Classical music has been loved and adored throughout the world—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach and Frédéric Chopin are just some of the great names that come to mind when one mentions classical music. While their contributions are immeasurable, have you ever heard of Chevalier de Saint-Georges? What about George Walker? How about Chiquinha Gonzaga? No, well they were musical composers of Black heritage and the Rachel Barton Pine Foundation (RBPF) is making sure the next generation knows all about them in a fun and colorful way.
“Composers of African descent have created masterful, classical music for centuries, yet they continue to be underrepresented in concert programming and in classical music education,” said Rachel Barton Pine, founder of RBPF. “This absence silences a rich vein of works from global consciousness and obscures the true face of classical music.”
Pine was born and raised in Chicago, where she was introduced to music in church at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ.
“One day, when I was three, I heard some middle school-aged girls playing violin as part of worship,” said Pine. “I told my parents I wanted to play the violin and my parents eventually arranged for me to take lessons from a teacher in the neighborhood.”
She states that the violin became her identity as she eventually transitioned to being homeschooled, which left more time for her to perfect her craft. She made her professional debut at the age of seven, playing Haydn’s Violin Concerto in G Major with the Chicago String Ensemble.
“At age 10, I had the opportunity to solo with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,” said Pine. “Earlier that year, I had begun studying with Roland and Almita Vamos, two prominent teachers from the Oberlin Conservatory that maintained a pre-college studio in Chicago.
“I studied privately with the Vamoses through my late teens.”
Pine competed in a number of international competitions including the Queen Elisabeth (Brussels, 1993), Kreisler (Vienna, 1992), Szigeti (Budapest, 1992), and Montreal (1991) International Violin Competition and received accolades for her interpretation of the Paganini Caprices at both the Szigeti Competition and the 1993 Paganini International Violin Competition in Genoa.
In 1992, she competed in the J.S. Bach International Competition in Leipzig, Germany and became the first American and youngest violinist, at age of 17, to win the gold medal.
“My father was often unemployed throughout my childhood,” said Pine. “Starting in my teens, I used my earnings from music jobs to help support my family.
“Because of this, I was never able to attend college, however, I had the opportunity to do a lot of university-level music education during my high school years.”
In 1997, Pine released an album, “Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries” on Cedille Records, which was a collection of historic compositions by Afro-Caribbean and Afro-European composers from classical and romantic eras.
“I soon found myself sitting on diversity panels and fielding questions from students, parents, teachers, and colleagues about where to find more works by Black composers,” said Pine.
She founded RBPF in 2001 as a charitable organization providing services and funding for classical music education, research, performances, and artists to benefit listeners and learners alike.
RBPF started the Music by Black Composers (MBC) project in an effort to create curricular materials for young classical musicians, professional performers, educators, and others. RBPF has collected more than 900 works, spanning four centuries by more than 350 Black composers, both men and women from North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, Europe and Africa.
“The MBC coloring book is a fairly recent idea, inspired by my own experience as a parent of a young musician,” said Pine. “There are 40 composers, 10 of whom are women.”
In this unique coloring book, youth will find the 18th Century Afro-French composer, Chevalier de Saint-Georges known as ‘The Black Mozart,’ the 19th Century Afro-Brazilian composer, Chiquinha Gonzaga, who was the first woman to conduct an orchestra in Brazil, the 20th Century African-American composer, George Walker, who was the first Black composer to win a Pulitzer, and the 21th Century African-American composer, Michael Abels, who wrote the soundtrack for the recent hit film “Get Out.”
“All of the drawing is by Dallas Symphony Orchestra violinist, Sho-mei Pelletier, and she cleverly includes cool facts about each composer in their image, usually hidden among their clothing,” said Pine. “The coloring book also includes a biography of each of the 40 composers.”
In addition to “Coloring Book of Black Composers”, the RBPF has released their first sheet music book, “Violin Volume 1,” which is for beginner through elementary level students. It’s a collection of 22 pieces by Black men and women from the 18th-21st centuries, representing North and South America, the Caribbean, Europe and Africa.
“We have also published a timeline poster showing 300 Black composers from four centuries,” said Pine.
Diversity is still a key word and continues to be embraced and explored. RBPF’s coloring book serves as a timely bridge to introduce not only youth but Black youth to Black musicians. Pine shared the importance of diversity and how it changes the landscape when youth see themselves represented.
“It’s really important for any Black person who is interested in classical music to know that this is not someone else’s music,” said Pine. “And it’s really important for all of us to know about these vital voices of our past and present.
“It’s a struggle for artists and enthusiasts of color to participate in an art form in which they do not appear to belong, perpetuating a lack of diversity on stage and among audiences.
“Our goal is that through exposure to these composers and their music, current and future generations of performers, presenters and audience members will expect and demand that music on our concert stages be ethnically diverse and a full representation of the human experience.”
RBPF’s MBC website features a free directory of more than 170 living Black composers. The directory provides information about already-existing works, and encourages visitors to get to know composers for consideration for new commissions.
“I’d like to quote a friend, the composer Billy Childs, who said when asked about the Music by Black Composers publications, ‘I hope it makes projects like it obsolete.’
“It would be wonderful if we as a society get to a place where we call masterful music written by Black composers ‘masterful music by composers,’” said Pine.
The coloring book, as well as MBC Violin Volume 1, is available at Shar Music online: https://www.sharmusic.com/Accessories/Books-DVDs/Coloring-Book-Of-Black-Composers.axd
For more information about the Rachel Barton Pine Foundation, please visit https://www.rbpfoundation.org/