Playlist: 11 Black Performers Instrumental to Classical Music

By Adela Skowronski |

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[L-R] George Bridgetower, Hazel Scott, Jessye Norman, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason (Photo: Jake Turney)

Scores of Black musicians have left their mark on classical music over the years, breaking down racial barriers, inspiring pieces of art, and pushing forward a genre that has often fought their inclusion. Put simply, we wouldn’t be where we are today without their talents.

In honor of Black History Month, here are just a few Black performers that we think you should know.

Research and discover some of your own favorites!

1. George Bridgetower

Violinist (1778-1860)

George Bridgetower

  • One of the first international music stars of African descent
  • Performed in royal halls across England (including King George III)
  • Collaborated often with Beethoven upon his arrival in Vienna
  • Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata was originally dedicated to Bridgetower, but Beethoven changed the dedication after a heated argument that forever strained the pair’s relationship.

2. Roland Hayes

Lyric tenor and composer (1887-1977)

  • Highest paid tenor in the world during the 1920s
  • First African American man to win international opera awards
  • First Black opera singer to record on a Columbia label CD (1939)
  • Received numerous honorary doctoral degrees and the NAACP Spingarn Medal
  • Taught at Boston University during his later years

3. Marian Anderson

Contralto (1897-1993)

Marian Anderson

  • First African American artist to sign to RCA (1924)
  • Gained international recognition by the 1930’s thanks to a European tour
  • First African American artist to perform at the White House (1930s)
  • First person to perform a solo show outside of the Lincoln Memorial: a show that Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt specifically requested her to do. The performance was broadcast to millions over the radio and inspired many racial justice activists, including a 10-year old Martin Luther King Jr, who later commemorated the performance in a speech.
  • First African American artist to perform with the Metropolitan Opera (1955)
  • Honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991

Camila Williams

4. Camilla Williams

Soprano (1919-2012)

  • First Black woman to secure a contract with a major US opera company (New York City Opera)
  • Soloist with many of the world’s leading orchestras including the New York Philharmonic
  • Most famous for her operatic roles, but also thrived performing jazz
  • First African American artist to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera
  • Joined voice faculty at Indiana University in 1977

Hazel Scott

5. Hazel Scott

Jazz and classical pianist (1920-1981)

  • Received a scholarship from the Juilliard School of Music to study privately under piano faculty members
  • First African American person to host her own TV special
  • Performed in various concert halls around the US
  • Perhaps best known for “jazzing up the classics” by improvising over classical favorites
  • Also famous for playing two pianos at once, which Alicia Keys paid tribute to in 2019

6. Henry Lewis

Double bassist and conductor (1932-1996)

  • Joined the LA Philharmonic at age 16
  • First Black instrumentalist in a major symphony orchestra
  • Appointed assistant conductor of the LA Philharmonic by Zubin Mehta in 1961
  • Became first Black music director of a major American orchestra in 1968 (New Jersey Symphony)
  • First African American conductor to direct the Metropolitan Opera in 1972
  • Posthumously inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2015

7. Jessye Norman

Soprano (1945-2019)

Jessye Norman (Walters Art Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

  • One of the most famous singers of the 20th century
  • Continually performed with the top orchestras around the world
  • Five-time Grammy Award winner
  • Honorary ambassador to the United Nations
  • Kennedy Center Honoree and Winner of the National Medal of the Arts
  • Hailed by Met as one of the greatest voices in the last half-century

André Watts

8. André Watts

Classical pianist (1946-2023)

  • Entered first piano competition at the age of 9
  • Appeared on Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert Series with the NY Philharmonic at the age of 16
  • Performed as a soloist with many of America’s finest orchestras
  • Filled in for Glenn Gould in 1963 when the latter canceled a performance with NY Phil
  • Youngest person ever to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University (at age 26)
  • Shifted focus to teaching after a series of minor surgeries in the early 2000s
  • Longtime professor at Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University

    9. Aaron Dworkin

    Violinist, composer, and music educator (1970- )

    • Founder of the Sphinx Organization - an organization supporting underrepresented communities in the classical music world through scholarships, fundraising, and promotional opportunities
    • Appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Council on the Arts in 2015
    • Dean of the University of Michigan School of Music until 2017
    • Host of nationally broadcast Arts Engine show
    • As a composer, has collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma, Damien Sneed, Minnesota Orchestra, and more
    • Art projects have been exhibited in multiple galleries and museums

    10. Anthony McGill

    Clarinetist (1979- )

    Anthony McGill #taketwoknees

    Anthony McGill (Photo: David Finlayson)

    • In 2014, became the first Black principal artist in NY Philharmonic history
    • Performed at President Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration with Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and Gabriela Montero
    • Faculty member at the Juilliard School
    • Born and raised in Chicago, Anthony and his brother Demarre (principal flute at the Seattle Symphony) are both alumni of the Merit School of Music and Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras

    11. Sheku Kanneh-Mason

    Cellist (1999- )

    Sheku Kanneh-Mason (Photo: Jake Turney)

    • First cellist in history whose album reached the top 10 albums on the UK Official Album Chart
    • Won 2016 BBC Young Musician Competition, released two albums, played around the world including Carnegie Hall
    • Received international recognition for playing solo cello at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle when he was just 21 years old
    • Currently a full-time student at the Royal Academy of Music
    • Frequently records and performs classical music with his siblings as the Kanneh-Mason Family