Nine classical performances to help you celebrate Black History Month

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Composer William Grant Still became the first African-American conductor of a major orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in 1936. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

America's relationships with slavery, the civil rights movement and modern race-based challenges aren't the only things to think about for Black History Month. Members of the African diaspora, in the United States and around the world, have contributed to classical music since there was a "classical music." Here are nine notable performances of black pieces of music to explore.

William Grant Still: 'Summerland'

The first classical composer whose name usually comes up during Black History Month is William Grant Still. His legacy is strong, as the first Afro-American to have a work performed by a major orchestra. He also was the first black man to lead a major orchestra, and the first to have an opera produced in New York. Known as the "Dean of Afro-American Composers," Still's most famous composition is his 1930 Afro-American Symphony. There's so much more in his catalog, though, including this arrangement of a piano work he wrote in 1936, Summerland.

Astor Piazzolla: 'Libertango'

It's important to understand the ways in which the African diaspora has influenced all of the Americas. From the icy forests of northern Canada, to the tip of South America's Cape Horn, the black experience has influenced nearly all cultural music. The chamber ensemble, Imani Winds, gives a particular focus to Afro-Latin music in many of its recordings. This one, in particular, features music from Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla.

Joel Thomson: 'Seven Last Words of the Unarmed'

What is the role of classical music in a world mired by racial inequity and societal bigotry? Composer Joel Thompson answered that question with a work he wrote in 2016, recounting the final words of seven victims of police brutality. This performance of it was given as the finale to the 2017 Sphinx Connect Conference, which is a national convening of classical music professionals interested in diversity in the field.

Florence Price and Langston Hughes: 'At the Feet o' Jesus'

If William Grant Still is the father of Afro-American classical music, Florence Price is without a doubt its mother. She fell into relative obscurity after she died in 1953, but orchestras around the world are slowly beginning to rediscover what she's done for classical music. This recording is an example of Price tipping her hat to the Afro-American tradition of spirituals.

Julius Eastman: 'Crazy N-----'

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Julius Eastman works on a score. Donald Burkhardt

Some composers die with grand fanfare, while others leave this world almost unnoticed. New York-based composer Julius Eastman died in 1990 of cardiac arrest, following years of homelessness and drug abuse after his career began to slow down. These days, his most famous work is one with a highly controversial title — one he justified at the work's January 1980 premiere with the words:

What I mean [by the racial slur in the title] … is that thing which is fundamental, that person or thing that obtains a basicness, a fundamentalness, and eschews that thing which is superficial or, what can we say, elegant.

You can watch a video of the work, but note that the title does include the racial slur.

George Walker: 'Lyric for Strings'

Just last year, the world lost trailblazing composer George Walker. He achieved many firsts in his 96 years, including being the first black person to graduate from Philadelphia's Curtis Institute and being the first black person to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, in 1996. His 1946 Lyric for Strings remains his most performed and most celebrated work.

Undine Smith Moore: 'Watch and Pray'

Undine Smith Moore was a self-described "teacher who composes, rather than a composer who teaches." She touched the lives of countless students at Virginia State University before dying in 1989, and the catalog she left behind is a beautiful 20th-century look back at the spirituals that gave hope to so many.

Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Symphony Concertante in G

Widely known as "the black Mozart," Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was so much more. This famous fencer of the mid- to late 18th century led the French Revolution's first all-black unit and wrote music that perfectly matched, and sometimes innovated, the styles and aesthetics familiar to music fans during his time.

James Weldon Johnson: 'Lift Ev'ry Voice'

There's no Black History Month without a shout-out to James Weldon Johnson. History celebrates him most for his leadership of the NAACP in the late 1910s, and his outside work included writing, practicing law, teaching and composing. In 1899, he wrote the poem "Lift Ev'ry Voice," which his brother set to music. Today, it's still celebrated as the Negro National Anthem.

Related links

Black History Spotlight: Great figures in classical music

Regional Spotlight: Choral classics by black composers

Florence Price: Revisiting the pioneering composer

Learning to Listen: William Grant Still