Julia Perry - American Neoclassicist

Alan Westby, Librarian, Art, Music & Recreation Department,
African-American classical composer, Julia Perry
African-American classical composer, Julia Perry

Julia Perry (1924-1979) was an American composer of African descent who had remarkable success in Europe and the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. She made an international impression with her Stabat Mater, composed in 1951, and her Short Piece for Orchestra the following year. She continued to compose prolifically throughout the 1960s, receiving recognition and gaining commercial recordings of three works, though performances of new works stalled during this decade. A stroke severely impacted her career in the 1970s. She was in a wheelchair and partially paralyzed; she nonetheless continued composing. Lacking association with an organization or partner to care for her compositions, much of her work has been lost after her death. Composing ceaselessly throughout her life, she produced music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, chorus, and vocal music. Her catalog includes thirteen symphonies and three operas. Though much of her music has been lost or exists only in manuscript today, the music of Julia Perry is due for restoration and rediscovery.

Julia Amanda Perry was born March 25, 1924, in Lexington, Kentucky, the fourth of five daughters. Her mother, née America Lois Heath, was a native of Virginia, a graduate of Morristown College, and a schoolteacher who encouraged an education in music in her daughters. Her father, Dr. Abraham Murphy Perry, was a native of Lexington, a physician, and an amateur pianist who once toured as accompanist to the lyric tenor Roland Hayes. Julia Perry's paternal grandfather, Abraham "Abe" Perry, was one of the most successful racehorse trainers in Kentucky during the 19th century, before Jim Crow laws excluded African Americans from this occupation. His obituaries, in 1908, noted that he was one of the most prominent members of Lexington's African American community.

When Perry was 10, her family moved to Akron, Ohio, where she attended a school for talented children run by the University of Akron. She became more deeply involved in music, studying voice, piano, and violin. By high school, she was winning contests both for her singing and her violin playing. Local Akron papers began taking notice of her success very early and would continue to proudly claim her as a native daughter throughout her career.

After graduating high school in 1942, she was offered music scholarships enabling her to attend the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, from 1943 to 1948. There she studied composition, voice, piano, violin, and conducting. While still a junior in college, she composed a 1-page, 29-measure Prelude for Piano. This earliest surviving composition by Perry can be found in the library’s collection in Black Women Composers: A Century of Piano Music (1893-1990). The influence of the blues on Perry's early harmonic language can be heard in this short piece in her use of extended chords such as ninths and elevenths and blue notes. A traditional A-A-B blues structure also frames the work.

musical score
"Prelude for Piano"

During her college years, she composed several vocal and choral pieces. Her choral piece "Carillon Heigh-Ho" was published in 1947, and she had ten more choral pieces published during the following decade. At this early point in her career, she was involved with spirituals in setting the traditional repertoire and composing original works reflecting this style. In 1948 she completed her master's thesis with a secular cantata, Chicago, based on a 1914 Carl Sandburg poem. A September 1948 newspaper article in Akron announced that Perry would conduct this now-lost work at the 26th Annual Convention of the National Association of Negro Musicians. The concert celebrated the 30th anniversary of this organization's existence with a concert at Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl featuring soprano Ellabelle Davis, pianist Hazel Harrison, and a performance of William Grant Still's Archaic Ritual Suite. However, contemporary notices of the concert do not indicate that Perry's composition was presented in Los Angeles at this concert.

After earning her Master’s Degree, Perry participated in the annual National Association of Negro Musicians competition, winning first prize in both Composition and Voice. She spent a year on the faculty at Hampton Institute in Virginia, teaching composition, theory, orchestration, and voice. As a sign of her growing prominence in the musical world, her songs were being included in the repertoire of such singers as Nan Merriman and Ellabelle Davis. In August 1949, still only 25, Perry was the subject of an article in the Christian Science Monitor.

The 1950s saw Perry establishing an international reputation as a composer of promise. From 1949 to 1951, she stayed in the International House in New York for postgraduate students and research scholars in any discipline. While here, she took classes at Julliard and studied voice at the Curtis Institute. She was awarded a scholarship to participate and coach at the Columbia University Opera Workshop, and her singing was recognized in the Marian Anderson Award competition. Perhaps most important to her future, during this period, she became acquainted with the Italian conductor Piero Bellugi who was impressed with the fragments of the Stabat Mater she had begun composing at the time. Bellugi introduced Perry to his teacher, the prominent serialist composer Luigi Dallapiccola, who became a mentor to Perry over the next decade.

Perry first studied with Dallapiccola at Tanglewood in 1951, where she completed and performed her Stabat Mater for soprano and string orchestra to much success. Dedicated to her mother, this composition established Perry's career and became the most performed work during her lifetime. This composition showed that Perry had moved on from her earlier, more conservative style. She had begun experimenting with creating melodies with serialist techniques and using serialism to achieve motivic cohesion. The larger instrumental forces called for in the piece, its length, and use of dissonance and complex contrapuntal textures all mark this piece as a major advancement in Perry's style. The Stabat Mater presents for the first time many stylistic elements that were to become part of Perry's mature style, such as quartal harmony, octave displacements, and ostinati. Also, the work shows Perry's typical use of expressively declamatory vocal lines, with a sparing use of melismatic passages.

Bellugi and Dallapiccola persuaded Perry to move to Florence, Italy, to continue studies with Dallapiccola. In Italy, her new Stabat Mater was given multiple performances to an enthusiastic reception and broadcast on Radio Italiano. A 1951 Musical America article highlighted the work's success and Perry's growing international reputation. During her first two years of study in Europe, the work would also be performed in Germany, Austria, and the United States. She took a break during her studies with Dallapiccola to study with Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, where her now lost Viola Sonata won the Prix Fontainebleau. The premiere of her Short Piece for Orchestra was one of the highlights of Perry's second year in Italy. Along with the Stabat Mater, the Short Piece would become one of Perry's most-performed work and one of her few pieces to gain a recording during her lifetime.

Perry returned for a two-year stay in the U.S. in 1953, during which time Southern Music Company published her Stabat Mater, and she was awarded her first of her two Guggenheim Fellowships. Performances she saw at this time included a new string quartet and repeated performances of the Stabat Mater, though she had stopped singing it. By all accounts and evidence of her studies and recognitions, Perry was an excellent singer. Still, in 1953 she decided to stop singing professionally to focus exclusively on a career as a composer. Her first opera, The Cask of Amontillado, was performed at Columbia University in 1954. Perry co-wrote the Italian libretto, based on the Edgar Allan Poe story. The one-act opera shows Perry working in a personalized serialist style, using small groups of notes which she works through serial methods, sometimes developing into ostinati. Reviews were positive, commenting on Perry's originality and skill with orchestration.

Towards the end of 1955, Perry returned to Italy, giving a series of lectures sponsored by the U.S. Information Service. A second Guggenheim Fellowship, plus further Information Service lectures throughout Europe, enabled Perry to remain in Europe until early 1959. Scholarships helped Perry to continue composing and studying composition and conducting in Florence. In 1956 she wrote Three Negro Spirituals for Soprano and Orchestra, which she later expanded to Five. This composition was performed and possibly recorded in Rome.

Most of the music Perry composed during her European years of the 1950s tends towards instrumental, abstract forms, counterpoint, and European serial techniques, leading scholars and critics to call her style neoclassical. Though conscious of the social changes going on regarding racial relations in the U.S. while she was in Europe, these concerns are not immediately apparent in her work of this time. She had shown interest in traditional African American musical culture from her earliest compositions, setting and arranging spirituals, but did not set writings by more current and socially concerned poets, such as those of the Harlem Renaissance.

Perry returned to America in 1959, where her latest composition, Requiem for Orchestra was premiered in New York. Based on themes by Vivaldi, the rhythmic patterns and ostinati of the Baroque master fit well into Perry's evolving style. The clinical atmosphere and sound of medical equipment she heard while living with her father in the apartment above his medical practice in Akron inspired one of her most groundbreaking compositions: Homunculus C.F. Composed for ten percussionists including harp and celesta/piano, Perry drew inspiration for this work from Goethe's story of an artificial being, the Homunculus, created by Faust's assistant, Wagner. The work is in four sections of increasing rhythmic and instrumental complexity. Pitch and harmonic structure are constructed upon the "Chord of the 15th"—the "C.F." referred to in the title. The chord consists of a series of alternating Major and minor thirds, building up to the 15th step from the root.

piece of score

Perry wrote that Homunculus C.F. "maneuvers" through and "distills" the chord, rather than employing more traditional motivic development and chord progressions. By exploring the chord, she brings to life this piece, which she termed a "musical test-tube baby."

About 1960, Perry began an occasional association with CRI (Composers Recordings Inc.). Founded in 1954 to showcase the music of contemporary American composers, by the time this nonprofit label folded in 2003, it had released over 600 recordings. In 1960 the label released a recording of a performance of Perry's Stabat Mater, with William Strickland conducting the Japan Philharmonic. Though Perry's efforts to have her works performed and recorded by the label were not always successful, CRI would later release recordings of her Short Piece for Orchestra, and Homunculus, C.F.

Despite signs of health problems, as well as financial strains, the 1960s were Perry's most productive decade. Friends began noticing a change in Perry's personality, a premonition of the debilitating health problems that were to plague Perry in the next decade. In New York, after August 1961, Perry composed several orchestral works, including her First Symphony, for full orchestra. Dr. Perry, Julia Perry's father, died in October 1961. During a 1962 stay at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, she composed two more symphonies (No. 2, for violas and basses, and No. 3 for full orchestra) as well as a Dance for Chamber Orchestra. Though her earlier works continued to receive performances and recordings throughout the decade, after the early 1960s, her newer compositions received little public exposure. A career highlight came in 1964 when the New York Philharmonic performed her Short Piece for Orchestra—renamed "Study for Orchestra"—during a tour of Europe. The American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters gave Perry a grant allowing a CRI recording of Homunculus C.F. in 1965.

Her music of the 1950s, during which time she was mainly in Europe, had been relatively uninvolved with racial and social issues or outward expressions of African American heritage. Reflection of these concerns begins to show in the titles of some of the instrumental music she composed in America during the 1960s and 70s, such as her Fifth Symphony ("Integration Symphony"), for Chamber Orchestra, Seventh Symphony—("Symphony USA"), for chorus and small orchestra, and the later Tenth Symphony ("Soul Symphony"). She expressed these themes musically by referring to current popular trends in music, including rock and soul, along with the settings of spirituals that had occupied her since the beginning of her career. Though performances of new works had dwindled, Perry continued to receive recognition. In 1968, publisher Carl Fischer accepted Perry's Sixth Symphony, for band, and Violin Concerto, and in 1969 she received Honorable Mention in the ASCAP Awards to Women Composers of Symphonic and Concert Music.

Perry’s impressive output of instrumental music during the 1960s did not slow her work in vocal music. The text and dramatic compositions Perry wrote during the 1960s also reflect the change she felt in America after her return and show an increasing concern with the contemporary events of American society. Her three-act opera The Selfish Giant (1964), based on a story by Oscar Wilde, deals with themes of feminism and the value of education. Her 1969 libretto without music, Fisty-Me deals with such African American leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Dr. Ralph Bunche. The title—Fisty-Me—is a play on the name "Mephistopheles" from Faust, connecting the work with the earlier Homunculus C.F., and continuing her exploration of themes of the supernatural. Supernatural elements were also to show in her opera Symplegades, based on the Salem witch trials, which she worked on from the 1950s until the 70s.

Work she engaged in to support herself during the 1960s included teaching French and German as a substitute teacher at Akron public schools. In more literary work, she translated 78 African fables to English from Italian and worked on a music dictionary. In 1967, she returned to Florida A&M University to teach for a year, and she presented a lecture series at the Atlanta University Center after that. In early 1970 she was preparing a course in composition to be presented both privately and as a college course when she suffered a debilitating stroke.

In a wheelchair with her right side paralyzed and unable to speak, Julia Perry's determination to compose was not dampened. She had hopes of walking and even conducting again. She trained herself to write with her left hand, continued writing, and sent scores to publishers and performers. Her Ninth Symphony was completed after her stroke, and she wrote numerous pieces for marching band. Further strokes during the last decade of her life prevented her recovery, and despite her determination, she suffered from increasing artistic neglect during the 1970s.

Her final five symphonies were completed after her hospitalization, including Symphony No. 11 ("Space Symphony"), Symphony No. 12 ("Simple Symphony"), and a Marching Band Symphony. She also completed the Salem witch trial opera Symplegades, which had occupied her since the 1950s. Her last known piece was Bicentennial Reflections (1977), a short piece for tenor and chamber ensemble, including an electric bass. Perry's text to this piece ruminates on the meaning of freedom in America. She died in Akron on April 24, 1979, of a heart attack at the age of 55. Her mother, who had cared for her during her long illness, died three years later in 1983.

In her later years of incapacity, unfortunately, Perry did not heed suggestions from colleagues to donate her scores to a university or library specializing in African American culture. Rather than have her works stored in an archive, she preferred to try for publication. With the difficulty of reading her post-stroke manuscripts, there were no more publication offers. Consequently, her work was not maintained or cataloged after her death, and much of her music has been lost. Only a small portion of Perry’s prolific output is available for performance or listening. Of the extant work, much is available only in manuscript form. A fascinating, challenging, and prolific composer, Julia Perry's music is ripe for study, rediscovery, and performance.