Helen Hagan, (1891-1964) was a Black woman composer, concert pianist, Yale graduate, and the only African American female to be sent to France to entertain the American Expeditionary Forces during WWI. Her Piano Concerto in C Minor is her only surviving composition, and had only been heard by few, up until now.
This past Friday, in the very concert hall where Hagan debuted this composition, the Yale Philharmonia premiered a reimagined orchestral arrangement of its first movement, composed by Soomin Kim. Pianist and musicologist Samantha Ege proudly took Hagan’s spot as the featured soloist.
Ege, 32, a classical music scholar whose initial interest lay within uncovering and interpretation works by Florence Price, eventually led to a larger discovery of other Black women composers throughout the 20th century. This year, Ege released a recorded collection of five composers and pianists of this time titled “The Black Renaissance,” which includes pieces from Price, Hagan, Margaret Bonds, Betty Jackson King, and Nora Holt. She will soon release a new album: “Homage: Chamber Music from the African Continent & Diaspora,” which will be available later this month on October 28th.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Ege speaks about how she first learned of Hagan through her research on Florence Price, and how one discovery led to another.
“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,” she says.
“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.”
It can at times be challenging for a musician to interpret a sound that can only be “seen” on paper into something that can be not only heard, but felt as well.
“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,” Ege tells the Washington Post.
“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.”
When asked if she had any final notes to share about her experience, she had this to say:
“…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.”