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Five Black Classical Music Composers Left Out of the History Books

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

For over a century Georgia has been recognized for having a fresh approach to creating artistry in music. With significant labels like Quality Control and booming acts from histories past like Ma Rainey to current performers such asThe Migos, Georgia has built a reputation of developing some of the most highly acclaimed international music stars across the globe. But did you know that Georgia is also known for having some of the most notable Black classical music composers of all time? What is often let out of the discussion for Georgia talent are the Black music composers who have assisted in catapulting the state to world admonish. Here at deBowatReveur we aim to bring awareness to those least acknowledge in the Black hemisphere of musical artistry. Below we offer our list of 5 past and current Black music composers with ties.

Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins

Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins was born in 1849 into slavery in Columbus, Georgia. Wiggins was born blind and autistic but possessed a natural gift for music. In 1850 Tom, his parents, and two brothers were sold to Gen. James Neil Bethune, a fiercely pro-slavery lawyer and newspaper editor in Columbus, Ga. Even after emancipation, Wiggins remained “indentured” to James Bethune who his legal guardian. From an early age he was able to perform entire pieces on piano with little to no effort. He had an uncanny ability to master a piece after hearing it played one time while he stood on one-foot in a corner banging head against the wall while pulling his hair. In 1858 Wiggins (age 8) quickly amassed a repertoire of thousands of pieces. and was hired out as a slave-musician for $15,000 to tour across the United States. At the age of 10, he became the first Black musician to give a headline performance at the White House. After this tour, he returned home during the Civil War to raise funds for the Confederate War.

Eventually James leased Tom to concert promoter Perry Oliver, who toured him extensively in the US, performing as often as four times a day and earning Oliver and Bethune up to $100,000 a year, the equivalent to $1.5 million a year to date. Oliver marketed Wiggins as an untaught slave, when in fact he was tutored by a professor of music who taught him the complex works of Bach, Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven. Eventually the two went abroad on a European tour. By this time, Wiggins had composed several pieces of his own from “Sewing Song,” “Water in the Moonlight,” “Battle of Manassas,” and many other works that he performed alongside his classical counterparts, and popular tunes. The European tour garnered international acclaim as Wiggins applauded as “The Marvelous Musical Prodigy Blind Tom.” While Tom had much acclaim and success, he never benefitted thoroughly from his talents, as he and his music were owned by the Bethune family. His published compositions are the personification of 19th-century romanticism idealism of dramatic contrast and intense emotional recourse.

Roland Hayes

On June 3, 1887, Roland Hayes was born in a plantation cabin in Curryville, near Calhoun in Gordon County. His parents Fanny and William Hayes were former slaves. Roland was the first African American man to win international fame as a concert performer. He began singing in church and on the street for pennies until a music teacher discovered him and was impressed by his singing ability and offered him music lessons. At 20, Hayes entered Fisk University, where he became a famous Fisk Jubilee Singers member. At the same time, he worked as a servant to support himself. Hayes then moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he found a job singing offstage in a silent movie theater. He sung off stage to hide his Blackness from the audience. While in Louisville, the president of Fisk University invited him to be the lead tenor for the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ tour in Boston, Massachusetts.

Hayes stayed in Boston after the trip and saved money to rent Symphony Hall in Boston for his first concert. He arranged and promoted his concerts, achieving many accolades while becoming a well-known performer and composer. He was later invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York, Symphony Hall in Boston, and other significant concert houses in America and Europe. Hayes even received an invitation to perform for King George and Queen Mary of England of the United Kingdom. After touring, Hayes married Helen A. Mann and had a daughter, Afrika. Hayes and his wife maintained residences in Brookline, Massachusetts, and in Curryville, Georgia, where they owned a 600-acre farm, where his mother was a slave. In 1948, he published a collection of spirituals as My Songs; Aframerican Religious Folk Songs Arranged and Interpreted, a collection of African American religious folk songs. On January 1, 1977, he died in Boston and was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Dorchester, Massachusetts.​

Robert Allen Cole

Robert Allen Cole was born on July 1, 1868, in Athens, Georgia. He was the son of former slaves and became a prolific composer of his era. His contemporaries applauded Cole, and his model became the format for other African Americans to garner success. Cole was briefly a member of Jack’s Creoles black minstrel company, but after publishing his first song in 1893, he soon foraged to create his vision of black theater. The All-Star Stock Company, Cole's first venture, came to life in 1894 and included luminaries such as the Farrell Brothers, Billy Johnson, Stella Wiley (Cole’s wife), Will Marion Cook, and Gussie Davis. He and Billy Johnson collaborated to produce the landmark musical, A Trip to Coontown (1898)--the first New York musical written, produced, and performed by black entertainers. The show was highly applauded and met with success. Cole later went on to partner with J. Rosamond Johnson, which lasted until Cole’s death.

In 1900 J. Rosamond Johnson and Cole began writing songs for white shows. In 1901 they garnered their first crossover success with the song “Under the Bamboo Tree” from the musical Sally in our Alley (1904). They co-write and produced many musicals, including The Shoo-Fly Regiment(1907) and The Red Moon (1909). Both shows were successful, but Cole took a financial loss which led to an unfortunate return to vaudeville performing until his health began to fail in 1910. In April 1911, he collapsed and shortly after that, Cole drowned in what many believe in having been a suicide. While relatively unknown today, Cole was considered “the single greatest force in the middle period of the development of black theatricals in America.”

Florence Beatrice Smith

Florence Beatrice Smith was the first African American female dean of music at Clark Atlanta University. She was born to Florence (Gulliver) and James H. Smith on April 9, 1887, in Little Rock, Arkansas. One of three children in a mixed-race family. Despite racial issues of the era, her family was well respected and did well within their community. Her father was a dentist, and her mother was a music teacher who guided Florence’s early musical training. She had her first piano performance at the age of four and had her first composition published at 11. By the time she was 14, Florence had graduated as valedictorian (scholar) of her class.

After high school, she enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, with a major in piano and organ. Initially, she passed as Mexican to avoid racial discrimination against African Americans, listing her hometown as “Pueblo, Mexico.” At the Conservatory, she studied composition and counterpoint with composers George Chadwick and Frederick Converse. Also, while there, Smith wrote her first string trio and symphony. She graduated in 1906 with honors and an artist diploma in organ, and a teaching certificate. Florence Beatrice (Smith) Price became the first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra when Music Director Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in E minor on June 15, 1933, on one of four concerts presented at The Auditorium Theatre from June 14 through June 17 during Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition.

Damien Sneed

Damien Sneed is a pianist, vocalist, organist, composer, conductor, arranger, producer, and arts educator whose work spans multiple genres. Sneed has worked with several well-known musicians from Wynton Marsalis, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Ashford & Simpson, J’Nai Bridges, Lawrence Brownlee, Brandie Inez Sutton, to Aretha Franklin, Jessye Norman, and many others. Sneed is the founder and artistic director of Chorale Le Chateau, which has gained a global reputation for its vivid interpretations of vocal literature, from Renaissance period pieces to art songs to jazz, spirituals, gospel, and avant-garde contemporary music. Sneed is currently a faculty member of the Manhattan School of Music, where he teaches graduate-level courses in conducting African American Music History, a singer/songwriter ensemble, a gospel music ensemble, and private lessons in piano, voice, and composition. David recently premiered a new opera, “We Shall Overcome -- Our Journey: 400 Years from Africa to Jamestown,” at Carnegie Hall, which showcases musical styles from the African American diaspora to spirituals, gospel, and jazz, all interwoven in the classical genre.

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