WilliamLeviDawsonMany people are surprised to learn that musicians of African descent have written and performed classical music for centuries.  I was one of them.  For 33 years after starting college, I enjoyed classical music on library recordings and on FM radio.  In 1995, I happened to see two 1993 CDs of the Detroit Symphony in a music store.  I bought both and entered a beautiful new world of classical music: William Grant Still's Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American) and No. 2 (Song of a New Race); the Negro Folk Symphony of William Levi Dawson; Duke Ellington's Harlem and Suite from The River.

Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony (28:26) was recorded on Chandos 9226 (1993). Michael Fleming's liner notes tell us:  “The three movements of the symphony are entitled: The Bond of Africa, Hope in the Night and O, le' me shine, shine like a Morning Star!” The symphony was first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, in 1934.  Michael Fleming points out it was revised after the composer visited Africa: “After a trip to West Africa in 1952, however, the composer revised it to embody authentic African rhythmic patterns, and it was in this form that Stokowski recorded it, and it is most frequently played today.


I had considered myself quite familiar with classical music.  Now I realized  my listening had been segregated without my knowledge for more than three decades.  I had previously worked for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights for 7 years; I resolved to wage a personal Civil Rights campaign to increase awareness of the rich African Heritage in Classical Music.   The website which evolved into AfriClassical.com was launched in 2000. It is highly selective by design. 

From thousands of potential artists, I selected 52 classical composers, performers and conductors,   African, African American and Afro-European.  Over 100 brief music samples are featured at the website, which also includes a 52-question Black History Quiz.  The comprehensive Work Lists and Bibliographies, and many of the biographies, were provided by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma of Lawrence University Conservatory in Appleton, Wisconsin.  He signed the Guest Book in 2002, and he eventually became principal advisor to the website.  Prof. De Lerma's 40 years of research were made available to AfriClassical.com.

Royal Trumpeter to Kings Henry VII & VIII

The website has many fascinating stories, but the earliest musician it profiles is John Blanke, a Royal trumpeter for Kings Henry VII and VIII.  Payroll records in the National Archives of the United Kingdom show that he earned 8 pence a day under each monarch.  John Blanke was one of six Royal trumpeters who participated in the “Tournament of Westminster” in 1511.  It celebrated the birth of a male heir to King Henry VIII.

King Henry VIII ordered the creation of a pictorial tapestry of the Westminster Tournament, “The Westminster Tournament Roll.” The National Archives entry gives a description:  “It is a pictorial illuminated manuscript, a continuous roll approximately 60 feet long. It is a narrative of the beginning, middle and end of the tournament, which took place over two days.”  The people depicted on the roll include six trumpeters. The entry explains: “Among the latter is a Black man. He appears twice on the Roll: once on the way from the court and again on the way back. According to the historian Sydney Anglo, he is almost certainly John Blanke, the 'blacke trumpeter' mentioned in the Treasurer's accounts.  Henry VIII's tournament was a costly extravaganza, and here we find a Black man included in one of the most magnificent pageants of his time, dressed formally as a mounted musician, perhaps also belonging to the equestrian corps of the court.”

Violinist Accompanied by Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his Bridgetower Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 9 in A Minor, Op. 47 as a vehicle for displaying the extraordinary talent of a Black violinist, George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower. The work was given a very successful premiere by the pair in Vienna, with Beethoven on piano and Bridgetower on violin.  However, the two had a falling-out prior to publication, so Beethoven crossed out Bridgetower's name on the manuscript, and in its place wrote Rodolphe Kreutzer, the name of another prominent violinist. Now the music world knows the work as the Kreutzer Sonata.

On April 2, 2009 The New York Times published an article by Felicia R. Lee, "Poet's Muse: A Footnote to Beethoven" in which she wrote:  “Rita Dove, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former United States poet laureate, has now breathed life into the story of that virtuoso, George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, in her new book, 'Sonata Mulattica' (W. W. Norton)”....“Here was the case of a man who made it into the history books, but barely. And who would have been, if not a household word, a household word in the musical world. That flame was snuffed out.”...”While Bridgetower failed to find a prominent place in the musical canon, his story is nevertheless recorded in the major musical histories, like The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, as well as on Internet sites like AfriClassical.com and its companion, africlassical.blogspot.com, which document black contributions to classical music.

Fencer, Violinist, Composer & Conductor

Composers at AfriClassical.com include Joseph de Bologne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799).  His mother was a slave of African descent on his father's Caribbean plantation, but he was educated as an aristocrat. After 6 years in a fencing academy, Saint-Georges became the leading fencer in France. In his early twenties he became a virtuoso violinist, composer and conductor.  He regularly performed music at Versailles with Queen Marie-Antoniette. She attended the premieres of Haydn's 6 “Paris Symphonies”, which were commissioned and conducted by Saint-Georges. 

During the French Revolution, Saint-Georges was given command of the first French Army unit comprised mainly of volunteers of color.  He served heroically, but was falsely imprisoned for a time.  Much of his music survived in the French National Library.  Dozens of CDs of his symphonies, chamber music and songs are available. The 2003 CBC Television special “Le Mozart Noir” (“The Black Mozart”) was released in 2005 on DVD.  I provided my research on Saint-Georges to the producer of the program, so my name is listed in the credits of the DVD.

AfriClassical.blogspot.com publishes nearly every day, with many interesting stories not found at the website.


About the AuthorZick

William J. Zick is a retired Administrative Law  Judge for the Michigan Employment Security Commission.  He attended Detroit College of Law at night while employed by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, first as an investigator and then as staff training officer.


Top Photo: William Levi Dawson