Undine Smith Moore was born in 1904 in the small town of Jarratt, VA. She was the granddaughter of emancipated slaves who had labored on small farms in the Tidewater region. Her parents, James and Hardie, were eager to give their children more opportunities and so moved the family to the nearby city of Petersburg, just south of Richmond. Of her childhood, Undine recalled community singing at the Baptist church her family attended and said that “above all else, music reigned,” according to Helen Walker-Hill’s From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music. Her father’s job as a train coupler with the Norfolk & Western Railroad enabled the family to purchase an upright piano as well as lessons for Undine with a local alumna of Fisk University, who later encouraged her pupil to attend Fisk.
A scholarship provided by the Juilliard School–the first such scholarship in that school’s history–allowed Undine to attend Fisk University in Nashville, TN. Fisk University is, of course, home to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who introduced concert arrangements of African American spirituals to music halls throughout North America and Europe beginning in the 1870s to raise funds for their school. At Fisk, Undine thrived and composed works for the Fisk Chorus. She graduated with honors in piano, music theory, and music history in 1926.
But Undine also had a passion for teaching. Rather than pursue graduate studies at Juilliard, she returned in 1927 to her hometown and became an instructor at Virginia State University in Petersburg, where she taught piano, counterpoint, and music theory. She also taught at public schools in the area and often wrote music for the students out of necessity, since the schools could not afford to purchase sheet music. Undine came to relish the art of teaching and said that she considered herself a teacher who composes rather than a composer who teaches. She commuted to New York from 1929 to 1931 in order to earn an MA and Professional Diploma in Music from Columbia University Teachers College. She had teaching residences at colleges in Minnesota and also traveled to give lectures on Black composers. At Virginia State, she co-founded the Black Music Center in 1969 and remained on the faculty until 1972, serving as teacher and mentor for generations of musicians, including operatic soprano Camilla Williams and pianist Dr. Billy Taylor, who in turn became a renowned jazz educator.
Undine began composing more in the 1950s, studying composition from 1952-53 at the Manhattan School of Music and regularly attending composition workshops at the Eastman School of Music. Her earliest compositions had been in the vein of European Romanticism, but in the 1950s a marked change occurred. Undine began to collect and notate spiritual melodies from members of her community in Southside Virginia, recognizing their unique qualities and value. According to a 1976 article in The Choral Journal, Undine said, “After completing a master’s degree…it suddenly dawned on me that the songs my mother sang while cooking dinner; the melodies my father hummed after work moved me very deeply… It was these spirituals which I wanted first to arrange for chorus. In making these arrangements my aim was not to make something ‘better’ than what was sung. I thought them so beautiful that I wanted to have them experienced in a variety of ways–by concert choirs, soloists, and by instrumental groups.”
When asked what characterized her music as “uniquely black,” Undine replied in a 1986 interview for the journal Helicon Nine, “Musically, its rhythms; its choice of scale structures; its use of call and response; its general use of contrapuntal devices since…the black musics of my early experiences were emphatically not homophonic; the choice of timbres; melody as influenced by rhythms, timbres, scalar structure. When the harmony is non-tertian, it is apt to use the 4ths and 5ths so often sung by black people in the churches of my youth; the deliberate use of striking climax with almost unrestrained fullness.”
Undine is credited with more than 100 compositions, although only 26 were published during her lifetime. The majority of her oeuvre is choral music but also includes works for solo voice, piano, and chamber ensembles. Her choral works range from arrangements of spirituals to large-scale multi-movement works calling for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. In 1981 Undine’s Scenes from the Life of a Martyr premiered at Carnegie Hall and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The work is a 16-part oratorio for narrator, soloists, chorus, and orchestra that reflects on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Undine received many honors during her life, including the following: National Association of Negro Musicians Distinguished Achievement Award (1975), Virginia Music Laureate (1977), Virginia Governor’s Award in the Arts (1985), and an honorary doctorate degree from Indiana University (1976). Equally important, however, is that her work endures to this day in performances by choirs in communities, churches, and educational settings.
Regarding the inspiration that lay at the heart of her music, Undine reflected in the 1986 interview: “Philosophically, in retrospect, it seems I have often been concerned with aspiration, the emotional intensity associated with the life of black people as expressed in the various rites of the church and black life in general–the capacity and desire for abundant, full expression as one might anticipate or expect from an oppressed people determined to survive.”
Undine Smith Moore, who came to be known as the Dean of Black Women Composers, passed away in Petersburg, VA, in 1989.
The NLS Music Section invites you to explore the life and legacy of this American composer by checking out the following books from our collection. To borrow any materials mentioned in this post, you may access BARD or contact the Music Section by phone at 1-800-424-8567, option 2, or e-mail [email protected].
Joshua Fit the Battle. Bill Brown teaches an early advanced piano arrangement by ear without the use of music notation. (BRM03956)
Singing in the African American Tradition (DBM01528)
Burleigh, H.T. The Spirituals of Harry T. Burleigh (High Voice). Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM28522)
–“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”: Negro Spiritual. Arranged for Solo Voice by H.T. Burleigh. For low voice and piano. Line by line and bar by bar formats. (BRM25991)
Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel. Deep River: American Negro Melody, Piano Solo, op. 59, no. 10. Bar by bar format. (BRM08220)
Dawson, William L. King Jesus Is a Listening: Negro Folk Song for Mixed Voices. Line by line format. (BRM22475)
Dett, R. Nathaniel. Juba: Dance from the Suite In the Bottoms. For piano in bar over bar format (BRM27832)
—Listen to the Lambs. For SATB chorus and piano.
–Magnolia: Suite for Piano. Bar over bar format. (BRM00167)
—Rise Up, Shepherd and Follow. For TTBB chorus in paragraph format. (BRM04013)
Hairston, Jester. You Better Mind: Spiritual. For SATB chorus. (BRM26432)
Johnson, Hall. “Ain’t Got Time to Die.” For chorus of unaccompanied mixed voices and tenor solo. Open and short score. (BRM29477)
Tenor Chorus Parts: A Book of Spirituals for Mixed Voices. Tenor chorus part only. Includes arrangements by William L. Dawson and Jester Hairston, among others. (BRM36310)
30 Negro Spirituals Arranged for Voice and Piano by Hall Johnson (LPM00155)
Simpson, Anne Key. Follow Me: The Life and Music of R. Nathaniel Dett (LPM00627)
Spiritual Songs. Unaccompanied melodies with chord symbols (LPM00348)
And check out the following digital collection from the Library of Congress: