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Historical Marker unveiled in Chesapeake, Virginia on May 2, 2013







American Pioneers of the Classic Guitar
Douglas Back, guitar
Mento Music Press SMM 3023 (1994)




Home -> Composers -> Holland, Justin

Justin Holland  (1819-1887)

African American Composer, Guitarist & Teacher

Cleveland's First African American Professional


Table of Contents

  1 Birth
  2 Leaving Virginia
  3 Music Studies in Boston
  4 Oberlin
  5 First Black Professional
  6 Negro Conventions
  7 West Indies
  8 Languages

  9 Free Masons
 10 Household Name
 11 William Tell
 12 'Tis the Last Rose
 13 Oberon
 14 Carnival of Venice
 15 Andante
 16 Kim Perlak 
 17 Guitar Project
 18 Folk  
 19 James Trotter
 20 Death

Justin Holland; Photo Courtesy Douglas Back

Audio Sample: Mento Music Press SMM 3023 (1994); American Pioneers of the Classic Guitar; Douglas Back, Guitar
Carnival of Venice Fantasie

1 Birth
"Justin Holland was born to free black parents in Norfolk County, Virginia on July 26, 1819," Barbara Clemenson writes in her article in a journal of Case Western Reserve University, Justin Holland: Black Guitarist in the Western Reserve.  Guitarist Douglas Back has made a recording which includes five works of the composer, American Pioneers of the Classic Guitar,  Mento Music Press SMM 3023 (1994).  It can be ordered at his Web site, www.DouglasBack.com  He writes in the liner notes:

More than just a successful musician, Holland was also a dedicated humanitarian who worked all his life to promote and advance the causes of his race.  Adopting the principles that education and assimilation were the best methods of overcoming racial barriers and prejudices, he immersed himself in the Eurocentric middle class culture of the day.

2 Leaving Virginia
Barbara Clemenson writes that White residents had adopted a new attitude toward free Black residents:

Justin Holland left Virginia for Massachusetts after his parents' deaths in 1833. Several factors probably influenced his move.
However their liberal attitude toward blacks changed as the increased demand for slaves in the Deep South's cotton belt, combined with their decreased supply due to the restriction of the African slave trade, again made them valuable property.

3 Music Studies in Boston
Holland was only 14 when he left his home state and traveled to Boston, Douglas Back relates:

Holland left Virginia in 1834 at the age of fourteen and headed to Boston where he became acquainted with the guitar after hearing concerts by the Spanish guitarist Mariano Perez.  He began studying the guitar with William Schubert, a noted composer and arranger for the instrument.  Holland also undertook the study of the flute and piano at this time, though he maintained the guitar as his primary instrument.

4 Oberlin
Barbara Clemenson explains Justin's need to leave Massachusetts:

In spite of Holland's economic success and musical training, Massachusetts could not provide him with the education he desired. For that he had to look to the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, founded in Ohio's Western Reserve in 1833 to provide in a Christian community a substantial education at the lowest possible rates to students of both sexes.

The liner notes tell us of two separate periods during which Justin Holland was a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, first for a year in 1841, when he was 22, and later for a shorter time in 1845. 

5 First Black Professional
Douglas Back tells us what followed Holland's second period of study at Oberlin:

After returning to Oberlin in 1845, Holland married and soon moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he established himself as a teacher of guitar, mandolin, piano and flute, becoming the city's first black professional.

6 Negro Conventions
We learn from the liner notes that Justin Holland's role in the struggle for freedom for African Americans involved work with Fredrick Douglass and the Underground Railroad:

Between the years 1848 and 1854 Holland participated as an assistant secretary and member of council at National and State Negro Conventions, where he worked alongside such noted activists as Frederick Douglass.  He is known to have worked with the Underground Railroad and was secretary in charge of the "Central American Land Company", an organization which unsuccessfully attempted to purchase sufficient land in Central America to institute a free black colony.

7 West Indies
We learn from Barbara Clemenson that after Central America became infeasible as a haven for African Americans, consideration was given to the West Indies:

Central American colonization proved infeasible when it was opposed by foreign diplomats of those countries, but in 1858 Haiti offered free passage and aid for black settlers and emigrants began moving there. Holland himself lived in the West Indies during the Civil War, but evidently did not find there the opportunities he expected for after two years he returned to Cleveland.

8 Languages
The liner notes give an account of Holland's mastery of several European languages:

Holland was also noted for his linguistic abilities.  He spent two years in Mexico during the early 1840s learning Spanish in an effort to master the language in which the methods of the early Spanish guitar masters such as Sor and Aguado were written.  Later on Holland became proficient at several other languages including French, Italian, and German. 

9 Free Masons
Barbara Clemenson writes of Holland's involvement with the Free Masons:

Holland was not solely occupied with music but was also an active Mason after joining Cleveland's Excelsior Lodge No. 11 in 1862. 

Douglas Back continues the story:

He used his talents as a linguist when he became a leader in the black Free Masons (Prince Hall).  Because American white Masons did not consider the Prince Hall Masons to be legitimate, Holland began corresponding with foreign Masonic Lodges seeking recognition and support. 
The Viennese Masonic magazine Der Freimaurer  published a biographical article about Holland in 1877.

10 Household Name
Back writes that Justin Holland made his name known in his lifetime to amateur guitarists across the country:

Although Holland seldom performed in public, he developed a national reputation as a composer and arranger for the guitar.  To the average amateur guitarist of the day, his numerous arrangements made his a household name. Of his approximately 350 published works for the guitar, which include two acclaimed methods, only about one-third are extant.

11 William Tell
The liner notes tell us William Tell dates from 1868:

Holland's writing for the guitar is modeled extensively on the works of early 19th century European guitar composers.  His arrangement of William Tell by Giacchino Rossini (1792-1868) is essentially a reworked and abridged version of William Tell: Fantasie, Op. 36 by Matteo Carcassi (1792-1853).  Both the Holland and Carcassi versions share similar thematic material, yet both works incorporate material from the Overture not duplicated in each other.  In light of this, liberty was taken with Holland's arrangement by inserting small sections from Carcassi's work.  This expanded version of Holland's arrangement displays all of the familiar themes from the Overture, forming a rousing tour de force for the guitarist.

12 'Tis the Last Rose
'Tis the Last Rose of Summer is an 1854 work, Douglas Back writes in the liner notes of American Pioneers of the Classic Guitar:

Although comprised for the most part of his own material, Holland acknowledges that the finale to this work is a direct quote from an arrangement of the same work by the Italian guitarist, Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829).  This piece was one of the most popular of all 19th century songs and was utilized in compositions by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and a host of other composers, as well as several of the European guitar masters.  It is based on an earlier tune, Castle Hyde, which first appeared in print in 1806.

13 Oberon
Back tells us Oberon dates from 1868:

The years 1866-1868, during which time this work was copyrighted, represent one of the most prolific periods in Holland's life.  Holland's Oberon is a potpourri of thematic material from Carl Maria von Weber's opera Oberon, including the barcarole, Song of the Mermaids.  The opera premiered at the end of its composer's life in London in 1826.  It is based more on German legend popularized by the poet Wieland than on Shakespeare.  Holland's guitar arrangement was published in a series entitled 20 Choice Melodies from the Operas and was just one of several series of opera melodies Holland arranged during this time.

14 Carnival of Venice
Douglas Back tells us of one of the leading works of the era:

Carnival of Venice: Fantasie (1871), one of the best known tunes from that period, has perhaps been given to variation treatment by more instrumental virtuosi than any other melody of its time.  According to James Trotter, Holland's biographer, this is considered to be one of Holland's most celebrated arrangements.

15 Andante
Andante dates from 1880, according to the liner notes:

Holland is said to have written over 35 original works.  The piece  An Andante  is one of the very few of those extant.  It is included in the book Music and Some Highly Musical People and appears to have been inspired by the work Variations on a Theme by Mozart,  op. 9, by Fernando Sor (1778-1839).  Holland's admiration for Sor is apparent when the Andante's opening thematic material, with its descending scale figure in duple meter, is compared with thematic material in Sor's opus 9.

16 Kim Perlak
Dr. Kim Perlak has a classical guitar website which she was kind enough to bring to our attention, http://www.kimperlak.com/   Among many other things, it provides this information on her background:

Kim Perlak is a classical guitarist whose versatile and inclusive approach to the instrument has made her a sought after performer, educator and scholar.
DMA ’08 UT-Austin
MM ’01 Yale School of Music
BM ’98 Stetson University

17 Guitar Project
"The Holland Guitar Project" tab, on the home page of Dr. Perlak's website, provides access to information, recordings and photos related to the Project, which was funded by a 2009-2010 Yale Alumni Ventures Grant.  Resources are organized under several topic headings, including:

Background & Aims of the Project

Justin Holland and the American Roots of the Classical Guitar sound

Concert Info

Open Tunings & Slide - The American Legacy of "Spanish Fandango"

An American 2-Minute Opera: "The Last Waltzes of a Lunatic" - Justin Holland

18 Folk
Another heading is "Folk Arrangements," which is explained as follows:

In addition to his compositions in the operatic style, Holland arranged many American folk tunes and popular dances for solo classical guitar. Like his contemporaries in Europe, Holland often presented these arrangements in theme and variation or rondo form. It is his style of arranging the thematic material, however, that fits in with the American approach.

19 James Trotter
Douglas Back writes of Justin Holland's inclusion in the landmark book on African American Music by James Trotter:

An entire chapter was devoted to Holland in the book Music and Some Highly Musical People by James Trotter. Trotter's book, published in 1880, represents one of the first attempts to document the lives of significant African-American musicians. 

20 Death
The liner notes relate the time and place of Justin Holland's death, and briefly describe the music careers of his son and daughter:

Justin Holland died at his son's home in New Orleans, Louisiana, on March 24, 1887. His son, Justin Minor Holland and daughter, Claire Monteith Holland were also accomplished guitarists, though they never developed their musical careers to the extent that their father had.  Nevertheless, Justin Minor Holland became a significant teacher and composer for the instrument.


This page was last updated on March 5, 2022

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