Unheard on campus for 110 years, concerto by Yale alumna gets orchestral debut

On Oct. 21, a Woolsey Hall audience will hear a piano concerto by Helen Hagan, the first Black woman to graduate from the Yale School of Music.
Helen Hagen, Samantha Ege, Soomin Kim, and Yale Philharmonia

For the first time in more than a century, a Woolsey Hall audience will hear a piano concerto by Helen Hagan (center), who played her piece on campus in 1912, the year she became the first Black woman to graduate from the Yale School of Music. British pianist and musicologist Samantha Ege (bottom right) will be the soloist for the Oct. 21 performance with the Yale Philharmonia (bottom left). Recent School of Music graduate and composer Soomin Kim (top left) orchestrated Hagan’s piece — her sole surviving composition — for the event. The program also includes works by Ralph Vaughn Williams and Gustav Mahler.

More than century ago, a teenager named Helen Hagan arrived on the Yale campus as a student at the Yale School of Music (which then offered undergraduate degrees). But she already had plenty of experience performing before audiences in New Haven.

Hagan was only nine when she first played organ at the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, the world’s oldest formally recognized African-American Congregational church.

At Yale, where in 1912 she became the first Black woman to graduate from the School of Music, she performed her own Piano Concerto in C minor and later performed Saint-Saëns’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra (NHSO). Horatio Parker, the school’s first dean and the founding conductor of the NHSO, wrote that Hagan showed “not only pianistic talent of rare promise but also clearly marked ability to conceive and execute musical ideas of much charm and no little originality.”

Next week, from the first time in 110 years, a musical composition by Hagan will reach the ears — and the hearts — of a Yale campus audience.

The first movement of Hagan’s Concerto for C minor for Piano and Orchestra — her only surviving musical composition — will be one of the featured pieces in the Yale Philharmonia’s Oct. 21 concert in Woolsey Hall, where Hagan first performed her concerto with an ensemble in a 1912 concert by student performers.

The piano soloist for the event will be Samantha Ege, a British concert pianist and musicologist who featured Hagan’s concerto on a recent album.

I hadn’t performed her music before [the recording], but I had been aware of it for a very long time,” said Ege, who included the composition on “Black Renaissance Woman,” an album she recorded with John Paul Ekins.

With this album and with all my albums, I always want to show off women’s virtuosity because of the gendered and racial stereotypes around intellectual ability,” she said. “I feel that it’s so important to show just what these women were capable of, and the ways in which they broke down the variety of stereotypes that sought to really contain them.”

From a New Haven church to Yale’s concert hall

Born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Hagan moved to New Haven when she was a young girl. The fact that she so quickly became the pianist at the leading church in the city gives an idea of just how talented she was, said Yale School of Music Dean Robert Blocker.

And to then come to a place like Yale demonstrates that she had great musical gifts as both a performer and a composer,” he said. “From what we’ve learned about her, she was a young woman whose charisma and zeal matched her talent.”

At Yale, Hagan received the School of Music’s inaugural Samuel Simons Sanford Fellowship. In a report to the president and fellows of the university, Dean Parker wrote that the fellowship recognized “a brilliant performance of an original concerto (first movement) for piano and orchestra.”

The award helped fund Hagan’s musical study in France for two years after she graduated. A few years later, in 1919, she returned to France to perform for Black troops who remained stationed there after World War I. She was the only Black woman selected to perform for the troops. In 1921, she became the first African-American pianist to give a recital in New York City.

In a review of her New York performance, The New York Times wrote, “If Miss Hagan made slips of memory, she never lost the thread of music that presented itself powerfully to her understanding and imagination.”

Hagan later taught at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (today called Tennessee State University), and served as dean of music at Bishop College in Marshall, Texas.

Yet despite her many accomplishments, she was buried in a family plot in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery without her own grave marker. In 2016, a crowd-funding campaign led by Elizabeth Foxwell, who edited In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I,” an anthology of first-person accounts by American women, including Hagan, who played a role in the war, raised funds for an individual grave marker.

Blocker, who spoke on behalf of the School of Music at the grave-marking ceremony,  hopes the upcoming performance will bring more attention to her talents and musical contributions.

We had originally planned to feature a performance of Hagan’s concerto in 2020 as part of ‘50WomenAtYale150’ [a celebration of the 50th year of co-education in Yale College and 150th anniversary of women students at the university],” he said. “That event had to be scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I said then that we would highlight her work in a concert as soon as possible.”

A stroke of fortune

That unfortunate cancellation, however, later created an opportunity.

Earlier this year, the School of Music learned about Ege’s two-piano arrangement of Hagan’s concerto for her recent recording “Black Renaissance Woman,” which also features works for piano by Margaret Bonds, Nora Holt, Betty Jackson King, and Florence Price.

Ege, who is a research fellow at the University of Southhampton, said the opportunity to play Hagan’s piece 110 years after its debut, in the same place Hagan originally played it, is a special occasion for her.

What it means for me as a woman of African descent, to be engaged as a classical pianist — it’s huge,” she said. “And I hope that it signals further celebrations of African-American graduates of the Yale School of Music and reinforces the need to support students of African descent who are there now as well.”

Because what remains of the manuscript for Hagan’s concerto is the composer’s handwritten two-piano arrangement, Dean Blocker commissioned School of Music alumna and composer Soomin Kim ’21 M.M., ’22 M.M.A. to orchestrate Hagan’s piece for the performance.

My biggest challenge was to fulfill an orchestral imagination just based on the manuscript that was given to me,” said Kim, who hosted the Yale School of Music’s five-part Women’s History Month podcast “Simply Listen: Women in Dialogue” in 2021. “I listened to some early Romantic pieces and pieces that were written by Hagan’s contemporaries so I was able to guess at what Helen might have herself imagined for her concerto.” The composer also consulted with Ege and her School of Music mentors Martin Bresnick and Christopher Theofanidis about her transcription.

Kim had never heard of Hagan before taking on the project, but learned about her life while she orchestrated the composer’s piece, including how there was a period of Hagan’s life about which not much is known.

It is a huge honor for me to have played a part in bringing her piece to life,” said Kim, who will travel from her home in Minneapolis to New Haven to attend the concert. “I really enjoyed getting to know more of Helen Hagan, and I’m honored that they put such trust in me for such a momentous event.”

Blocker said Hagan’s concerto is “an exuberant, youthful creation of music in the Romanic tradition that reflects joy,” adding: “It is well-crafted, which is what you would expect from a composer coming from Yale. As a pianist myself, I think it would be a piece that would be really enjoyable to play.”

That a present-day audience will have the chance to learn something about the Yale School of Music’s first Black graduate, and one whose sole surviving composition has mostly been forgotten, is a personal moment of pride for him and for the School of Music.

Helen Hagan’s time at Yale demonstrates that art did rise above poverty, class, and skin color early on our campus,” Blocker said. “Helen Hagan was a person who contributed to our community, and deserves honor. It is very special that others will know more of her through her own joyful music.”

The concert will take place Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m. in Woolsey Hall. The evening’s program will also include Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto in A minor, with School of Music alumna and oboist Soo Min Ha ’21 M.M., ’22 M.A.; and Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony (the “Titan”). Peter Oundjian will conduct. Tickets range from $12 to $17 and can be purchased on the School of Music website. Admission is free for students.

Yale School of Music Deputy Dean Melvin Chen will lead a Q&A with Dr. Samantha Ege and Soomin Kim at noon, on Oct. 20, in Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Memorial Hall. The Q&A is free and open to the public.

David Brensilver contributed to this story.

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