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Timeline: Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989)

Undine Smith Moore didn't begin pursuing composition seriously until she was in her 50s. She wrote over a hundred individual works, yet only 26 were published during her lifetime.
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Undine Smith Moore didn't begin pursuing composition seriously until she was in her 50s. She wrote over a hundred individual works, yet only 26 were published during her lifetime.

Undine Smith Moore was a composer, a performer, an educator and an outspoken advocate for civil rights. She’s been called the “Dean of Black Women Composers.”

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Undine Eliza Anna Smith was the granddaughter of former slaves; born in Virginia in 1904. Her childhood was surrounded by music. She later spoke about her hometown of Jarratt, stating that in that community “above all else, music reigned.” The reigning music must have rubbed off on young Undine. She began excelling in piano lessons at the age of seven. As a young woman, she attended Fisk University where she earned a scholarship to continue her studies at Julliard.

After graduation, Undine Smith’s friends encouraged her to continue her studies at Julliard. Instead, she took a position as the supervisor of music for public schools in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Undine said that she saw “teaching itself as an art.” While teaching, she also earned her Master’s in Music from Columbia University. Undine directed several choirs during this time and since budgets were quite tight, she ended up composing and arranging original works for her ensembles. She also began teaching at Virginia State College in 1927, an institution she would stay with for the next 45 years.

Undine Smith Moore became a sought after lecturer. She co-founded the Black Music Center at Virginia State College, an organization that highlighted the “contributions of black people to the music of the United States and the world.”

Moore won the National Association of Negro Musicians Distinguished Achievement Award, the Virginia Governor’s Award in the Arts and the Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. She was awarded honorary doctorates from Virginia State University and Indiana University and was declared the Music Laureate of Virginia in 1985.

Undine Smith Moore didn’t begin pursuing composition seriously until she was in her 50s. She wrote over a hundred individual works, yet only 26 were published during her lifetime. Moore stated that her musical inspiration came from two sources, African-American spirituals and J.S. Bach. She wrote many choral arrangements of hymns and spirituals as well as experimental instrumental works. Her solo piano piece Before I’d be a Slave is an exploration into atonal expressionism.

Moore’s most ambitious work has to be Scenes from the Life of a Martyr, a Pulitzer Prize nominated oratorio based of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. 

Undine Smith Moore was a huge supporter of the civil rights movement. She expressed that,

One of the most evil effects of racism in my time was the limits it placed upon the aspirations of blacks, so that though I have been 'making up' and creating music all my life, in my childhood or even in college I would not have thought of calling myself a composer or aspiring to be one…all liberation is connected… as long as any segment of the society is oppressed… the whole society must suffer.

A stroke took Moore’s life in 1989. She’s buried in Petersburg VA.

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

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