From a young age I have always been around music. I started playing the piano when I was 10 years old as it was an instrument I had always been drawn to. Claude Debussy, Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt – this trio of romanticists were circulated constantly throughout my musical education (and very much still are). But just like myself, you probably hadn’t heard of Florence Price, George Walker and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. These are three of the most influential black composers who have helped shape landmark moments in classical music. Their names and their legacies have been forgotten and they’ve never been properly celebrated up until today. So why is this? It’s due to the unequivocal fact that classical music has purposely been deemed as the music of white people and this assumption has been passed around for generations.
Classical music is an art form produced by the traditions of Western culture that dates back to the early 19th century. It’s a tradition that lives on in music scores for concerts, film, TV and video-games to name a few. However, it has also traditionally been associated with white composers and white audiences. This racial make-up extends to the orchestras and smaller ensembles that play this music which is not reflective of our world. There are significant barriers to participation due to race and equally disability and gender. The composers mentioned above were marginalised because of the colour of their skin, and in Florence’s case, her gender as well. They can easily be compared to the likes of Beethoven and Mozart, but sadly this has not been the case. These barriers also extend to musical genres with black artists being pigeonholed. No matter how eclectic or experimental their sound is, they are categorised as Jazz, R&B or Rap.
For years, I have been attending and participating in concerts and always wondered why almost everyone in the orchestra is white and why there wasn’t any music written by black classical composers that I could play. It’s not that there weren’t any, it’s just that their music wasn’t accessible. Their music was kind of like the small print you see (or don’t see) on a contract or an instruction manual – It’s there but it’s your job to recognise that it’s there and up until now, I had never noticed nor tried to notice. With that being said, it is amazing to see that the classical music sector is making moves to address its lack of diversity.
The Chicago Sinfonietta was founded in 1987 with diversity at the forefront of its mission. The director of the orchestra, Riccardo Muti, is currently looking to reopen Chicago’s classical music scene with the hope that there will be an increased diversity in the industry. In the Chicago Sun Times, he states that it is the fault of the industry for giving the impression that the classical music culture is a culture of an elite, of superior people and of refined people which isn’t true, “… orchestras for a long time have really been complicit and we haven’t really tended to explore and figure out how to change and how to be a constructive participant in the equitable, anti-racist way of doing business”. The orchestra is working with the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative, an organisation working to achieve increased diversity in orchestras through music programmes for primary and secondary school students. Funding is provided for private tuition, summer activities and purchasing an instrument; a pathway to a musical career, which a lot of talented individuals from diverse backgrounds miss out on. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is also working hard to do the same; their Talent Development Program provides 25 young Black and Latinx musicians with musical training each academic year, including private tuition and one-on-one coaching in preparation for a career in classical music. In the UK, Toks Dada, the Head of Classical Music at Southbank Centre, is a music programmer, curator and producer who is dedicated to engaging new and diverse audiences with classical music. As an advocate for change, one of his latest projects include working with Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and BBC Radio 3 to help shine a light on works written by black classical composers and ensuring their public recognition.
Currently, Black and ethnic minorities make up around 1.6% of the orchestras in the UK despite roughly 15% of the population identifying as BME; The Chineke! Foundation is striving to change this. Founded by Chi-chi Nwanoku, it was created to provide career opportunities to established and up-and-coming Black and ethnically diverse classical musicians. Its flagship ensemble, the Chineke! Orchestra, is the UK and Europe’s first majority-Black and ethnically diverse orchestra comprising 62 BME musicians performing a mixture of standard orchestral pieces and the works of Black and ethnically diverse composers.
“My aim is to create a space where Black and ethnically diverse musicians can walk on stage and know that they belong, in every sense of the word. If even one Black and ethnically diverse child feels that their colour is getting in the way of their musical ambitions, then I hope to inspire them, give them a platform, and show them that music, of whatever kind, is for all people.”
– Chi-chi Nwanoku.
When I read this quote, there are two things that come to mind; I wish I had seen this sooner and I’m happy that someone is seeing this now. There was always that discouraging reality when I was performing, looking into the audience and not seeing anyone who looked like me. Not only that, it would lead me to make the conscious decision to never join an orchestra long term as it felt like it wasn’t a space that was for people who looked like me.
It is clear now more than ever that classical music benefits significantly from the innovation and energy which comes from more inclusivity. Part of achieving this goal is constantly pushing for musicians from backgrounds that have traditionally been left out, and giving them more opportunities to showcase their talent. It’s about ensuring that repertoire from composers like Florence Price, George Walker and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor are widely accessible and included in classical music programming. I’m hopeful through the various classical music engagement/educational programmes and opportunities mentioned above (and there are definitely more), it will help bring about change as we seek to sustain and further diversify one of the most beautiful art forms.
Here’s a playlist featuring the black composers classical music forgot: