Part 2 – Historical Composers
1. Germaine Tailleferre (1892 – 1983)
Tailleferre wrote music for almost all genres - solo instruments, chamber, orchestra, ballet, voice, chorus, and film scores. Her original name was Marcelle Germaine Taillefesse, but she changed her last name to “Tailleferre” to spite her dad, as he refused to support her musical studies. Her strong will, talent, and tenacity propelled her for a long-life of music making. While at the Paris Conservatory, she met her Les Six buddies – Louis Durey, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, and Arthur Honegger. She had a short marriage to American caricaturist Ralph Barton (1926 - 1927) during which she moved to Manhattan. However, she soon returned to France where she remained for the majority of her life (except during the outbreak of World War II when she escaped across Spain and Portugal to find passage to America). She lived in Philadelphia during the remainder of the war. Notable works include Concerto for harp and orchestra (1928), Petite suite pour orchestra (1957), Le marchand d’oiseaux Ballet for orchestra (1922)
2. George Walker (1922 – 2018)
George Walker was born in Washington D.C. in 1922 of West Indian-American parentage. At the age of five, Walker’s mom (Rosa King), began to supervise his piano lessons and continued to encourage his music education at home until he graduated from Dunbar High School at age 14. Walker graduated from Oberlin College at age 18 with the highest honors in his Conservatory class. He then went to the Curtis Institute of Music to study piano with Rudolf Serkin, chamber music with William Primrose and Gregor Piatigorsky, and composition with Rosario Scalero (Samuel Barber’s teacher). In 1945, Walker became the first black graduate of Curtis to receive an Artist Diploma in piano and composition. In 1955, he became the first black recipient of a doctoral degree in piano from the Eastman School of Music.
George Walker composed over 90 works and his compositions have been performed at most major orchestras in the United States. His list of awards is substantial and impressive – including two Guggenheim Fellowships, two Rockefeller Fellowships, a Fromm Foundation commission, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award (to name a few). In 1996, Walker became the first black composer to receive the coveted Pulitzer Prize in Music for his work, “Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra (1996).” Other notable works are Lyric for Strings (1946) and Address for Orchestra (1968).
3. Maria Teresa Prieto (1896 – 1982)
Though born in northwest Spain in the city of Oviedo, Maria Teresa Prieto spent much of her adult life in Mexico (where she moved to live with her brother Carlos during the Spanish Civil War in 1937). While in Mexico, she studied with Manuel Ponce and Carlos Chavez. She later studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, California. Prieto was strongly influenced by Bach, yet her compositions reflect the many changing tonalities that were popular during the mid-twentieth century and influenced her musical mentors, Manuel Ponce and Darius Milhaud. Interesting compositions include Sinfonía (1945), La danza prima (1951), and El Palo Verde (1967).
4. William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Two-time Guggenheim Fellowship winner, William Grant Still was a musical leader who became an American legend in a world that regularly suppressed black voices. Grant Still’s early days were spent in Little Rock, Arkansas where his mom moved after his father’s early death. His stepdad was a record collector and both his stepdad and mother encouraged Still’s interest in music. Though Still planned to study medicine, his love of music intensified during his time at Wilberforce College in Ohio - especially after he heard a live orchestra for the first time at Oberlin .
William Grant Still led a life full of “firsts.” He was the first black composer to conduct a major symphony orchestra in the U.S. (Los Angeles Philharmonic), to direct a major symphony orchestra in the Deep South (New Orleans Philharmonic), to conduct a major American network radio orchestra, to have an opera produced by a major American company (“A Bayou Legend” 1941), and to have an opera televised over a national network in the U.S. (“A Bayou Legend” on PBS in1981). Notable works include Symphony No. 3 “Sunday Symphony” (1958), Afro-American Symphony (1931), Mother and Child (1943).
5. Julia Perry (1924 – 1979)
Julia Amanda Perry was a remarkable and prolific composer who grew up in Lexington, Kentucky during the civil rights era. During her career, Perry was acknowledged as one of a few significant American composers, never mind black or female! After completing her Master of Music degree at Westminster Choir College, Perry’s compositional talent began to blossom and spurred her on to study with both Luigi Dallapiccola and Nadia Boulanger. Perry won the Boulanger Grand Prix for her Viola Sonata in 1952 and later, two Guggenheim Fellowship awards. Perry suffered the first of two strokes in 1971, which required her to learn to write with her left hand in order to compose. During her much too short life, she completed 12 symphonies, two concertos, three operas, and numerous smaller pieces. Julia Amanda Perry died at the age of 55 in Akron, Ohio. Notable compositions include Stabat Mater (1947), Short Piece for Orchestra (1952), and Pastoral (1962).
6. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)
British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was the first major classical composer of African descent. His father Daniel Peter Hughes (D.P.H.) Taylor was originally from Freetown, Sierra Leone and had been rescued from transport into American slavery by the British navy. Once in London, D.P.H. Taylor studied medicine, but later returned to Africa after his background apparently discouraged potential patients. It is unclear if D.P. H. knew about his son, Samuel, as he left London before Alice Hare Martin gave birth.
As a young boy, Coleridge-Taylor devoted himself to the violin with voracity - as music was his outlet for coping with racial insults at school. Through hard work and perseverance, at age 15 he entered the Royal College of Music in London. It was during this time that Coleridge-Taylor became interested in composition as well as violin performance. By the time he finished his studies in 1897, he was well on his way for being known as a composer. Edward Elgar, the lead British composer at the time, recommended Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade in A minor for orchestra to be performed at the 1898 Three Choirs Festival, one of Britain’s most prestigious venues.
He married fellow Royal College Music student, Jessie Walmisley, in 1899 and the pair had two children: Hiawatha, born in 1900, and Gwendolyn (known as Avril), born in 1903. To support his family, Coleridge-Taylor took on a variety of high-profile posts including principal conductor at the Handel Society of London and professorships at the Trinity College of Music, the Crystal Palace School of Art and Music, and the Guildhall School of Music. He died much too early from pneumonia at the age of 37. Notable works include Ballade in A minor, op 33 (1898), Symphony in A minor, op. 9 (1896), and Hiawatha Overture (1899).
7. Ruth Gipps (1921 -1999)
Ruth Gipps was one of the most prolific British composers at the time of her death. She wrote five symphonies and seven concertos, as well as numerous chamber and choral works. She founded both the London Repertoire Orchestra and the Chanticleer Orchestra, and served as music director for the City of Birmingham Choir. She considered herself an honorary male and preferred to not emphasize and align herself with the “women left behind.” Her music is filled with passion and drive. I find her second symphony the most fascinating!Her Symphony No. 2 is a work in three sections intended to represent her life before the outbreak of war. Her musical perspective beautifully describes a young woman at the beginning of her creative life. It then follows the consequences from the outbreak of war: woman in love (separated from her husband), now living with fear and isolation while dealing with everyday life. At the end of the work, life returns to normal and with a positive outlook (including the prospect of children and a career). Notable works are Symphony No. 2, op. 30 (1945), Symphony No. 4, op. 61 (1972), Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, Op. 58 (1968), and Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for Mixed Chorus and Organ, Op. 55 (1959).
8. William Dawson (1899 - 1990)
William Levi Dawson was an American composer of African descent. Born in Anniston, Alabama, Dawson was the first of seven children. His father was a former slave and an illiterate day laborer. At age 13, Dawson ran away from home to study music full-time at the Tuskegee Institute (now University). Dawson became a music librarian and manual laborer to pay his tuition. He was a member of the band and orchestra, and began to compose for the Tuskegee Singers. By the time he graduated from high school, he had learned how to play most instruments.
Dawson went on to earn a B.A. in music theory and composition at the Horner Institute of Fine Arts in Kansas City and later received his master’s degree at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, Illinois. He was known for infusing West African folk music into his compositions.
Dawson, best known for his choral music, also made important contributions to the orchestral repertoire – particularly basing his works in or arranging African-American Spirituals. Notable works include Negro Folk Symphony (1934), Hail Mary (arr. William Dawson), and Ezekiel Saw the Wheel (arr. William Dawson).
9. Louise Farrenc (1804 – 1875)
Farrenc grew up in Paris surrounded by sculptors, painters, and artistic women. Her musical talents were encouraged by Muzio Clementi and Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and by the age of 15, she began studies at the Paris Conservatory. After completing her studies, she embarked on a solo career, had a family, and later in life became the first woman to be appointed as Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory - a position she held for thirty years. Considered to be one of the greatest piano professors in Europe, she was also the only female professor at the Paris Conservatory during the entire 19th century. One of my favorite aspects of Farrenc is that she battled for equitable pay at the Paris Conservatory and she WON! Despite being paid less than her male colleagues for ten years, it was after the brilliant premiere of her “Nonet” when she demanded and received equal pay. Farrenc wrote numerous orchestral, vocal, and chamber works including three symphonies and two overtures. All of her works are excellent. Here are several of my favorites: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 32 (1842), Symphony No. 3 in g minor, op. 36 (1847), and Overture in Eb, op 24 (1834)
10. Carlos Chávez - Full name, Carlos Antonio de Padua Chávez y Ramírez (1899 – 1978)
As a Mexican composer, conductor, and educator, Chávez absorbed elements of his native Mexican culture into the fabric of his music and life. The ballet El fuego nuevo (1921) was his first significant work in the Mexican style. After travelling to Europe and the United States, he founded and became the conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Mexico. His music is filled with a juxtaposition of Mexican melodic patterns and rhythmic inflections alongside influences by modern European and American composers, especially Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. Notable works include Sinfonia India (1935), Sinfonía de Antígona (1933), and Suite de Caballos de Vapor (1926-32) or in English, Horse Power Suite.