The representation (or lack thereof) of African Americans in orchestral music

Written by Jaman E. Dunn, Assistant Conductor, Community Engagement


Hello Friends,

I decided to write this post in the form of a letter. The orchestral world as we know it is one that is dominated by the music of Western Europe. Over time, the entries into the genre diversify, but only to a point. Here in the United States, our orchestral offerings are most clearly dominated by the music of Western Europe, or composers that write in the musical style of Western Europe (i.e. Tchaikovsky).

A composer many of us are familiar with, Dvořák, came to the United States and was asked to help America discover its own musical identity. Dvořák and Smetana were two Czech composers that were known for their music directly reflecting the experience of Bohemia, their home country. Dvořák searched far and wide while here in the United States, and even wrote an American series in his music including an orchestral suite, a quartet, a quintet, and the Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” When asked for his answer to the Americans’ question, Dvořák’s answer was; “The future music in this country must be founded upon what are called negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.” He even then further states “These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are American. These are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.”

Needless to say, this didn’t happen. Not only did most white composers shun his advice, the African American composers that began writing in the next few decades were suppressed wholesale. Of course, some of their works were premiered, such as Still’s first symphony and Florence Price’s first symphony, but they then fell deep into obscurity and out of the canon. Only in the last twenty years or so have pieces made their way back into season programs. It is unfortunate that these works are less-performed and therefore lesser-known, as they have just as much merit as many of the canon works we perform without end.

I am not here to tell you what you should like or dislike; I am here simply to make you aware of what is out there, in addition to what you may already know. The following list is to allow you to dip your toe into the water of music by persons of African descent. Most of them are American, but a few are not. It is my sincere hope that you will come to realize that this music is also of merit, and also deserves to be played. It is also my hope that you do not stop at this list, and take it upon yourself to explore works that have fallen through the cracks.

Please enjoy the music.

Jaman E. Dunn

Click here to listen to the full playlist on YouTube.

*Links provided below for works not available on YouTube.

Symphony, Op. 11 No. 2
Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 – 1799)

Ballade in A minor
Samuel Coleridge – Taylor (1875 – 1912)

The Ordering of Moses
R. Nathaniel Dett (1882 – 1943)

Symphony No. 3
Florence B. Price (1887 – 1953)

Symphony No. 4 “Autochthonous”
William Grant Still, Jr. (1895 – 1978)

Six Dances for String Orchestra
Ulysses S. Kay (1917 – 1995)

Lyric for Strings
George T. Walker, Jr. (1922 – 2018)

Shango Memory
Olly Woodrow Wilson, Jr. (1937 – 2018)

Stories from Home (2017)
Jonathan Bailey Holland (b. 1974)
*Click here to listen

Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula
James Lee III (b. 1975)
*Click here to listen

Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)