Timeline: Julia Perry (1924-1979)

Mar 15, 2021

Julia Perry was a uniquely talented and educated composer, pianist and conductor. Her music is a combination of many different influences from her training in the United States and Europe as well as her African-American heritage. Even though she passed away at the age of 55, Julia Perry left behind an impressive catalogue of works; including three operas and 12 symphonies.

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Perry was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1924. The family moved to Akron, Ohio when she was rather young and she always considered Akron to be her home through all the later travels in her life. Perry’s father was a doctor and an accomplished pianist. Her mother encouraged all the children to pursue and study music. Julia Perry started taking violin lessons at an early age and quickly transitioned to the piano.

Perry studied at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood and at Julliard. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, not just once but twice. Her first fellowship funded her travel, lodging and study in Florence.

In 1952, Julia Perry moved to Paris and studied with Nadia Boulanger, like many prominent 20th century composers. Perry went on to further study in Europe and made a name for herself as a conductor. She was sponsored by the U.S. Information Service to conduct a series of concerts all across Europe.

Perry moved back to the United States after almost a decade overseas. She later wrote that America had changed since she had been gone.

Many of Perry’s earlier compositions are vocal pieces; arrangements of African-American Spirituals like Free At Last, Poor Li’l Orphan and Song of Our Savior, written for the Hampton Institute Choir. She wrote several successful operas such as The Symplegades and The Selfish Giant. Julia Perry is also noted for her experimental works. Stabat Mater is an exploration of dissonance, pushing the limits of tonality. Perry’s work Homunculus was a groundbreaking piece for ten percussionists.

Perry moved back to the United States, after almost a decade overseas, to take a teaching position at Florida A&M in Tallahassee. She later wrote that America had changed since she had been gone. The racial tensions and civil rights movement of the 1960s inspired Perry to respond through her music. Her 10th Symphony entitled Soul Symphony was a direct response to the unrest in the country.

Julia Perry’s music was starting to gain attention in the late 60s, especially with the performance and recording for her popular Short Piece for Orchestra by the New York Philharmonic in 1965. Just as things were looking up, Perry had a series of serious strokes in 1970. She lost use of the right side of her body. Yet, Perry perservered and taught herself to write with her left hand and continued composing.

Julia Perry passed away in 1979. She’s buried in her hometown of Akron, Ohio. Oddly enough, her tombstone bares a wrong birth date. Perry was born in 1924, not 1927.

Find out more and follow the Timeline at VPR.org/timeline.