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The Influence of African Musicians on Classical Music

Western classical music, by its very definition, is rooted in the sacred and secular traditions of the western world, centred around Europe. Although the genre has been influenced throughout history by folk song, jazz and music from other continents such as America and China, it rarely diverges far from its Western identity.

Much like Western music outside the ‘classical’ box, African music is incredibly diverse, varying greatly by region. There is lots of opportunity for creative inspiration.

In his 2006 book, Listening to Artifacts: Music Culture in Ancient Israel/Palestine, Theodore Burgh suggests that classical music ultimately has its roots in North Africa, in the art music of Ancient Egypt, as well as other ancient cultures such as Greece. However, there seems, at first glance, little evidence of African influence in classical music. When it is found, for example in Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, it is generally Afro-American in origin, interpreted in a western-dominated form of music.

When explored, the contribution of black composers and musicians, and the influence of African music, forms a fascinating part of classical music history.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Probably the first and perhaps best-known classical composer of African descent, Saint-Georges was the illegitimate son of a Guadeloupe plantation owner, Bologne de Saint-Georges, and his mistress, an African slave girl of probable Senegalese birth called Nanon.

A contemporary of Mozart, Saint-Georges was barred from sharing his father’s French noble status because he was black, but his father ensured he was educated as an aristocrat. He studied fencing with a famous swordsman, becoming a champion fencer. He learned harpsichord, and he studied violin with one of the famous French virtuosi, Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder. His success both as a musician and athlete made him famous, but while religious leaders were agitating for an end to slavery, interracial marriages were still forbidden, and his skin colour built him an ambivalent status in society.

Although close to Queen Marie Antoinette, Saint-Georges was refused the prestigious post of director of the Paris Opéra, for which he was considered in 1775, because two of the company’s leading sopranos objected and successfully petitioned the Queen against his appointment on the ground of his race. Even so, he was a major star in Paris in the 1770s, nicknamed “Le Mozart Noir” on concert posters, often sharing equal billing with Mozart.

The later part of Saint-Georges’ life was disrupted by the French Revolution. Although he had been active in campaigning against slavery and sympathised with the democratic aims of the revolution, his aristocratic background meant he was not trusted.

He continued performing and directing up to his death, and he was remained famous enough to attract large crowds. However, living alone, he contracted a bladder infection and died on June 10, 1799.

Commemorative editions of his music were published, but within a short time, new restrictions on blacks came into force across France and its empire. Slavery had been abolished in 1794, but was re-imposed by Napoleon Bonaparte. Under Bonaparte’s regime, Saint-George and his music were removed from orchestra repertoires, wiping him from the history books for nearly 200 years.

His profile has risen in recent years thanks to concerts by ensembles including the Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment, but he has not yet regained the equal footing he held with Mozart among classical music fans.

Embracing Ideas in the Romantic Period and Beyond

Towards the end of the 19th century, composers were looking towards different cultures for inspiration. Antonín Dvořák’s interest in themes from the ‘new world’ is well documented. His move to New York brought him directly into contact with Afro-American music.

In fact, Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, From the New World, written in 1893, contains some of the most famous examples of Afro-American themes in classical music. But Dvořák’s themes are not actually of Afro-American origin. The composer wrote accurate imitations of the pentatonic melodies, a technique which he also used in his American string quartet.

Interestingly, these compositions were pretty much contemporaneous with an emerging style of music in North America called ragtime.

Ragtime descended from the jigs and marching music played by African American bands, referred to as “jig piano” or “piano thumping”. Rags by Scott Joplin such as The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag are still instantly recognisable, and Ragtime had a lasting influence on classical composers. Igor Stravinsky wrote a solo piano work called Piano-Rag-Music, while ragtime is evident in the works of Erik Satie, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and the other members of The Group of Six in Paris.

In 1930, William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony marked the first symphony by an African-American man. The work marries conventional classical forms with popular African styles, also referencing the blues. The bass line of the final movement moves from an F to a D-flat, resembling Dvořák’s New World Symphony.

The following epigraph, from African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1896 work, Ode to Ethiopia, appears with the fourth movement:

Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul,

Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll

In characters of fire.

High ‘mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky,

Thy banner’s blazoned folds now fly,

And truth shall lift them higher.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

The composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is considered to be the only black composer to have broken through from the Romantic era. Born to a Sierra Leonean father, Coleridge-Taylor was from Holborn, London. He incorporated black traditional music with classical music, with such compositions as African Suite, African Romances and Twenty Four Negro Melodies. The first performance of his work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, was described by the principal of the Royal College of Music as, “One of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history.” Despite this success, Coleridge-Taylor’s music is out of fashion and all-but out of print.

Accepted to the Royal College of Music aged 15, despite concerns about his skin colour, he swapped violin studies for composition. His tutor was Charles Villiers Stanford. Stanford challenged his student to write a clarinet quintet without showing the influence of his favourite composer, Brahms. Coleridge-Taylor wrote the piece, and when this work was revived in 1973, the New York Times critic called it, “Something of an eye opener…an assured piece of writing in the post-Romantic tradition…sweetly melodic.”

Despite little modern recognition, his influence lives on: From 1903 to his death in 1912, he was professor of composition at the Trinity College of Music in London. However, violinist Philippe Graffin performed the violin concerto at the Proms in 2005, and the Nash Ensemble have recorded the composer’s piano quintet.

Modern Times

Modern classical music has been more influenced by African culture. John Cage’s 1940 work, Bacchanale was the first significant modern synthesis of African and Western music. It was also instrumental in the development of the prepared piano, as the composer sought out African sounds with only room on stage for a grand piano.

Other composers such as George Crumb, Ligeti and Steve Reich have explored African influences, while composers born in Africa include Nigerian composer Joshua Uzoigwe. A member of the Igbo ethnic group, many of Uzoigwe’s works draw on the traditional music of his people.

Classical music is far from reaching the limits of inspiration from African music, and it is far from incorporating the work of black composers on a level playing field. However, for centuries, composers and the curiosity of the creative mind have shown us that the more the classical music world stretches its knowledge beyond the boundaries of its own traditional culture, the more unique voices will be found.

If you would like to speak to the Music Workshop Company about booking a workshop inspired by African music, contact us today:

Samba – The Heartbeat of Brazil

Samba is the most typical, important and recognisable music of Brazil. It is common throughout Brazil, but is most frequently associated with urban Rio de Janeiro, where it developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. It is celebratory music, frequently identified with Carnival and the exotic, feathered dance outfits. Rio’s football grounds will come alive with samba music and dance during the 2016 Olympics.

[Image: Ian Gampon]

[Image: Ian Gampon]

The music and dance of samba originates in Africa, with its roots in the religious traditions of Angola, the Congo and Cape Verde, brought to South America via the West African slave trade. The Africans trafficked to Brazil belonged to two major groups: the West African and the Bantu people.

The origin of the word samba is uncertain. It is possible that it derives from semba, which is a popular form of music and dance in Angola, but the word semba means dance in only two Bantu languages.

One of the oldest records of the word samba appeared in 1938 in an article by Father Miguel Lopes Gama of Sacramento who was writing against what he called the samba d’almocreve, a kind of dance drama popular among black people of that time.

And according to author Hiram Araújo, who has written extensively on the history of the Carnival, samba was a name for the festival of dances held by slaves in Bahia.

In the mid 19th century, the word samba defined various types of music and dance made by African slaves. This music was from different kinds of batuque – African music and dance originally performed for specific social and ceremonial occasions. But samba assumed different characteristics in each Brazilian state depending on the cultural heritage of the Africans in that region.

Early styles of samba, in particular samba de roda, can be traced back to the Recôncavo region of Bahia where religious ceremonies were followed by informal dancing. But it was in Rio that the music and dance practiced by former slaves who migrated from Bahia became integrated with other musical genres; the polka, the maxixe, the lundu and the xote.

Modern samba developed only at the end of the 1920s, and as it consolidated as an urban and modern expression, it found a place on radio stations, spreading across hills and neighbourhoods to the affluent southern areas of Rio de Janeiro.

Initially viewed unfavourably by the middle classes because it had roots in African music, the samba, with its hypnotic rhythms, melodic intonations and playful lyrics, became hugely popular, and in turn led to the development of new genres such as bossa nova.

Black women from Bahia were seen as free, bold women. They created something of a cultural revolution in Rio, and so samba acquired its own unique character and the samba schools were born.

[Image - Ian Gampon]

[Image – Ian Gampon]

Samba schools are large organisations of up to 5,000 people. They compete annually in the Carnival with thematic floats, elaborate costumes, and original music. The schools have a strong community basis and are traditionally associated with a particular neighbourhood. In Rio de Janeiro, the schools are often linked with particular shanty-towns.

The schools focus around various events, the most important of which is the annual carnival parade. During Carnival, samba boosts the Brazilian economy by around 500 million US dollars and creates approximately 300 thousand jobs in Rio alone.

Each school spends many months designing its theme, choosing the song, building a float and rehearsing. Fourteen of the top samba schools in Rio use a specially designed warehouse complex called Samba City to build and house their elaborate floats. Samba City, or Cidade do Samba, is the size of ten football pitches!

This video shows a samba drumming band in full swing.

To find out more about the instruments and rhythms of samba music, and to learn about how a samba band comes together, check out our blog The Samba Workshop – How It Works.

The Extraordinary History of the Blues

The Blues developed towards the end of the 19th Century. It was first heard among the African-American communities who farmed the plantations of the Delta, a flat plain between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, an area so characteristic of the Deep South that it has been called The Most Southern Place on Earth.

In the mid 1800s the area had been one of the richest for cotton growing in the United States, attracting many speculative farmers who were dependent for labour on black slaves. Many people, both black and white, migrated to the Delta, working to clear land and sell timber, buying their own land from the proceeds. By the end of the 19th century, black farmers made up two thirds of the independent farmers in the Mississippi Delta, but in 1890, legislation was passed by the predominantly white government, effectively robbing them of their land.

[Image Tom Hilton/Flikr]

[Image Tom Hilton/Flikr]

Blues music grew from African music, influenced by the folk music of white European settlers. The term African music is very vague – there are at least as many kinds of music in Africa as there are in Europe, but the majority of slaves traded with the Americas came from West Africa.

Music in Africa developed very differently from European music too. Where the key element of European music was melody, embellished with counterpoint and set to rhythm, West African music focused on rhythmic counterpoint and timbre – in a sense both being extensions of the languages of the people.

Under the confines of slavery, this music changed and grew into new forms. By the mid 1700s, slavery required a justification, and conversion of slaves to Christianity became popular, even compulsory in some places. Hence, alongside the work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants, and simple narrative ballads, there also developed spirituals.

The social and economic reasons for the appearance of the Blues are unclear. Its origins are often dated to between 1870 and 1900, after the Emancipation Act of 1863. During this period, people were moving from slavery to sharecropping, small-scale agricultural production, and the expansion of railroads in the southern United States created new possibilities.

mississippi railroad

The Blues, which has its roots in the work songs and spirituals, shows a move from group performances to a more individual style, perhaps associated with the newly acquired freedom of an enslaved people.

Key aspects of the Blues form are call-and-response, the blues scale and traditional chord progressions. The most common format is the Twelve bar Blues. The blue notes, where pitch is altered, often flattened, are also an important part of the sound.

Where European music uses the diatonic scale, West African music uses a pentatonic scale that contains only the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth tones of the diatonic scale. As the music of Europe and Africa merged, two new scales developed, the deviant pentatonic scale of Spiritual music and the expanded diatonic scale of Blues music. All of black music in America, and ultimately western pop music, subsequently grew out of these two scales.

The lyrics of early traditional Blues verses consisted of a single phrase repeated four times. In the early 20th Century this developed into an AAB pattern made up of one line sung over the four first bars, its repetition over the next four, and then a second, longer line of lyrics over the last bars. Often the theme of the lyrics focused around troubles or problems, which is perhaps where the name Blues came from.

The Blues is now defined in terms of chord structures and lyrical form, but it was originally much more general. It was simply the music of the rural south. Black and white musicians shared the same song repertoire, though these were still the days of segregation so audiences were often all white. The notion of the Blues as a genre in its own right really arose during the migration of black communities from the countryside to urban areas during the 1920s. The recording industry was booming –  the development of the coin-operated phonograph gave rise to juke-box arcades where people would go to dance and socialise after work – and many Blues songs were recorded to answer growing demand from black listeners.

Juke Joint
Twelve Bar Blues

The simplest form of Blues is the Twelve-bar Blues. It is usually a piece in 4/4 time and consists of 3 chords – chord I, IV and V.



So in the key of C major, the chords would be:



A good way to explore the sound of the Blues is to practice singing the chord progression, starting with singing the root or tonic of each chord, then repeating adding the third, then adding the fifth.

Blues often use the blues scale which is based on the pentatonic scale but with an additional blues passing note. In the key of C the blues scales would be the fifth mode of the Eb pentatonic:

C Eb F F# G Bb C

C Blues Scale

This sequence of notes can be played in any order over any of the chords in the C twelve-bar blues.

The styles, forms (12-bar-blues), melodies and scales of the Blues have had a huge influence on modern rock and roll, jazz and popular music. Prominent 20th century jazz, folk and rock performers, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Bob Dylan were known for performing Blues, but it also influenced musicians including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, who between them had an explosive influence on the entire history of pop.

And not only is the blues scale used in popular songs, it’s even made its way into orchestral works such as George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue:

One of the most famous Blues songs is Saint Louis Blues by W. C. Hardy, published in 1914 (one of the very first songs to be printed), performed here by Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton:

Early Rock and Roll songs such as Johnny B. Goode and Blue Suede Shoes clearly show the influence of the Blues, as does much R&B Music.

But perhaps the most prominent celebration of Blues came in 1980 in the film The Blues Brothers. The film brought together many of the biggest living influencers of the rhythm and blues genre, including James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker. In 1998, the sequel, Blues Brothers 2000, featured artists such as Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Erykah Badu and Jimmie Vaughan, and in 2003, Martin Scorsese created a documentary film called The Blues for PBS for which he enlisted the help of directors Clint Eastwood and Wim Wenders. It’s available in its entirety on YouTube, but here’s the trailer to give you a taste:

There’s loads more information about the blues here:

BBC Bitesize

How Did the Blues Influence Modern Music

Twelve Bar Blues 

You should now have plenty of ideas for listening and viewing to get a real taste of the Blues, but if you have any questions or would like to talk to the MWC team about booking one of our Blues workshops, get in touch, we’d love to hear from you. Don’t forget, October is Black History Month: A perfect chance to explore the fascinating history of this great music.

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