African-American Women Concert Pianists
In the United States February has been designated "Black History Month", with a special focus on the contributions that African-Americans have made throughout the decades. During the process of searching for women concert pianists I have stumbled across several black women classical artists and so I thought this would be the best time to introduce them on this site.
Hinderas (b. Oberlin, Ohio, June 16, 1927; d. Philadelphia, July 22, 1987) is probably the most familiar name on this page, primarily due to her important recordings. Like many of the great pianists her talents appeared at an early age, with her first stage appearance at the age of three. At eight she gave her recital debut with a full-length recital in Cleveland, after which she was accepted as a special student at Oberlin, and at age 12 she performed Grieg's Concerto with the Cleveland Women's Symphony Orchestra. After graduation she went to Julliard, where she studied with Olga Samaroff, and the Philadelphia Conservatory, studying with Edward Steuermann. In the early 1950's she performed frequently in Europe, returning to make her New York debut in 1954. This led to an American recital tour and performances with the National Symphony. Under the Leventritt Foundation she performed with numerous orchestras from her extensive concerto repertoire, which she continued to do throughout her career. Ms. Hinderas made several world tours for the State Department in the 1960's. By 1970 she had begun to specialize in performing classical music by black composers, which led to lecture-recitals and recordings in this area. She was a faculty member of Temple University in Philadelphia from the 1960's to her death in 1987.
Several generations earlier Hazel Harrison(b. May 12, 1883, La Porte, Indiana; d. April 29, 1969, Washington, D.C.) held the undisputed title as the "premiere black pianist", man or woman, for almost four decades. In the tradition of most American musicians of the era she went to Europe in her early 20's for education and employment. For several years she studied with Ferrucio Busoni in Berlin, gave recitals, and appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic. Returning to the U.S. she performed in Chicago to such acclaim that two women sponsored her return to Europe for more studies. She spent 1911-14 studying again with Busoni, then launched her performing career, which continued full-time in Europe and the U.S. until 1931. In this year she began her teaching career as head of the piano department at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and in 1936 she transferred to Howard University in Washington, D.C. where she taught until her retirement in 1955. She balanced her teaching career with frequent performances, both with orchestra and in solo recitals throughout the U.S. In 1958 she was lured out of retirement by joining the faculty of Alabama State A & M College and later, Jackson College. In Eileen Southernís "Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians" (1982) it states: "Her style was described as virtuosic, brilliant, and powerful with the depth of a full orchestra, displaying consummate musicianship." You can read more about her full life in the 1983 biography, "Born to Play: The Life and Career of Hazel Harrison" by Jean E. Cazort and Constance T. Hobson (Wesport, Conn: Greenwood Press).
A more recent biography of a black woman pianist is Composition in Black and White: The Life of Philippa Schuyler, by Kathryn Talalay (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995). Only four years younger than Natalie Hinderas Philippa Schuyler (b. August 2, 1931, New York, NY; d. May 9, 1967, Vietnam) was also a child prodigy, performing in public at four years of age and winning prizes while still young. In 1946 she made her debut performing Saint-Sae'ís Piano Concerto in G minor with the New York Philharmonic. It wasn't long before she was touring world wide, giving solo recitals as well as appearing with leading orchestras in Europe, South America, East Asia, and Africa. She was also a skilled composer, writing several large works as well as many smaller Ė her manuscripts are in the Schomberg Center for Research and Black Culture in New York. As an author, in 1960 and 1962 she published five books related to her travels. She died in a helicopter accident in Vietnam where she was evacuating children from an orphanage. Three weeks before she died she gave a piano concert on South Vietnamese television. She was also working on a book about Vietnam which was published posthumously as Good Men Die.
Other black women classical concert pianists include Ernestine Dent and Margaret Bonds. Ernestine Dent (b. May 19, 1904, Houston, Texas; d.?) studied with James Friskin and Olga Samaroff at the Julliard School of Music in 1924-28. She toured nationally after that and then was appointed to Bishop College in Dallas to head the piano department, 1929-1931. After 1931 she lived in New Orleans where her husband was president of Dillard University. She taught privately and occasionally performed. Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) studied piano and composition at Northwestern University and Julliard. She was well-known as a pianist and teacher in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.
Included in Cheryl Branham's interviews of women pianists is Dean Eileen Tate Cline, the dean of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore from 1983 to her retirement in 1995. Her education includes a master's degree in piano performance, and a doctorate in music education with her dissertation being the first important study of piano competitions. An award-winning author and administrator, Dr. Cline is advisor to many music organizations, including being a member of the Advisory Boards of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and a jury member in the 2001 competition.
In searching for online material I ran across biographical sketches of black women composers, some of whom were classical pianists, in Leonarda Records (see "Kaleidoscope: Music by African-American Women") and Hildegard Publishers (see "Black Women Composers (1893-1990" when you enter Schuyler or Bonds in the composer search). As far as reference books, most of these women can be found in Eileen Southernís "Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians" (1982). It should be noted that whereas only Natalie Hinderas was listed in the First Edition (1980) of the New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, she was dropped from the Second Edition (2001), but Hazel Harrison and Philippa Schuyler were added. Such fickle curiosities. . . Baker's 2001 Biographical Dictionary of Musicians includes Hinderas, Schuyler and Bonds
Before closing I should mention probably the most famous black woman pianist, the great jazz performer and composer, Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981). Not listed in this site because it currently only features classical performers, she was nonetheless a remarkable musician that you can read more about at The Kennedy Center's Women in Jazz Festival .
by Rose Eide-Altman
published February 7, 2002
copyright 2002 PianoWomen.com
Additional Information added July 2006:
A reader has brought to my attention the pianist Frances Walker. "She was the first
black woman to achieve the status of full professor at Oberlin
College. Two years ago she was given the Oberlin College Alumni Award
for her contributions to the College, her class and also for her
extraordinary work with minority students. Moreover, she has played
more New York recitals and concerts in Europe with great success than
any other black woman pianist with the exception of Natalie Hinderas.
She presented the first piano recital in New York that was devoted
solely to classical black composers." Please read her fascinating biography on the Oberlin Collegewebsite.