June 19th, or Juneteenth, is an annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States after the Civil War and has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1800s. Today, people across the U.S. continue to celebrate Juneteenth, which is now a federal holiday. In honor of the holiday, here are five works by African American composers that focus on themes of liberation and autonomy.
Margaret Bonds, Troubled Water
Margaret Bonds was a Chicago pianist, composer, and educator. One of the first African American composers and performers to gain recognition in the United States, Bonds is best known for her arrangement of African American spirituals. She is also the first Black soloist to play with the Chicago Symphony, performing Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in 1933. Troubled Water is an arrangement of the traditional spiritual Wade in the Water, a melody that is said to have been strategically used by Harriet Tubman, who brought as many as 70 slaves to freedom. This performance features pianist Kyle P. Walker.
James Weldon Johnson, Lift Every Voice and Sing (arr. Kyle Dickson)
Lift Every Voice and Sing was originally a poem written by James Weldon Johnson and later set to music by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson. Widely considered to be “the Black national anthem,” the poem was written from the perspective of late 19th century African Americans and evokes imagery of freedom and thanksgiving. This particular arrangement was created by Kyle Dickson, former CYSO coach and current Salonen Conducting Fellow with the San Francisco Symphony, and is performed by Baird Dodge, Principal Second Violin of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Valerie Coleman, Portraits of Josephine
In Portraits of Josephine, composer Valerie Coleman tells the story of Josephine Baker, an entertainer and dancer who left the United States in 1925 in favor of a more equitable social climate in France. In this four movement work, Coleman depicts Baker’s arrival in Paris and her quick rise to fame. The work, written in 2006, was premiered by the Black chamber ensemble Imani Winds (which Coleman founded!).
William Grant Still, Symphony No. 2, A Song of a New Race
Premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1937, Still’s Symphony No. 2 has remained a favorite with musicians and concert-goers alike. Still considered this piece to be an extension of his earlier Afro-American Symphony, representing “the American colored man of today, in so many instances a totally new individual produced through the fusion of White, Indian and Negro bloods.” The symphony, which is in four movements, features Still’s characteristic use of soaring string melodies marked by gestural brass moments. This performance features the Minnesota Orchestra, led by the principal conductor of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago Ken-David Masur.
Adolphus Hailstork, Fanfare on Amazing Grace
Recently featured at the Inauguration ceremony of President Joe Biden, Adolphus Hailstork’s Fanfare on Amazing Grace has been a popular and moving anthem and favorite on holidays such as Juneteenth. Hailstork was inspired by the organ preludes of J.S. Bach and originally composed this fanfare for solo organ, later orchestrating it for larger ensembles. The theme of Amazing Grace comes through complex counterpoint within the ensemble and is accented by brass fanfares.
Interested in more music to celebrate Juneteenth? Check NPR’s Spotify playlist, Songs for Freedom: A Juneteenth Playlist.