A Concert to Honor African American Composers

black and white portraits of late African American composers Florence Price and William Grant Still
black and white portrait of Florence Price, composer
Florence Price

Florence Price was the first African American woman composer to have a symphony performed by a major U.S. orchestra, when in 1933 the Chicago Symphony premiered her Symphony No. 1 in E minor.

Price was a groundbreaker for people of color, especially given that she was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas.

black and white protrait of William Grant Still, the late composer
William Grant Still
Photo by Carl Van Vechten

William Grant Still, born in 1895 in Mississippi, would become the first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra and the first to have an opera produced by a major opera company in the U.S. 

“Both of these composers are considered trailblazers in the U.S. classical music world but are unknown to classical musicians,” said Jane Christeson, voice professor for the Stetson University School of Music.

She and the School of Music have organized an African American Composers Concert for Tuesday, Feb. 4, to pay tribute to these seldom-heard composers in celebration of Black History Month. The concert is free and open to the public, and begins at 7:30 p.m. in Lee Chapel.

Stetson students and faculty will perform original music and spiritual arrangements by African American composers. One of Christeson’s students, senior baritone Matthew Harris, winner of First Prize in the Negro Spiritual Scholarship Foundation competition, will sing four pieces. The Stetson Concert Choir, conducted by School of Music Dean Timothy Peter, DMA, will perform “Amazing Grace.”

The Stetson Concert Choir will perform “Amazing Grace” for the African American Composers Concert Tuesday, Feb. 4, at 7:30 p.m.
Jane Christeson

Christeson, a mezzo-soprano who has performed around the world, said she was unaware of this classical repertoire until she moved to Daytona Beach in 1984. She became friends and performed with then Bethune-Cookman College voice professor Gail Robinson, PhD.

“I went to one of her recitals there and was blown away by some of the music that she performed by composers I had never heard of,” Christeson recalled. “She had attended Howard University in D.C. where there is a large repository of these musical scores, and many of them were, and still are, out of print, so she had brought with her a large amount of Xeroxed music, as well as some print material.”

portrait of composer Leslie Adams looking at sheet music
Composer Leslie Adams

In the 1990s, Christeson began organizing a concert at Stetson featuring music of African American composers. Working with School of Music Visiting Lecturer Kristie Born, DMA, she put on the concert over the next 20 years, but the audiences dwindled and became too small. With the help of Stetson faculty and music students, the School of Music is reviving the concert this year.

“I really wanted to do it here particularly for our African American students who do not know this body of literature even now,” Christeson said. “I continue to want other musicians to know that this music exists and should be performed.  I also think it’s important to have events at Stetson that recognize African American history during February, as the month dedicated to Black History.”

-Cory Lancaster