Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1924, Julia Perry was a Black composer who studied widely, attending the Berkshire Music Centre and working with the great teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris and then relocating to Florence for further study before returning home to the United States. She eventually settled into a life as a teacher and as a composer, working hard to integrate her African musical heritage with the Western musical language she had grown up with. She was apparently quite prolific, writing a dozen symphonies and a couple of operas in addition to her other works, until a series of strokes incapacitated her on the right side of her body. Undeterred, Perry taught herself to use her left hand to write, thus furthering her compositional career until she died in 1979, when she was only 55.
All that, and until last week I had never heard of her or her music [oops: this, it turns out, isn’t entirely correct! I need to search my own archives before saying things like this]. I think that’s the most sobering thing about this project I’ve been on in this space these past few months: realizing how all of these composers, who all wrote interesting pieces that should be heard, have never been on my radar before. There are a lot of reasons for that, of course. I, like many, tend to more easily gravitate to what I know than what I don’t. But there’s another, deeper, more insidious reason why these Black musical voices have been largely drowned out, and it’s pretty obvious what that reason is.
Here is a sacred work by Julia Perry, her setting of the Stabat mater. Many composers have written the Stabat mater over the centuries, adapting the hymn and text to new musical language each time out. Perry’s is a contemplative and modernist setting for string orchestra and contralto. The sound strikes me as somewhere between Black spiritual and Catholic chant, with the hypnotic qualities of each. Fascinating piece.