Composers Who Changed Classical Music

1. Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745 – 1799)

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (December 25, 1745 – June 10, 1799) was a champion fencer, classical composer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris. Born in the French colony of Guadeloupe, he was the son of George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy married planter, and Anne dites Nanon, his wife’s African slave.

Nothing is known about Saint-Georges’s early musical training. Given his prodigious technique as an adult, Saint-Georges must have practiced the violin seriously as a child. There has been no documentation found of him as a musician before 1764, when violinist Antonio Lolli composed two concertos, Op. 2, for him, and 1766, when composer François Gossec dedicated a set of six string trios, Op. 9 to Saint Georges. Lolli may have worked with Bologne on his violin technique and Gossec on compositions.

(Beauvoir’s novel says that “Platon”, a fictional whip-toting slave commander on Saint-Domingue, “taught little Saint-Georges” the violin.

Historians have discounted François-Joseph Fétis’ claim that Saint-Georges studied violin with Jean-Marie Leclair. Some of his technique was said to reveal influence by Pierre Gaviniès. Other composers who later dedicated works to Saint-Georges were Carl Stamitz in 1770, and Avolio in 1778.

In 1769, the Parisian public was amazed to see Saint-Georges, the great fencer, playing as a violinist in Gossec’s new orchestra, Le Concert des Amateurs. Four years later he became its concertmaster/conductor. In 1772 Saint-Georges created a sensation with his debut as a soloist, playing his first two violin concertos, Op. II, with Gossec conducting the orchestra. “These concertos were performed last winter at a concert of the Amateurs by the author himself, who received great applause as much for their performance as for their composition.”According to another source, “The celebrated Saint-Georges, mulatto fencer [and] violinist, created a sensation in Paris … [when] two years later … at the Concert Spirituel, he was appreciated not as much for his compositions as for his performances, enrapturing especially the feminine members of his audience.”

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George Bridgetower (1780 – 1860)

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (11 October 1778 – 29 February 1860) was an Afro-European musician, born in 1778 in Biała Podlaska in Galicia, Poland, where his father worked for Hieronim Wincenty Radziwiłł. He was baptised Hieronimo Hyppolito de Augusto on 11 October 1778. He grew to be a virtuoso violinist, living in England for much of his life.

He was given leave to visit his mother and brother (a cellist) in Dresden in 1802, giving concerts there. He visited Vienna later in 1803, where he performed with Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven was impressed, and dedicated his great Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major (Op.47) to Bridgetower, with the goodheartedly mocking dedication Sonata per un mulattico lunatico. Barely finished, the piece received its first public performance at a concert in the Augarten on 24 May 1803, with Beethoven on pianoforte and Bridgetower on violin. Bridgetower had to read the violin part of the second movement from Beethoven’s copy, over his shoulder. He made a slight amendment to his part, which Beethoven gratefully accepted, jumping up to say “Noch einmal, mein lieber Bursch!” (“Once more, my dear fellow!”). Beethoven also presented Bridgetower with his tuning fork, now held by the British Library. The pair fell out soon afterwards, Bridgetower having insulted a woman who turned out to be Beethoven’s friend; Beethoven broke off all relations with Bridgetower and changed the dedication of the new violin sonata to the violin virtuoso Rudolphe Kreutzer, who never played it, saying that it had already been performed once and was too difficult — the piece is now known as the Kreutzer Sonata. The Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Rita Dove dramatized the relationship between Beethoven and Bridgetower in the book-length lyric narrative Sonata Mulattica.

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Francis Johnson (1792 – 1844)

Francis “Frank” Johnson (June 16, 1792 – April 6, 1844) was an American musician and prolific composer during the Antebellum period. African American composers were rare in the U.S. during this period, but Johnson was among the few who were successful. Performing as a virtuoso of the (now rare) keyed Kent bugle and the violin, he wrote more than two hundred compositions of various styles—operatic airs, Ethiopian minstrel songs, patriotic marches, ballads, cotillions, quadrilles, quicksteps and other dances. Only manuscripts and piano transcriptions survive today.

Johnson was the first African American composer to have his works published as sheet music. He also was the first African American to give public concerts and the first to participate in racially integrated concerts in the United States. He led the first American musical ensemble to present concerts abroad, and he introduced the promenade concert style to America.

The Philadelphia Public Ledger newspaper reported that Johnson introduced the extended technique of singing while playing, which has become more common today as a way of providing wind instrumentalists a means of producing harmonies. The use of flute obbligato to imitate the chirping of canaries in his “Bird Waltz” was “so natural that the keenest perception cannot discover the difference. Composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel may have been influenced by Johnson’s techniques. The orchestral version of Ravel’s “Ma Mère l’Oye” (Mother Goose) features a similar effect in the “Tom Thumb” movement, where flutes depict the chirping birds that steal the breadcrumb trail.

The work Philadelphia Fireman’s Quadrille astounded audiences as Johnson’s bugle was heard to “distinctly cry, ‘Fire!’ ‘Fire!'” Johnson became associated with such dramatic effects, and imitations by his contemporaries were said to be far less effective. Program music became popular during this period, particularly works that depicted battle. Johnson arranged Frantisek Kotzwara’s The Battle of Prague, impressing the audience with realistic effects. Johnson’s New Railroad Gallop began with the sound of steam, continued with the sound of passengers entering the cars, then concluded with the sound of the train reaching full speed.

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José White Lafitten (1835 – 1918)

His father Don Carlos White was Spanish and his mother was Afro-Cuban.

After receiving early musical training from his father, who was an amateur violinist, José White gave his first concert in Matanzas on 21 March 1854. He was accompanied by the visiting American pianist-composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, “who encouraged him to pursue further violin studies in Paris and raised money for him to travel there”. José White studied at the Paris Conservatory between the years 1855 and 1871 and was highly praised by Rossini.

From 1877 to 1889 White was director of the Imperial Conservatory in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he served as court musician for the Emperor Pedro II. Afterwards he returned to Paris to spend the rest of his days. The famous 1737 “Swansong” Stradivari was his instrument.

His most famous work is La Bella Cubana, an habanera. White also wrote a virtuosic violin concerto, recorded several decades ago on the Columbia label.

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Blind Tom Wiggins (1849 – 1908)

Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (May 25, 1849 – June 14, 1908) was an African American musical prodigy on the piano. He had numerous original compositions published and had a lengthy and largely successful performing career throughout the United States. During the 19th century, he was one of the best-known American performing pianists. Although he lived and died before autism was described, he is now regarded as an autistic savant.

There are conflicting historical accounts of Blind Tom’s first public performance, some indicating he was as young as three. One account from 1857 indicates that he had been performing publicly for several years. Newspaper reviews and audience reactions were favorable, prompting General Bethune to undertake a concert tour with Tom around their home state of Georgia. Tom later toured the South with Bethune or accompanied by hired managers, though their travels and bookings were sometimes hampered by the North-South hostilities which were drawing the nation towards Civil War. In 1860, Blind Tom performed at the White House before President James Buchanan; he was the first African-American to give a command performance at the White House. Mark Twain attended many of Blind Tom’s performances over several decades and chronicled the proceedings.

On- and off-stage, Tom often referred to himself in the third person (e.g., “Tom is pleased to meet you”). His piano recitals were augmented by other talents, including uncanny voice mimicry of public figures and nature sounds. He also displayed a hyperactive physicality both onstage and off. A letter written in 1862 by a soldier in North Carolina described some of Tom’s eccentric capabilities: “One of his most remarkable feats was the performance of three pieces of music at once. He played ‘Fisher’s Hornpipe’ with one hand and ‘Yankee Doodle’ with the other and sang ‘Dixie’ all at once. He also played a piece with his back to the piano and his hands inverted.” At concerts, skeptics attempted to confirm if Tom’s performance replications were mere trickery; their challenge took the form of having Tom hear and repeat two new, uncirculated compositions. Tom did so perfectly. The “audience challenge” eventually became a regular feature of his concerts.

Supposedly, Tom’s talents profited the Confederacy during the Civil War. His most famous song, “The Battle of Manassas”, is the story of the Confederate Army’s 1861 victory at the Battle of Bull Run. As a result, many black newspapers refused to celebrate him, pointing out that he served to reinforce negative stereotypes about African-American individuals and that he was only a source of profit for slaveholders.

In 1866, at age 16, Tom was taken on a European concert tour by General Bethune, who collected testimonials about Tom’s natural talents from composer-pianist Ignaz Moscheles and pianist-conductor Charles Hallé. These were printed in a booklet, “The Marvelous Musical Prodigy Blind Tom”, and used to bolster Tom’s international reputation.

In 1875, General Bethune transferred management of Blind Tom’s professional affairs to his son John Bethune, who accompanied Tom on tour around the U.S. for the next eight years. Beginning in 1875, John brought Blind Tom to New York each summer. While living with John in a boarding house on the Lower East Side, Tom added to his repertoire under the tutelage of Joseph Poznanski, who also transcribed new compositions by Tom for publication. Many of these were, at Tom’s insistence, published under such pseudonyms as Professor W.F. Raymond, J.C. Beckel, C.T. Messengale, and Francois Sexalise.

Tom’s piano-playing behavior, both during practice and performance, was eccentric. “We had two pianos in one room”, Poznanski told the Washington Post in 1886 (as recounted in O’Connell’s biography). “I would play for him and he would get up, walk around, stand on one foot, pull his hair, knock his head against the wall, then sit down and play a very good imitation of what I had played with additions to it. His memory was something prodigious. He never forgot anything.” This led some critics to dismiss Tom as a novelty act, a “human parrot.” Novelist Willa Cather, writing in the Nebraska State Journal, called Tom “a human phonograph, a sort of animated memory, with sound producing power.”

John Steinbeck has compared the main character in a short story of his, “Johnny Bear”, to Blind Tom.

No original recordings of Blind Tom appear to exist. His sheet music is available, but only a small number of musicians have ever recorded his original songs.

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