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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

African-American Organ Composers

by Mickey Thomas Terry. Ph.D.

February 5, 2001 - from show document #0106

  M.T. Terry
  document Mickey Thomas Terry
Covering the span from mid- to late 20th century, the following listing represents African-American men and women who wrote for the organ during this period. Contrary to popular belief, the classical music of African Americans not only includes works that are based on the Negro spiritual, but also include compositions based on or influenced by a variety of sources. Among these are plain-chant, African-tribal tunes, general Protestant hymnody, German chorales, original composer themes, music from the Jewish liturgical tradition, as well as Civil Rights themes.

Many works represent a variety of composition forms that include ternary form, sonata-allegro, rondo, theme and variations and free form. Yet, because of historical stereotyping of African Americans in society and the consequential lack of interest by music publishers, performers and the public, much of this music has for a long time remained only in manuscript form. Since the advent of the black nationalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which resulted in greater emphasis being placed on the importance of black contributions to art, music and literature, efforts have been made to address this problem.

William B. Cooper (1920-1993) was a native of Philadelphia. He received his B.M. and M.M. degrees from the Philadelphia College or Performing Arts and a Doctorate of Music from Columbia Pacific University (California). In 1988, he was awarded a Doctorate of Sacred Music (honoris causa) from Christ Theological Seminary in Yonkers, New York. Cooper pursued additional music studies at the School of Sacred Music of Union Theological Seminary (New York), the Manhattan School of Music, and Trinity College of Music (London). He served on the music faculties of Bennett College (Greensboro, NC) and Hampton University (Hampton, VA) as well as 26 years in the New York City School System. Cooper also served as Minister of Music at historic Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church (1953-74) and Saint Martin’s Episcopal Church (1974-88) in Harlem. His musical output consists of works for organ, voice, chorus, orchestra, and ballet. Composed in 1973, Pastorale is one of three Cooper organ works by this title. It is a set of variations based on a melody from William Walker’s 19th century compilation, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.

Evelyn Simpson Curenton (b. 1953) A pianist, organist, and vocalist, Evelyn Simpson Curenton is a graduate of Temple University (B.M., Music Education and Voice) in Philadelphia. As a young child, she accompanied her acclaimed musical family, the Singing Simpsons of Philadelphia, in many of their performances. Curenton is highly sought as a composer, arranger, choral director, lecturer, and accompanist, her compositions having been performed by the National Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Minneapolis Symphony. She was commissioned by CAMI VIDEO to arrange music for Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, and the Porgy and Bess Chorus of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, Curenton is currently Music Director of the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Men and Women of the Gospel.

Noel DaCosta (1929-2002) Although of Jamaican parentage, Noel DaCosta, was born in Lagos, Nigeria. He later moved to Jamaica where he lived until age 11, at which time he came to the US. He pursued his musical education at Queen College (City University of New York) and at Columbia University. While still in graduate school at Columbia, DaCosta was the recipient of the Seidl Fellowship in Music Composition. He later studied with Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence under a Fulbright Scholarship. In his latter years, Da Costa served as Professor of Music Emeritus at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University where he taught from 1970 until shortly before his death.

Mark Fax (1911-1974) was a native of Baltimore. He received a B.M. degree in Piano from Syracuse University and subsequently was awarded a M.M. degree in Composition from the Eastman School of Music. Fax joined the faculty of Howard University in 1947 where he served as Professor of Composition. He later became Assistant to the Dean of Fine Arts prior to his appointment as Acting Dean of Fine Arts, and finally as Director of the School of Music. In addition to organ works, Fax composed for many musical media including piano, chorus, chamber ensemble, orchestra, plus three operas.

Robert A. Harris (b. 1938) received a B.S. and M.A. from Wayne State University in Detroit and his Ph.D. in theory and composition from Michigan State University. He has pursued post-doctoral studies in composition and conducting at the Eastman School of Music and the Aspen Music School in Aspen, Colorado. Harris is sought after as a conductor, choral clinician, and adjudicator throughout the US and abroad. A recipient of numerous commissions, Harris’choral works have received performances throughout the US, Europe, and South Africa. He has served on the faculty and conducted the Women’s Chorus of Wayne State University in Detroit. Harris also served as Director of Choral Activities (1970-1977) at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Harris currently serves as Professor of Conducting and Director of Choral Organizations at the School of Music at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

David Hurd (b. 1950) received his B.M. Degree from Oberlin Conservatory and M.M. Degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He later received a Doctorate of Music (honoris causa) from Yale University where he taught as a visiting professor (1982-83) and currently teaches Organ Improvisation. Hurd served as Assistant Organist and Director of Music at New York’s Trinity Church-Wall Street (1971-72). Since 1976, he has served as Professor of Church Music and Organist at General Seminary in Manhattan as well as being Director of Music at All Saints Episcopal Church also in New York City. He served on the Standing Commission of the Episcopal Church (1977-86) that produced the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal. Among other honors, Hurd was awarded First Prize in Organ and Improvisation at the International Congress of Organists in Philadelphia (1977) and is currently represented by Philip Truckenbrod Concert Management. The recipient of several commissions to write music, his compositions consist of not only organ, but of a considerable amount of choral music with an emphasis on sacred music.

Ulysses Kay (1917-1995) received a B.M. Degree from the University of Arizona. Kay also studied with Howard Hanson at the Eastman School of Music (M.M. in Composition), and with Paul Hindemith at both the Berkshire music Center (1941) and at Yale. He also studied with Otto Luening at Columbia University. Kay served as visiting professor at both Boston University and UCLA. From 1968, he served as Professor of Music at Herbert H. Lehman College (CUNY) until his retirement in 1988. While there, he was appointed Distinguished Professor (1972). Kay was the recipient of several prestigious awards and fellowships. Twice he won the Prix de Rome as well as winning the Gershwin memorial Award (1950), and Guggenheim (1964). In addition to organ works, Kay wrote two operas as well as music for chorus, orchestra, ballet, chamber ensemble and piano. Commissioned and premiered by Marilyn Mason, Kay’s Suite No. 1 for Organ (1958) exhibits the influence of neo-classicism.

Thomas H. Kerr (1915-1988) was a native of Baltimore. Kerr served on the music faculty of Howard University as Professor of Piano (1943-76). A graduate of the Eastman School of Music (B.M. summa cum laude, M.M. in Piano), Kerr was the recipient of a Rosenwald Fellowship in Composition (1942) and won First Prize in the Composers and Authors of America Competition (1944). As an entry in a national AGO composition competition, Arietta, Kerr’s most popular work, was one of 15 compositions selected from among 150 for publication in Volume II of the American Music Anthology (Summy-Birchard Publications) during the late 1950s. Although primarily a pianist, Kerr became masterfully familiar with the organ and its capabilities, thus causing him to write most effectively for the instrument. Miniature Antiphonal on a Pedal Point and Procession of the Gargoyles are extracted from Kerr’s Suite Sebastienne, an eight-movement work written for the dedication of the organ at Kerr’s Church, Plymouth Congregational, in Washington, DC.

Undine Smith Moore (1905-1989) graduated from Fisk University (1926) with highest honors and received a M.M. degree at Columbia University. She pursued additional study at the Julliard School, the Eastman School and the Manhattan School of Music. From 1927-1972, she served on the music faculty of Virginia State University in Petersburg. She received honorary doctorates from Virginia State University (1972) as well as Indiana University (1976) in Bloomington. Although she wrote for organ, piano, voice, flute, and chamber ensemble, Moore is primarily known for her choral compositions.

Ruth Norman (b. 1927) is a native of Omaha, Nebraska. She earned a B.M. Degree (1948) at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and a M.M. Degree in Piano (1953) at the Eastman School of Music. Norman has done additional composition study with Russell Woollen, Esther Ballou, and Robert Parris. She has toured extensively as a pianist, specializing in the keyboard music of black classical composers. She has served as Artist-in-Residence at the Sumner School in Washington, DC. Norman has written several works for chamber ensemble and chorus, as well as compositions for solo piano and organ. Her most recent works reflect Ms. Norman’s profound interest in mysticism and eastern philosophy.

George Walker (b. 1922) A native of Washington, D.C., George Walker was a child prodigy. He attended Oberlin Conservatory (B.M.) and later studied piano with Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute of Music where he became the first black to receive the Artist Diploma (1945). Walker also pursued study at the American Conservatory in Fountainebleau where he was a student of Nadia Boulanger and Robert Casadesus. At age 23, as winner of the Philadelphia Youth Auditions, Walker became the first black soloist to perform with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1956, he became the first black to receive a Doctorate of Musical Arts (Piano) from the Eastman School of Music. Walker later served as head of the Music Department at Rutgers University. He is also the recipient of many awards and has the distinction of being the first black to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music (1996). Walker has many compositions to his credit consisting of music for organ, piano, voice, chorus, chamber ensemble, and orchestra.

The biographies listed above are part of collection of works available from document MorningStar Music Publishers titled African-American Organ Music Anthology.

Read more about document Mickey Thomas Terry.