5 Works by Black Composers for Your Orchestra To Play in Black History Month

As you know, February is Black History Month. To celebrate many teachers like to program pieces by Black composers. We’re here to help. Whether you are looking for a beginning piece for middle-school orchestra or a more difficult, advanced piece for your high-school orchestra there will be something in this list for you.  

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Lift Every Voice and Sing is frequently called the “Black national anthem.” NAACP chairman Julian Bond noted “When people stand and sing it, you just feel a connectedness with the song, with all the people who’ve sung it on numerous occasions, happy and sad over the 100 years before.” Lift Every Voice and Sing was written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson. In 1905, it was set to music by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson. The first verse reads:

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.

This string orchestra arrangement by Bob Lipton is rated as grade 2, making it suitable a variety of performances. It also serves an excellent introduction to 6/8 time for middle school orchestras.

Symphony XI No. 2

A composer, virtuoso violinist, conductor, champion fencer, near victim of the Reign of Terror, the leader of the first all-Black military regiment in Europe, and the possible inspiration for Aramis in The Three Musketeers, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is a composer who more people should know about. Some of Europe’s top composers created works with him in mind as the soloist and he commissioned and conducted the premier of Haydn’s Paris symphonies (Nos. 82-87). This grade 3 string orchestra arrangement of Symphony XI No. 2 by educator, composer, arranger and clinician Reynard Burns is a perfect piece for your advanced middle school or early high school orchestra to take to competition. 

Ride That Chariot

Ride That Chariot is a medley of three spirituals, arranged for string orchestra. This arrangement also works well as a string quintet. Ride That Chariot opens with the well-known spiritual, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”. This is done in a style similar to Dvorak’s American String Quartet. The active interaction of the second violin and viola parts and the rhythmic exchanges between the cello and bass, provide rousing support for the first violin. The slower tempo and harmonic twists of “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen,” entice players to stretch their interpretation and creativity to convey this spiritual’s message. Closing with the invigorating “Ride That Chariot,” performers and audiences alike will enjoy the dynamic and rhythmic interaction of all instruments of the ensemble.

Solace: A Mexican Serenade

Scott Joplin, who became famous for his ragtime compositions and was called the “King of Ragtime,” was one of the most influential composers of his time. A pioneer composer and performer, he helped pave the way for Black artists to reach American audiences of all races. Unfortunately, the fact that he was African-American made it difficult for him to break through into the privileged world of classical music.

Solace makes use of a Habanera beat, highlighting the similar rhythmic attributes between ragtime and Latin music. This tune was one of the Joplin works featured on the soundtrack to The Sting, appearing during many of the more downbeat moments of the film.

Bethena (Concert Waltz)

Bethena is another Scott Joplin title that has been arranged for string orchestra. Bethena was written shortly after the untimely death of Joplin’s second wife. Not a success at the time, it gained new esteem as part of the revival of Joplin and ragtime music in general in the 1970s. 

As the title suggests, Bethena is in a 3/4 waltz time. It’s poignant, lyrical melody highlights Joplin’s skill as a classical composer.

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