From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music

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Helen Walker-Hill's unique study provides a carefully researched examination of the history and scope of musical composition by African-American women composers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Exploding the assumption that black women's only important musical contributions have been in folk, jazz, and pop, From Spirituals to Symphonies focuses on the effect of race, gender, and class, and notes the important role played by individual personalities and circumstances in shaping this under-appreciated category of American art. The study also provides in-depth exploration of the backgrounds, experiences, and musical compositions of eight African-American women including Margaret Bonds, Undine Smith Moore, and Julia Perry, who combined the techniques of Western art music with their own cultural traditions and individual gifts. Despite having gained national and international recognition during their lifetimes, the contributions of many of these women are today forgotten.

About the Author:
Helen Walker-Hill has taught at the University of Colorado, Muhlenberg College, and the University of Wyoming

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Piano scholar Walker-Hill (Piano Music by Black Women Composers) presents an accessible, thoughtful, and humanist study of African American women composers who, for the most part, have been ignored by historians. Readers are introduced to Undine Smith Moore (1904-89), Julia Perry (1924-79), Margaret Bonds (1913-72), Irene Britton Smith (1907-99), Dorothy Rudd Moore (1940-), Valerie Capers (1935-), Mary Watkins (1939-), and Regina Harris (1956-), as well as the 20th-century social milieu in which they worked. Frankly examining race and gender issues and individual challenges, such as blindness or being adopted, the author, who conducted interviews with many of the composers and their families, also discusses the music of each woman at length in appreciative, nontechnical language. Detailed works lists and an appendix enumerating other black women composers add reference value; opening and concluding overview chapters supply historical context and big-picture views. Besides Mildred Denby Green's groundbreaking Black Women Composers: A Genesis (1983), which focuses more on the music than on the women themselves and includes musical analyses and examples, there aren't other books on this subject. Public and academic libraries, then, would do well to acquire this study. Bonnie Jo Dopp, Univ. of Maryland Libs., College Park
This volume explores the history and scope of musical composition by African-American women, with a focus on the implications of race, gender, and class for their musical creativity. Following an historical overview, eight chapters study individual composers who, taken together, represent a variety of backgrounds, perspectives, generations, geographical locations, and musical styles. Topics include biographical information, social issues, and each individual's music. A concluding section ties together major themes and examines the impact of other circumstances such as family of origin, marital status, motherhood, sexual orientation, disabilities, and professional issues. The book contains several b&w photographs of composers. Of interest to the academic and the general reader. Walker-Hill is the recipient of several research grants awarded in connection with this work. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252074547
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 4/11/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 428
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Helen Walker-Hill has taught at the University of Colorado, Muhlenberg College, and the University of Wyoming. She currently lives in Evergreen, Colorado. Her previous publications include Piano Music by Black Women Composers: A Catalog of Solo and Ensemble Works.

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Read an Excerpt


African-American Women Composers and Their Music
By Helen Walker-Hill

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2002 Helen Walker-Hill
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07454-7


Acknowledgments..........................................xi Introduction.............................................xiii 1. Historical Overview...................................1 2. Undine Smith Moore (1904-89)..........................51 3. Julia Perry (1924-79).................................93 4. Margaret Bonds (1913-72)..............................141 5. Irene Britton Smith (1907-99).........................189 6. Dorothy Rudd Moore (b. 1940)..........................217 7. Valerie Capers (b. 1935)..............................251 8. Mary Watkins (b. 1939)................................283 9. Regina Harris Baiocchi (b. 1956)......................319 Conclusion...............................................353 Appendix: Selected List of Composers.....................365 Selected Bibliography/Discography........................375 Index....................................................381


I am tired of all our labels ... I am not a black conductor ... [I] am not a woman conductor.... The fact that I am in this physical costume does not describe my energy, does not describe my entity. My chosen purpose in life is to be a musician, a composer, a conductor. This is the way I am making my contribution to mankind. Tania León

When I invited Cuban-born Tania León to participate in this study, she declined because of its narrow focus on black women composers. Although she had been involved through the years in numerous black music concerts and symposia, she had never been comfortable with labels and categories that separate people. The other composers in this study were sympathetic to the concerns voiced by Tania León. They, too, wish to be considered on the basis of their musical gifts, training, and craft rather than their race or gender. They are tired of having their works programmed chiefly during Black History Month or on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

The great majority of the composers, however, welcomed this study and were pleased to be a part of it. They see such categorization as a necessary step toward full participation in the larger musical world. They are proud to be identified as African-American women, and they are aware of the unique and highly politicized history of black women in the United States, a history that is not likely to have been absorbed or experienced by those who, like Tania León, have grown up outside this country. Almost all of them have their roots in a black American world that is unknown to most whites and common knowledge to most blacks. It has its own diversity and complexity, its own internal conflicts and antagonisms, class systems, churches, colleges, newspapers, heroes and leaders, writers and artists, history and historians, holidays and national anthem. It has its own musical traditions, genres, and styles, both vernacular and cultivated. Although racial integration since the 1960s has given African Americans more access to the privileges of the larger world, and the two worlds interface more frequently, the black community is still the primary environment for the majority of African Americans. For black composers of either sex, who historically have been ignored by the larger musical world, it has provided encouragement, early training, financial support, performance opportunities, and audiences.

As females who are African Americans, these composers have been overlooked as a category because women composers are presumed to be white and African Americans are thought of as male. They are members of not one but two groups whose ability to write serious music was long denied by the dominant culture. They have struggled to be seen and heard, sometimes even within their own communities. They have had to combine and balance many roles and loyalties: they are both female and black, both wives and mothers and creative artists and professionals, both private and vulnerable and open and courageous, both unique individuals and members of the community.

As African-American women composers of concert music, often called "classical" or art music, they are members of a marginalized group. They have had to reconcile their highly specialized calling (derided by many as bourgeois) with their loyalty to the whole black community. Often they have chosen to pursue careers in a highly competitive, sexist, and racist musical world. And they have had to decide whether and how to balance African-American and mainstream musical elements in their compositions.

Despite these hurdles, there have been scores of black women composers; they have been active in the United States since the late nineteenth century, and several have gained national and international recognition during their lifetimes. Many others remain unrecognized, content to create music for their own fulfillment, or for their churches and schools. They are part of a long African-American tradition of classical music. They come from a great variety of backgrounds and they write in a wide range of styles. They have composed works in many genres: songs, choral pieces, instrumental music, symphonies, and operas. Although the focus of this book is on concert or "serious" music, that category as used here crosses boundaries among styles and genres, and includes jazz compositions as well as music for film and musical theater.

It is important to focus upon African-American women composers and their music for several reasons. First, their music deserves to be heard in the larger concert world. Second, the art music of African Americans still does not receive equal attention in the cultural mainstream. Third, knowledge of these composers and their music provides a more accurate sense of American music history and literature. There is also a need to correct the stereotyped concept of the "black experience"-in the words of bell hooks, "to move away from narrow notions of black identity, and [to] affirm multiple black identities and varied black experience." And, most important, we owe it to ourselves to be aware of these significant musical contributions that can enrich our lives. As Barbara Smith observed, "For books to be real and remembered they have to be talked about." For the compositions of African-American women composers to be "real and remembered," they need to be acknowledged and discussed.

This book is intended to be accessible and useful to a variety of readers, including nonmusicians as well as musicians. Each of the core chapters, focusing on eight representative individual composers, includes a separate section on social issues as well as a biography and a discussion of the subject's music. The composers chosen for individual chapters were selected either because they were accessible for interviews or because significant information was found: Undine Smith Moore (1904-89), Julia Perry (1924-79), Margaret Bonds (1913-72), Irene Britton Smith (1907-99), Dorothy Rudd Moore (b. 1940), Valerie Capers (b. 1935), Mary Watkins (b. 1939), and Regina Harris Baiocchi (b. 1956). There were many other worthy composers to choose from, and twelve core chapters were originally planned until a reduction was required because of length. An effort was made to represent a variety of backgrounds, perspectives, generations, geographical locations, and musical styles. Several of the composers are known, at least to black classical musicians, and others are more obscure. Some of the music described is available in recordings or scores, but much of it is not.

The opening chapter, a historical overview, provides a broad survey of African-American women composers from the perspective of their political and social context, with particular emphasis on their relationship to the history of African-American music.

The concluding section of the book correlates and summarizes the major themes revealed in the chapters, as well as in the study of other black women composers. It explores how issues of race, gender, and class operate in these composers' lives and music. It also examines the impact of other shaping circumstances, such as family of origin, marital status, motherhood, sexual orientation, and disabilities, as well as professional issues, such as access to training, performances, publication, and jobs.

The foundation for this study was the pioneering work on black women composers and musicians in the 1970s by Ora Williams, D. Antoinette Handy, Rae Linda Brown, Doris McGinty, Josephine Wright, Barbara Garvey Jackson, Kathryn Talalay, Eileen Southern, and especially Mildred Denby Green, along with earlier scholarship on black women and black music by Monroe Majors, Lawson Scruggs, Sylvia Dannett, and Maude Cuney-Hare. Original work included personal interviews with featured composers and also with Lena Johnson McLin, Betty Jackson King, Micki Grant, Jean Butler, Mable Bailey, Tania León, and Joyce Solomon, as well as colleagues and friends of Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, and Julia Perry; conversations and correspondence with over three dozen composers; visits to key locations; and extensive archival research on Florence Price, Philippa Duke Schuyler, and other composers at the Library of Congress, the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Yale University's Beinecke Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts.


Excerpted from From SPIRITUALS to SYMPHONIES by Helen Walker-Hill Copyright © 2002 by Helen Walker-Hill. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Historical Overview 1
2 Undine Smith Moore (1904-89) 51
3 Julia Perry (1924-79) 93
4 Margaret Bonds (1913-72) 141
5 Irene Britton Smith (1907-99) 189
6 Dorothy Rudd Moore (b. 1940) 217
7 Valerie Capers (b. 1935) 251
8 Mary Watkins (b. 1939) 283
9 Regina Harris Baiocchi (b. 1956) 319
Conclusion 353
App.: Selected List of Composers 365
Selected Bibliography/Discography 375
Index 381
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