“The Bach and Beethoven stuff? I don’t know…I just don’t really see the need to listen to it. Isn’t that kind of music for white folks?”
This is a common response when asking Black students on campus if they (unironically) listen to classical music. To many, it seems as though Black composers and musicians are absent in the world of classical music. And they would be right. I remember going to my first ever piano recital after I had only been playing for a few months and realizing, with dismay, that no one in the audience looked like me.
I watched each and every performer, hoping that there might be one with skin of a darker hue who could validate that being Black and being a musician didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. Engaging in classical music not only as an audience member but as a performer felt like I had been granted access to some secret, off-limits world where Black musicians appeared rarer than four-leaf clovers. A world where white folk taught me how to interpret pieces by white composers to perform for largely white audiences. Even as I continued learning piano, dutifully repeating the finger exercises crafted by Austrian composers, practicing waltzes and dances written by German and French musicians, and studying music theory dating back to ancient Greece, I became painfully and increasingly aware that I had yet to interact with Black music in any way.
Despite the lack of Black representation, classical music has had a huge impact on my life. Learning and performing has not only given me an immense appreciation for the genre, but also an unmatched sense of confidence, dedication, and tenacity. I love Mozart as much as I love Megan Thee Stallion and will be just as likely to queue up Bach during my daily listening as I am SZA. My love of classical music is one that I know is uncommon, but it has granted my introverted self a voice with which I can explore the breadth and depth of my emotions. Some of my best interpretations of pieces have been the result of working through unpleasant emotions like anger, sadness, and anxiety as a means to feel more secure in myself. Regardless, classical music still remains a space that is not as welcoming for Blackness. Imposter syndrome, for one, is an old friend that appears time and time again whenever I perform. To this day, each time I get up in front of an audience to play, I instantly forget all the time and effort I have spent practicing and perfecting a piece and am seized by the lingering fear that I don’t belong.
It seems that no matter where you look, whiteness as the standard is reinforced in the world of music. Due to the fact that many major institutions responsible for establishing the norms of classical music were founded on white European models, it has been difficult for Black musicians to feel a sense of belonging. Black musicians make up less than 2% of the orchestras in the nation and prestigious opera houses, such as the Metropolitan Opera still have yet to showcase a piece written by a Black composer.
Despite this insistence on erasure, time and time again, Black musicians have proven their ability to overcome even the most challenging of obstacles and carve out a place for themselves. It is crucial to realize that Black people and Black experiences are woven into the fabric of American society, with classical music being no different. Talented and prolific Black musicians like Scott Joplin, Florence Beatrice Price, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor can be compared to the household names we all know such as Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Dvořák. In fact, Czech composer Dvořák himself, after coming to New York in the early 1890s to serve as the director of the more progressive National Conservatory, declared that “Black melodies should be the foundation of future American music.” Despite his statement, classical institutions of the time denied themselves a huge reservoir of native-born talent and the rich harmonies and melodies of Black composers.
For example, the aforementioned Florence Beatrice Price was an African-American composer whose collection of works for solo piano, “Fantasie Nègre” (composed in 1929) blended the European Romantic techniques of the time while also combining aspects of African-American traditional music. In “Fantasie Nègre,” she pioneered a new musical style by adapting the melody of the expressive, soulful spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass,” thus challenging the definition of what ‘classical music’ should sound like. She belonged to a prolific legacy of Black composers who fought to infuse their African heritage into classical music in an effort to one day see Black works and pieces earn the same recognition as ones written by white composers. Despite having been the first African-American woman to have her works performed by a major US Orchestra, much of her accomplishments and influence has been lost.
It’s important to note that the blending of classical music with traditionally Black styles to create a new form of music is a practice that has transcended both time and genre. The next time you listen to Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” see if you can pay special attention to the addition of the National Symphony Orchestra, which adds a different color and texture to his usual style. Or to the use of Mozart’s “Requiem” and Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” in Ludacris’ “Coming 2 America” to generate a unique sonic experience. While classical music has largely been adopted as a “badge of whiteness,” it owes much of its traction to Black folk. Classical music is not, inherently, a “white” art form. The history of classical music in America belongs to Black individuals as much as it does to white individuals, and this story showcases the resilience and ubiquity of Blackness and Black greatness in American culture. At the end of the day, the goal is not to have Black students racing to queue up Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” at their next function, but to acknowledge that classical music has a place in Black culture.