Debussy Riot: The life of African-American composer Undine Smith Moore

City Paper

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s “journalist-in-residence,” Ricky O’Bannon, published a pretty interesting database on the BSO’s website a few months ago. He gathered the classical programs for the 2014-2015 season for 21 of the country’s largest symphony orchestras and entered data for each song performed into a huge spreadsheet so that it can be sorted by the composer’s name, the composer’s gender, and the composition date, among other things. It’s pretty fun to play around in, though there’s one depressing bit of information that becomes almost immediately obvious: The composers whose works major orchestras perform are overwhelmingly male. Out of the 1,849 songs that O’Bannon has on his spreadsheet, only 36 of them were composed (or co-composed) by a woman. That’s a little under 2 percent. And of those 36 women, none of them are black. The BSO just announced its calendar for the upcoming centennial season, which will feature nine living woman composers—a comparatively high number, considering that the BSO only performed two pieces by women this season—but still, none of them are black. Given that it’s Women’s History Month and last month was Black History Month, it seems fitting to pay tribute to an African-American woman who composed and taught music.

Undine Smith Moore, born in rural south Virginia in 1904, studied music at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she learned piano, organ, and composition. According to Helen Walker-Hill’s book “From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music,” Moore participated in performances of “large choral masterpieces and unaccompanied spirituals,” which would inspire her focus on choral works in her compositions. After graduating cum laude from Fisk, she joined the music faculty at Virginia State College, where she taught a wide variety of subjects and began writing and arranging music for the chorus of the high school on campus. For decades she focused on teaching music, and was by all accounts an excellent and inspiring teacher; her students included jazz musician Billy Taylor and Camilla Williams, the first black woman to sing with a major opera company. After Moore retired from teaching in 1972, she received an onslaught of awards and honorary degrees for her teaching and her contributions to black music.

By her death in 1989, she had written more than 100 compositions, more than 50 of which were choral works, but only about 26 of her compositions were published during her lifetime. Moore said that Bach and black folk music were her musical influences, and frequently used elements from the African-American musical heritage, such as syncopated rhythms, call-and-response structures, and melody influenced by rhythm. Most of her published pieces were religious choral pieces, many of those being arrangements of existing hymns, so they’re relatively straightforward and similar to what you’d hear in a lot of Protestant church services. One non-religious composition which she listed among her personal favorites is the choral piece ‘Mother to Son,’ which gets its lyrics from the Langston Hughes poem of the same name. The song features a soprano soloist and, like many of her songs, draws inspiration from African-American spirituals.

Another one of her favorite compositions was “Scenes from the Life of a Martyr,” an oratorio for chorus, orchestra, narrator, and four soloists that was composed in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. The oratorio, which NPR once referred to as her “most ambitious work,” had its premiere in 1982 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, although Emory University’s Manuscript, Archive, and Rare Book Library has several live recordings of “Scenes from the Life of a Martyr,” mostly on audiocassette, from Moore’s personal collection of papers, there don’t appear to be any recordings of it commercially available. There are, however, some recordings available on Spotify and YouTube of her other compositions. To listen to a playlist I put together of her compositions and the compositions of other African-American women, go to citypaper.com/moore.

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