Below is a brief, and still very incomplete, chronology of some significant events involving African American vocal soloists or performing groups, composers, and authors/publishers of books related to vocal music. Please use the contact form if you wish to suggest other entries.
1791 – Composer and vocalist Newton Gardner (1746-1826) opens one the first black-owned singing school in the United States.
1853 – Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (ca. 1824-1876), known as the “Black Swan,” makes her New York debut at the Metropolitan Hall. Because African Americans are denied admission to the concert, she gives an additional performance at the Broadway Tabernacle.
1854 – Greenfield sings in a command performance before Queen Victoria of England.
1867 – Slave Songs of the United States, a collection of plantation songs and spirituals compiled by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, is published.
1871 – Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, begin their first tour.
1878 – James M. Trotter (1842-1892) publishes Music and Some Highly Musical People, which represents the first overview of African American music: popular, folk, and concert.
1883 – Marie Selika Williams (ca. 1849-1937) gives a command performance for Queen Victoria.
1886 – Amelia Tilghman becomes the first African American publisher and editor of a music magazine, The Musical Messenger.
1892 – The World’s Fair Colored Opera Company, with featured singer, soprano Matilda Sissieretta Jones (1869-1933), became the first African American group to perform at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. They appeared less than one year after the hall’s opening.
1892 – Sissieretta Jones, known as the “Black Patti,” sang before Benjamin Harrison, president of the United States.
1900 – Composer J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) and writer James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) penned the music and words of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
1914 – The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) forms, with James Weldon Johnson and composer/baritone Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949) as charter members.
1916 – H. T. Burleigh publishes the first art song arrangements of spirituals, Jubilee Songs of the United States.
1919 – The National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) held its first convention in Chicago, Illinois.
1921 – Tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977) gave a command performance before King George V of England
1925 – Bass-baritone Paul Robeson (1898-1976), accompanied by pianist Lawrence Brown, gave the first recital of all Negro spirituals and worksongs at the Greenwich Village Theatre, New York, New York.
1927 – Lillian Evanti (1890-1967) debutted in the title role of Delibes’ opera, Lakmé, in Nice, France
1930 – Caterina Jarboro (1903-1986) debutted in the title role in the Verdi opera, Aida, at the Puccini Theater, Milan, Italy.
1933 – Composer Hall Johnson‘s (1888-1970) opera, Run Little Chillun, was the first Black folk opera produced on Broadway.
1934 – Four Saints in Three Acts, music by Virgil Thomson and libretto by Gertrude Stein, was the first opera with an all-African American cast performed on Broadway. The cast included baritone Edward Matthews, sopranos Ruby Greene and Inez Matthews, and tenor Charles Holland, along with The Eva Jessye Choir, directed by Eva Jessye.
1935 – George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway, with baritone Todd Duncan (1903-1998) as Porgy, and sopranos Anne Brown (1912-2009) as Bess and Ruby Elzy (1908-1943) as Serena.
1936 – Negro Musicians and Their Music, an historical account of African American musical performers and styles, is published shortly after the death of its author, Maud Cuney Hare (1874-1936).
1939 – Contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) gave a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her use of Constitution Hall. The program drew a crowd of 75,000 and millions of radio listeners.
1945 – Todd Duncan became the first African American to sing with a major American opera company, the New York City Opera, in the role of Tonio in Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci
1946 – Soprano Camilla Williams (1922-2012) signed a contract with the New York City Opera, the first African American to do so with a major American opera company. Her debut with the company was as the title role in Madama Butterfly.
1947 – Soprano Helen Phillips (ca. 1919-2005) became the first African American to sing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera when she was hired as a substitute chorister for performances of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.
1948 – Roland Hayes published a collection of folksongs entitled, My Songs: Afraamerican Religious Folk Songs.
1949 – Troubled Island, an opera by William Grant Still (1895-1978), became the first opera composed by an African American to be performed by a major American opera company, the New York City Opera.
1951 – William Warfield (1920-2002) and Muriel Rahn (1911-1961) became the first African American concert artists presented on television when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show
1953 – Soprano and educator Dorothy Maynor (1910-1996) performed the U.S. National Anthem at the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower. This was the first time an African American sang at an American inaugural.
1953 – Soprano Lenora Lafayette (1926-1975) was the first African American to sing in a leading role with the Royal Opera House in London’s Covert Garden, taking on the title role in their production of Verdi’s Aida
1953 – Soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs (1925-2015) became the first African American to sing at La Scala in the role of Elvira in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algieri. She was selected for the role at the request of conductor Herbert von Karajan.
1955 – Marian Anderson became the first African American to sing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, when she appeared in the role of Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera, by Verdi. She would perform the same role on the Met Radio Broadcast later that year.
1955 – Robert McFerrin (1921-2006) made his Met debut (the first African American male to do so) as Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida.
1955 – Tenor Charles Holland (1909-1987) became the first African American to perform at L’Opera Comique in Paris, appearing as Nadir in Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.
1955 – Leontyne Price (b. 1927) appeared on NBC television in the title role of Puccini’s Tosca, the first time an African American sang in an opera telecast.
1956 – Mattiwilda Dobbs became the first soprano to sing a principal role on the Metropolitan Opera stage in her debut role as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto.
1960 – The soundtrack from the film version of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess received the 1959 Grammy award for Best Soundtrack Album, Original Cast, Motion Picture or Television. Robert McFerrin voiced the role of Porgy, soprano Adele Addison (b. 1925) sang Bess, and Inez Matthews (1917-2004) performed the role of Serena on the soundtrack.
1961 – Soprano Gloria Davy (1931-2012) was the first African American to sing the title role in Verdi’s opera, Aida, with the Metropolitan Opera.
1961 – Soprano/mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry (b. 1937) became the first African American to sing at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany when she sang the role of Venus in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.
1963 – Dorothy Maynor opened the Harlem School of the Arts in community center of St. James Presbyterian Church, New York City, beginning with 20 students. By her retirement as its executive director in 1979, the school had grown to 40 instructors with over 1,000 students and had moved into a new, 37,000 square foot facility.
1963 – The cast of the 1963 NBC broadcast of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera written specifically for presentation on television, included bass-baritone Willis Patterson (b. 1930) as King Balthazar.
1966 – Leontyne Price, along with Justino Díaz, created the title roles in Samuel Barber’s opera, Antony and Cleopatra. The opera was commissioned especially for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s new facilities at Lincoln Center.
1972 – Treemonisha premiered 55 years after the death of the opera’s composer, Scott Joplin (1868-1917), at the Atlanta (Georgia) Memorial Arts Center. Cast included Alpha Floyd (Treemonisha), Louise Parker (Monisha), Seth McCoy (Remus), and Simon Estes (Ned).
1975 – Dorothy Maynor became the first African American member of the Metropolitan Opera board.
1975 – The 1951 recording of Porgy and Bess, with bass-baritone Lawrence Winters (1915–1965) and Camilla Williams in the title roles, is induced into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
1976 – Scott Joplin received a special Pulitzer Prize posthumously for his contributions to American music.
1976 – The first complete recording of Porgy and Bess won the Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. The cast included Willard White (Porgy), Leona Mitchell (Bess), Francois Clemmons (Sportin’ Life), McHenry Boatwright (Crown), Florence Quivar (Serena), Barbara Hendricks (Clara), Barbara Conrad (Maria).
1977 – The Houston Grand Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess won the Tony Award for Best Revival (Musical)–with five other nominations for acting and technical awards. The recording from this production, featuring baritone Donnie Ray Albert (b. 1950) and soprano Clamma Dale (b. 1948) in the title roles, also received the Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording.
1978 – Simon Estes (b. 1938) became the first male African American to sing a major role on the stage at Bayreuth, performing the title role in Wagner’s Der fliegende Hollander
1996 – Composer George Walker (1922-2018) received the Pulitzer Prize for Lilacs, a work for soprano and orchestra commissioned by the Boston Symphony as part of its tribute to tenor Roland Hayes. This marked the first time an African American had won the prize for music.
1997 – The African American Art Song Alliance was founded by countertenor and music educator Darryl Taylor in an effort to disseminate information through the Internet and regular conferencing on vocal music by black composers, as well as the performers and scholars most responsible for the spreading of this important art.
2001 – Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves (b. 1964) was the featured singer at the National Prayer Service held at the Washington National Cathedral following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon, and the downing of United Airlines Flight 93 in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
2005 – Baritone Robert Sims and vocalist Odetta presented the first all spirituals/folk song recital at Carnegie Hall’s new Zankel Hall.
2007 – Lost Sounds, the companion audio compact disc to the book, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919, by Tim Brooks, won the 2007 Grammy award for “Best Historical Release.” The recording included performances by H. T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, and Edward Boatner.
2019 – The Metropolitan Opera’s record-breaking production of the George Gershwin folk opera, Porgy and Bess–only the company’s third staging since the opera’s 1935 premiere, was given a previously unprecedented expansion of performances for the 2019-20 season. The production featured Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the title roles, Frederick Ballentine (Sporting Life), Alfred Walker (Crown), Golda Schultz (Clara), Latonia Moore (Serena), Chancey Packer (Robbins) and Denyce Graves (Maria).
To cite this page:
Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: December 13, 2019. Accessed:. http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/chronology.