBR) is known for his genre-bending music, infusing signature violin with electronic and urban music influences. DBR has received commissions from Carnegie Hall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Library of Congress, and was nominated for an EMMY for Outstanding Musical Composition for his work with ESPN. He has been voted one of the “Top 40 Under 40 business people” (Crain’s New York Business) and spotlighted as a “New Face of Classial Music” (Esquire Magazine).

In 2017, he premiered a chamber opera called We Shall Not Be Moved, which the New York Times called “The Best Classical Performance of 2017.” DBR is also dedicated to arts education and leadership within the arts industry, as Institute Professor of Practice at Arizona State University; a member of the board of directors of the League of American Orchestras, Association of Performing Arts Presenters and Creative Capital; and serving on the advisory committee of the Sphinx Organization. In 2018, Sphinx recognized DBR with the annual Arthur L. Johnson Memorial Award presented at SphinxConnect, the epicenter for artists and leaders in diversity.

Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)

New York native Jessie Montgomery is a violinist, composer, and music educator. Montgomery holds a Bachelor’s degree from The Juilliard School in violin performance and a Master’s Degree in composition and film scoring from New York University. She has served as the Van Lier Composer Fellow at the American Composers Orchestra; been in Residence at the Deer Valley Music Festival; worked as the Composer-Educator for the Albany Symphony; and has received commissions from the Sphinx Organization, The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Young People’s Chorus of New York, and Cygnus Ensemble. Montgomery is a member of the Catalyst Quartet and serves as Composer-in-Residence for the Sphinx Virtuosi, an 18-piece self-conducted ensemble that tours the country each fall.

The Washington Post called her composition Strum (revised 2012) “turbulent, wildly colorful and exploding with life.” Banner, commissioned by Sphinx with the Joyce Foundation, premiered in 2014 at the New World Center in Miami and was called “urgent, inventive…daring” by the New York Times.
Listening to, learning, and performing the works of composers of color allows classical music to tell a more complete story, to represent a broader perspective, and to amplify voices that must be heard. We encourage you to share this list, and to do your own research on the countless other composers of color who have made and are making the world of classical music a richer tapestry.

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