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Black and white photograph portrait of Ulysses Kay. Kay is wearing glasses and looking off to the left. Underneath the close-up of Kay's face
Ulysses Kay. BMI promotional brochure. (circa 1960) BMI Collection. Music Division, Library of Congress.

“Forever Free: A Lincoln Chronicle” by Ulysses Kay

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The following is a guest post by Senior Music Specialist Loras Schissel.

In anticipation of the Juneteenth National Independence Day holiday, we would like to feature a particularly important and topically germane musical work by the distinguished American composer, Ulysses Kay (1917-1995).

By way of introduction, we offer this biographical sketch of Kay.

Ulysses Simpson Kay was born on January 7, 1917, in Tucson, Arizona. Kay’s father had been a cowboy and jockey in his early years, but later settled down as a barber and amateur musician. His mother, Elizabeth Davis Kay, was a fine pianist and the niece of the Chicago-based jazz cornetist and band leader Joseph Nathan “King” Oliver (1881-1938). Oliver encouraged Kay’s mother to teach her son piano to learn the important fundamentals of music. During his high school years, Kay learned to play several wind instruments and played in the school concert and marching band. He received the Bachelor of Music in 1938 from the University of Arizona. It was during this period that Kay met the Dean of American Black Composers, William Grant Still. It was Still who encouraged the young musician to become a composer. From Arizona, Kay studied at the Eastman School of Music under Dr. Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers. Kay later studied with Paul Hindemith at the Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood and later at Yale University. During the Second World War, Kay enlisted in the U.S. Navy and became a saxophonist and arranger in the Naval Training School of Indoctrination Band at Quonset, RI. Following his discharge from the Navy, Kay received the Alice M. Ditson Fellowship at Columbia University, where he studied with Otto Luening from 1946 to 1947. Kay received two “Prix de Rome” awards between 1946 and 1952 – the first African American to be so-honored. Upon his return to the U.S., Kay refused several offers of teaching posts and instead settled into an administrative position at Broadcast Music, Inc. Kay felt the job offered a steady schedule and allowed greater freedom to compose. Over a long and distinguished career, Ulysses Kay composed over 140 works in practically all forms. Kay died on May 20, 1995, in Teaneck, New Jersey at the age of 78.

“Forever Free: A Lincoln Chronicle” was commissioned by Broadcast Music Inc. for the Civil War Centennial Commission in 1962. The work was given its premier performance by “The President’s Own,” United States Marine Band under Dale Harpham at the Lincoln Memorial on September 22, 1962, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. At this performance Mahalia Jackson sang and Thurgood Marshall was the featured speaker. The work for symphonic band is in three sections: “The Young Lincoln” — “Conflict” — Proclamation. Kay uses fragments of songs of the Civil War unadorned and the proceeds to “comment” on them in a deeply personal and profound way. The work is a study in contrasts between the genteel settings and Kay’s twentieth century harmonic commentary. Note Kay’s setting of “Booth Killed Lincoln” and “I’m an Old Rebel” in the third movement. One can only describe Kay’s take on these songs as ironic.


The manuscript lives in dark blue housing with its title and description embossed in gold text.
Embossed container for the holograph full score of Forever Free: A Lincoln Chronicle. ML96.K (Case), Music Division, Library of Congress.


The title page for the score, with a handwritten note about how to perform the work.
“Forever Free: A Lincoln Chronicle.” Holograph title-page and program note in pencil. Gift of Ulysses Kay. ML96.K (Case), Music Division, Library of Congress.




“Forever Free: A Lincoln Chronicle.” First page of holograph full score in pencil. Gift of Ulysses Kay. ML96.K Music Division, Library of Congress. “Forever Free: A Lincoln Chronicle” by Ulysses Kay. Copyright (c) 1962 (Renewed) by Associated Music Publishers, Inc. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.


The eminent (and always perceptive) lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky once described Kay the artist thusly:

“Ulysses Kay is a composer who refuses to carry a label — technical, racial, stylistic. He writes music that corresponds to his artistic emotions, within a framework of harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration that provides him with the broadest range of expression.  He is not automatically satisfied with every piece he writes, simply because it is his. The musical language of Ulysses Kay is that of enlightened modernism. This is the only “ism” that he accepts, and even that only as a matter of chronological placement. Dissonant, expressive, if occasionally acrid, harmony is part of the inevitable modernistic material; Ulysses Kay is not self-conscious about its use. On the other hand he does not feel constrained to employ dissonance; there are passages in his work that are classically moderate.”*

As orchestras, bands, chamber music groups, and choruses look to expand their repertoire to include masterworks by under-represented communities, they would be well-served in performing the works of Ulysses Kay – a national treasure.

A 1963 typescript letter from Kay to Harold Spivacke of the Library of Congress, confirming that he gifted his manuscript for "Forever Free" to "that great manuscriptual operation you have going down there."
Letter from Ulysses Kay to Dr. Harold Spivacke, Chief of the Music Division. Music Division Archive. Music Division, Library of Congress.


* This quote, and biographical material in this presentation, owes much to the Nicolas Slonimsky Collection held in the Music Division at the Library of Congress.


Comments (2)

  1. Thank you, Loras!
    I was sadly unaware that you LOC held the Slonimsky Collection. I’m happy to learn of this, and will investigate on my next visit. I had a semester-long encounter with Dr. Slonimsky, about which I’ll share with you privately.
    All best wishes…

  2. Wow, what a find! Looking forward to hunting out ways to listen to Kay, unknown to me until I read this. Thank you

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