Helen Hagan, pioneering Black composer, retakes the spotlight at Yale



History doesn’t always repeat itself. Sometimes it appears in a flash of inspiration and barely makes it past its moment.

Sometimes history gets buried under papers or forgotten in closets, lost in house fires, or locked in the bellies of big roll-top desks. Other times history goes missing in a fog of forgetfulness or neglect. And just as often it gets smothered under a blanket of intentional suppression.

It’s hard to say which of these factors — if not a bit of each — contributed to the fate of composer Helen Hagan’s music. The early-20th-century pianist, composer and musical pioneer left behind only a single movement of the precocious piano concerto she composed in 1912 at Yale School of Music.

On Friday, at the very same concert hall where Hagan delivered the debut of her “Piano Concerto in C Minor,” the Yale Philharmonia will give the world premiere of composer Soomin Kim’s newly imagined orchestral arrangement of its first movement. Pianist and musicologist Samantha Ege will take Hagan’s spot at the piano as featured soloist.

Ege, 32, has quickly distinguished herself as one of the primary scholars and keenest interpreters of the music of American composer Florence Price. Her memorable and sensitively performed 2021 release “Fantasie Nègre” collected Price’s recently unearthed “Fantasie” (one of a number of the composer’s posthumously discovered works) as well as a selection of untitled musical sketches and “Snapshots” for solo piano.

But Ege’s research has extended beyond Price and illuminated a largely unheard network of Black female composers of the early 20th century. Earlier this year, Ege released “Black Renaissance Woman,” a collection of works from five composer/pianists of the Black Renaissance, including Price, Hagan, Margaret Bonds, Betty Jackson King and Nora Holt — who, as a critic for the Chicago Defender, once praised Hagan’s “extraordinary attainments” and “forearms of steely construction.”

(On Oct. 28, Ege releases her new album, “Homage: Chamber Music from the African Continent & Diaspora.”)

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Hagan’s original 1912 manuscript for the “Piano Concerto in C Minor” was scored for two pianos — a version of which appears on “Black Renaissance Woman,” where Ege is accompanied by pianist John Paul Ekins. It’s a stormy, bracing, exquisitely detailed introduction to Hagan’s sensibilities, lit throughout with a burnished late-Romantic glow. In just a few minutes of Hagan, you can hear the melodic thrust and drama of Mendelssohn, or the elegant weave of the familiar and the fresh you get from Amy Beach.

Born in 1891, Helen Eugenia Hagan embarked on her musical path early, playing organ at New Haven’s Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church at the age of 10. Hagan is believed to be the first Black student at Yale School of Music, where as an undergraduate she performed Saint-Saëns’s “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” as well as her own concerto with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. Her 1912 debut of the concerto (performed at Yale’s Woolsey Hall with a student ensemble) earned her the school’s inaugural Samuel Simons Sanford Fellowship, allowing her two years of postgraduate study in France.

Her success at the Yale School of Music was the first of several firsts. Hagan went on to be the first Black pianist to perform a solo recital at a New York City venue, as well as the first Black performer to entertain African American U.S. troops overseas, in 1919.

Hagan’s music wasn’t widely heard in her lifetime, but was well-regarded by those who did get to experience it. A 1915 event in Chicago — the second annual All Colored Composers Concert — offered an impactful showcase for the concerto, which she performed with T. Theodore Taylor. In 1921, the New York Times extended microaggressive praise for the “unusual” Hagan’s “uncommon gifts” following a recital at Aeolian Hall — referring to her as “one of those exotic musical souls born to be pioneers.”

Hagan went on to a long career in teaching at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College, now Tennessee State University, and as dean of music at Bishop College in Texas. She died in 1964, laid to rest at New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery, where her grave went unmarked until 2016.

Hours before Ege’s first rehearsal with the Yale Philharmonia (under conductor Peter Oundjian), I caught up with her by phone earlier this month. (The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: How did yours and Helen’s paths first intersect?

A: I came across Helen Hagan because of the work I was doing on Florence Price. That work brought me to Chicago, and in particular the Center for Black Music Research [at Columbia College], where there is so much on so many different kinds of Black composers and musicians. I was particularly interested in learning more about Black women in classical music, because I think at that time, as much as I knew that Florence Price wasn’t the only Black woman writing classical music in the first half of the 20th century, there’s so much emphasis on her that you’d think she was the only one. So it made me want to know more of this wider network. There I came across the two-piano arrangement of Helen Hagan’s “Piano Concerto in C Minor.” Now, because I’m a pianist, this immediately caught my interest. And I find that, because I’m a historian and a pianist, it brings a deeper level of connection, where I learn about the biographical side, but I also get to hear these women almost speak through my fingers as a pianist. I get to know them on a more personal and emotional level.

Q: To what extent was there a network? That is, were the composers represented on the “Black Renaissance Women” album part of an active community, or was it later research that brought them together in our consciousness?

A: There was absolutely a connection at that time. On that album, there’s a composer called Nora Holt — just this absolutely fabulous woman. She’s a socialite. She’s a scholar. She’s a performer. She is a nightclub hostess. She’s everything. She’s a Renaissance woman — that’s how I think of her. On top of that, she was also a music critic for the Chicago Defender, and she used to review Helen Hagan’s concerts. So this is not a forced narrative of this Black women’s creative circle; this is very much the reality. I think of them as almost like a school of music, a school of composition, this Black Renaissance era: Helen Hagen, Florence Price, all of these women belong to that.

Q: The last century has managed to silence so many of these composers or scatter them into obscurity. I think the temptation is to imagine that they were also functioning in some sort of isolation. But it doesn’t sound like that was the case at all.

A: Definitely not. I mean, Helen Hagan won a scholarship that enabled her to study in France, and she’s there with all of the big-name contemporaries. I think of Nora Holt studying with Nadia Boulanger. You have to be of a certain level to be accepted under her tutelage. So these are women that are operating at a very high level, and their success in that time speaks volumes because they are in this hostile Jim Crow environment, and yet they are entering these very elite, very competitive spaces.

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Q: From what little of Hagan’s music we have, is it possible or even useful to triangulate Hagan’s music among her influences, mentors or musical community?

A: I find that the work I’ve done on Florence Price gives me a better understanding of where Helen Hagan is coming from. Price studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, and I feel that this entire education and in the education of so many early-20th-century Black composers who are attending these predominantly White institutions, the German school of composition is so strong in the pedagogy, and that feeds into the sound world that we hear. What’s really interesting with Helen Hagan’s work is that this concerto doesn’t have any of the folk influences that you would hear in her contemporaries or her predecessors like [Harry] Burleigh or Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, or Florence Price, Margaret Bonds or Nora Holt. And it turns out that she was interested in that — there are other works where she actually reflected these diverse inspirations in African American folk music. But the concerto itself is very grounded in this Romantic tradition. But then she got some ideas which are very experimental. So she’s not bound by tradition. She knows how to use it. And then she kind of wants to take it further.

Q: Have you had a chance to rehearse with the orchestra yet? Or is tonight’s rehearsal going to be the first?

A: Tonight will be the first time. The first time I played it in preparation for my album, I found it a real challenge because I didn’t have a strong sense of what Hagan’s voice should sound like. It’s so different with my other repertoire because I’ve got examples to draw upon. Even if I’m playing pieces that haven’t been recorded, there are recordings of other works that can give me a sense of direction. But with Helen Hagan, it was a real challenge. I’m at a point now where the notes are feeling more and more a part of me. Honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to feel when I hear it with the orchestra. Worst case, I imagine, is that I’ll kind of freeze up and be so overwhelmed that we’ll see. I hope not!

Q: I suspect you’ll be just fine. Is there anything about Hagan or her concerto that we didn’t cover?

A: There is one other thing that I’d like to share: I find it interesting that as a pianist, playing this kind of repertoire has a way of bringing me into these composer’s worlds in ways that I never experienced when I was playing music from the canon. And there’s just something really moving about learning a piece and then, months later, or years later, finding yourself in the same venue where that particular composer was, playing their music. There’s something very special about the way that these women have drawn me into their world since I’ve been learning their music. And I’m very grateful for that.

Piano Concerto in C Minor has its world premiere Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Woolsey Hall, Yale University, New Haven, Conn. music-tickets.yale.edu.

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