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January 9, 2018 > Lost Voices: The Music of Black Composers

Lost Voices: The Music of Black Composers

Submitted By Nick Burdick

The Fremont Symphony Orchestra has been awarded a $3,000 Community Arts grant from the Zellerbach Family Foundation in support of its chamber concert, Lost Voices: The Music of Black Composers. On Saturday, January 13 the Fremont Symphony String Quartet will celebrate four composers whose works, while well worth our attention, are rarely heard. Each of these composers overcame tremendous odds to become masters of their craft. Living in two worlds, they drew on jazz harmonies, spirituals, and the western classical tradition to create masterworks of stunning beauty.

Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George (1745-1799), often termed the black Mozart, was Marie Antoinettes music teacher. An accomplished violinist, composer, conductor, and swordsman, he was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Guadalupe plantation owner and his African slave. His father, who had been part of the inner circle of King Louis XV, took Saint-George back to France to ensure he received a good education, and Saint-George was a standout student. He became very successful as a composer, writing several violin concertos as well as symphonies and operas. But after his death, his music was removed from orchestra repertoire and was not rediscovered for nearly 200 years.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was an English composer and conductor whose father was a Sierra Leone Creole physician. Coleridge-Taylor had three tours of the United States in the early 1900s and achieved such success that he was referred to by white New York musicians as the African Mahler. As a boy he showed such remarkable talent that his extended family paid for him to study at the Royal College of Music. His greatest success was three cantatas based on Longfellows epic poem, Song of Hiawatha. While he became a worldwide sensation and was hailed by African Americans, he struggled against financial ruin, personal tragedy, and seismic obstacles throughout his short life.

Florence Price (1887-1953) gave her first piano performance at the age of four, graduated high school at the age of 14 and enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music. She was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Her award-winning Symphony in E Minor was performed by the Chicago Symphony, paving the way for more of her work to be commissioned by orchestras at home and abroad. She also wrote many vocal works, which were sung by such luminaries as Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, and William Warfield. But after her death her musical contributions were overshadowed by the emphasis on more modernist composers, and they virtually disappeared from the repertoire.

William Grant Still (1895-1978), the Dean of African-American composers, was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra and the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra. After graduating high school as class valedictorian, he enrolled in university, but his interest in music led him to leave without graduating in order to play in bands and orchestras. He met blues musician W. C. Handy, who gave him the opportunity to arrange and perform with his band. He soon entered the Oberlin Conservatory to pursue a formal education in music, while continuing to perform, arrange, orchestrate, and compose both popular and symphonic music. His works were performed by the Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Cleveland Symphony Orchestras, and his opera Troubled Island was premiered by the New York City Opera Company. Although he received many honors during his life, his works are not often performed today.

Concertmaster Philip Santos leads the Fremont Symphony String Quartet in a celebration of these awe-inspiring composers.

For tickets and information, visit or call (510) 371-4859.

Lost Voices: The Music of Black Composers
Saturday, Jan 13
7:30 p.m.
Irvington Presbyterian Church
4181 Irvington Ave, Fremont
(510) 371-4859
Tickets: $25 standard, $45 premier

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