African-American Organ Literature: A Selective Overview

April 1, 2003

Contrary to popular belief, there is a substantive body of African-American classical music. This music draws upon a wealth of influences which are not just limited to Negro spirituals and jazz. The same can be said for the organ literature of African-Americans. Of the 332 entries listed in Paula Harrell's 1992 dissertation "Organ Literature of Twentieth-Century Black Composers: An Annotated Bibliography," only 74 are based on spirituals.1 In fact, African-American organ literature draws upon a multitude of influences which include spirituals, melodies of African origin, general protestant hymnody, German Protestant chorales, plainchant, as well as original composer themes. A few organ compositions have even been inspired by musical themes, individuals, and historical events associated with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.2

Regarding the composers, several have had extensive training
and expertise in the field of composition.  Many of these, at one time or another, have been the
recipients of prestigious music fellowships3 and/or composition awards.4

As is the case with a large segment of 20th-century organ
music, African-American organ literature has been influenced by neo-classical
as well as symphonic organ composition styles.  The composers who have written utilizing a neo-classical
idiom include, but are not limited to, such names as George Walker (b. 1922),
Ulysses Kay (1917-1995), and Mark Fax (1911-1974). In terms of symphonic
writing for the instrument, there is, for instance, the music of Thomas H. Kerr
(1915-1988), William B. Cooper (1920-1993), Eugene W. Hancock (1929-1994), and
Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941). Some composers such as Noel Da Costa (b. 1929)
and David Hurd (b. 1950) display a diversity of stylistic influences in their

Much of the literature for the instrument represents a
varied number of compositional forms such as sonata, fugue, rondo, theme and
variations, as well as free form. There is also a considerable body of
literature for organ and other instruments which encompasses everything from
concerti with orchestra to chamber music.5 Before embarking upon a discussion
of the literature and its composers, it is necessary to provide some background
into its history and to discuss the nature of a few deterrants to performance.

The accessibility of music scores is perhaps the central
problem regarding the performance of this music. The reason for this is because
the vast majority of this literature, with few exceptions, remains
unpublished.6 Much of it exists only in manuscript form, the legibility of
which could itself constitute a deterrent to performance. Most of the scores
may be obtained directly either from the composers or their estates. The fact
that a large segment of this music remains unpublished has no bearing on its
quality, for the quality of the music is equal to much of that which already
appears in print, and in several instances, exceeds it. The lamentable truth of
the matter is that bias and negative racial stereotyping of black intellectual
capacity have been at fault.7 In the past, music publishers generally displayed
little interest in publishing the classical works of African-Americans,
Hispanics, women, or anyone who was not traditionally considered to be a part
of the male-dominant social mainstream. Since that time, music publishers have
slowly, but surely, begun to express an interest in publishing the works of
women and a handful of minority composers;8 however, for many years, this was
not the case. Much of this music went virtually unnoticed and unperformed. This
was even true for Thomas Kerr's AGO prize-winning composition Arietta, the
latter of which was once published commercially, but is currently unavailable
in print.9 It is for this reason that a survey, however succinct, is not only
desirable, but necessary. Although it is not feasible in the scope of a single
article to provide a comprehensive survey of African-American organ literature,
it is nonetheless possible to provide a brief, informative overview of a select
opus belonging to an equally select cadre of composers from this group.

For the purpose of this article, the composers discussed are
divided into two general styles of organ composition: symphonic and
neo-classical. Brief composer biographical sketches accompany a selective opus
listing. For each composer, a few measures from one or more compositions have
been extracted which reflect the wide variety of thematic sources and stylistic
influences from which these pieces are derived. We will start with the symphonic
compositions of Thomas H. Kerr, Adolphus Hailstork, and William B. Cooper.

Thomas H. Kerr
(1915-1988) served on the music faculty of Howard University as Professor of
Piano from 1943 until his retirement in 1976. An alumnus of the Eastman School
of Music, Kerr graduated with highest honors and was later awarded an M.M.
degree from the same institution. Kerr became the recipient of a Rosenwald
Fellowship in Composition (1942) and was subsequently awarded First Prize in
the Composers and Authors of America Competition (1944). In addition to his
recital activity, he was presented twice as a concerto soloist with the
National Symphony. Kerr's contributions to musical literature have been in the
area of piano, voice, chorus, woodwind ensemble, and organ. Although primarily
trained as a pianist, Kerr became masterfully familiar with the organ and its
resources, thus enabling him to write most effectively for the instrument.

Here, two of Kerr's compositions have been selected. The
first example is the theme from the Concert Variations on a Merry Xmas Tune,
which is based on the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas." (Example

Another popular Kerr composition,  Anguished American Easter-1968, is a brilliant set of theme
and variations based on the Easter spiritual "He 'rose." Written upon
hearing news of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Kerr completed the
original manuscript in 10 days. It is dedicated to Dr. King's memory. (Example

Organ Compositions (Published Scores)

Arietta [1957]-[Now out-of-print]

(Unpublished Scores)-[selected]

Anguished American Easter-1968 (Dedicated to the Memory of
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Concert Variations on a Merry Xmas Tune ("Good King
Wenceslas") [Revised 1969]

Thanksgiving-1969 (Somber Variations on Handel's "Thanks
Be to Thee")

Suite Sebastienne: (Theme and Cantus, Frolicking Flutes,
Miniature Antiphonal on a Pedal Point, Fugato and Toccata, Trio, Allegro
barbaro, Reverie, Toccata-Carillon) [Revised 1974]

Adolphus Hailstork
(b. 1941) received his degrees from Howard University (B.M. degree) under Mark
Fax, and at the Manhattan School of Music (B.M. and M.M. degrees) under
Vittorio Giannini and David Diamond. He later received a Doctorate of Music in
Composition from Michigan State University where he was a student of H. Owen
Reed. Hailstork pursued additional study with Nadia Boulanger at the American
Institute at Fountainebleau. Currently, he is serving as Professor of Music and
Composer-in-Residence at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Virginia. Among
his composition awards are the Ernest Bloch Award for Choral Composition
(1972), the Belwin-Mills Max Winkler Award (1977), and First Prize in the
Virginia College Band Director's National Competition (1983). In addition to
organ works, Hailstork has written for chorus, voice, various chamber
ensembles, and band.

Hailstork's fiery Toccata on 'Veni Emmanuel' is based on the
Advent plainchant known in English as "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."
(Example 3)

Organ Compositions (Published Scores)

Suite for Organ: (Prelude, Andantino, Scherzetto, Fugue)
[Hinshaw Music, Inc., Chapel Hill, NC, 1975]


First Organ Book-Eight Short Pieces for Organ: (Who Gazes at
the Stars [1978], Toccata on "Veni Emmanuel" style="mso-spacerun: yes">  [1983], Prelude and Postlude on
"Shalom Havayreem" [1983], Prelude on "We Shall
Overcome"  [1983], Prelude and
Scherzo on "Winchester New" 
[1983], Prelude and March in F [1983], Prelude on "Veni
Emmanuel"  [1983])

Prelude [1967]

Andante [1967]

William B. Cooper
(1920-1993). Born in Philadelphia, Cooper received his B.M. and M.M. degrees
from the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts and a Doctorate of Music from
Columbia Pacific University (California). In 1988, he was awarded a Doctorate
of Sacred Music (honoris causa) from Christ Theological Seminary in Yonkers,
New York. Cooper pursued additional music studies at the School of Sacred Music
of Union Theological Seminary (New York), the Manhattan School of Music, and
Trinity College of Music (London). He not only served on the music faculties of
Bennett College (Greensboro, North Carolina) and  Hampton University (Hampton, Virginia), but taught 26 years
in the New York City School System. Cooper also served as Minister of Music at
historic St. Philip's Episcopal Church (1953-1974) and St. Martin's Episcopal
Church (1974-1988) in Harlem. His musical output, which is considerable,
includes works for organ, voice, chorus, solo instruments, orchestra, and

Here, three of Cooper's compositions are cited for their
thematic diversity. The first of these, Cooper's Meditation on 'Steal Away', is
based on the Negro spiritual bearing that name. (Example 4)

The theme of Cooper's Lulliloo-Ashanti Cry of Joy is African
in origin, being based on an Ashanti tribal melody. (Example 5)

Based on a melody from the shape-note hymnal Southern
Harmony is Cooper's Pastorale. (Example 6)

Organ Compositions (Unpublished Scores)-[selected]

Peaceful Warrior [1961]

In the Beginning-Creation [1962]

Diferencias con Quattro [1962]

Meditation on "Steal Away" [1964]

Poem II-To the Innocents [1967]

Rhapsody on the Name FELA SOWANDE [1968]

Pastorale No. III [1973]

Jesu, Joy of Our Desiring (Air) [1978] style='mso-tab-count:1'>               

Toccata on "John Saw" (The Holy Number) [1978]

Concerto for Cello and Organ [1979]

Symphony No. II for Organ [197-?]

Lulliloo-Ashanti Cry of Joy [1981]

Spiritual Lullaby [1981]

Paraphrase on "Everytime I Feel the Spirit" [1985]

The African-American organ compositions which have been
selected for their neo-classical influence are by composers George Walker and
Mark Fax.

George Walker (b.
1922). A native of Washington, D.C., George Walker was a piano child prodigy.
He attended Oberlin Conservatory (B.M. degree), and later, the Curtis Institute
of Music (Philadelphia) where he received the Artist Diploma. He also pursued
study at the American Academy at Fountainebleau (1947) where he was a student
of Nadia Boulanger and Robert Casadesus. At the age of 23, he won the
Philadelphia Youth Auditions and played the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto with
Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1956, Walker became
the first African-American to receive a Doctorate of Music at the Eastman
School of Music. For years, he concertized as a piano virtuoso under the
Columbia Concert Artists and National Concert Artists Management. Walker later
headed the Music Department at Rutgers University. He was also the recipient of
several prestigious awards and fellowships such as a Fulbright, Guggenheim, and
Rockefeller. With many compositions to his credit--works for piano, voice,
chorus, chamber ensembles and orchestra--the Three Pieces for Organ constitute
his only contributions to the instrument to date.

Originally conceived as a movement from a Protestant organ
service, Walker's Chorale Prelude on Jesu, wir sind hier (also known by the
title Herzliebster Jesu) is based on the German Protestant chorale. (Example 7)

Organ Compositions (Published Scores)

Three Pieces: (Elevation, Chorale Prelude on "Jesu, wir
sind hier,"  Invokation)
(M.M.B. Music, 1991)

Mark Fax (1911-1974)
was a native of Baltimore. He received his B.M. degree in Piano at Syracuse
University, graduating with highest honors. He was subsequently awarded a M.M.
degree in Composition from the Eastman School of Music where he was an Eastman
and a Rosenwald Fellow. Fax joined the faculty at Howard University in 1947
where he served as Professor of Composition. He later became Assistant to the
Dean of Fine Arts prior to his appointment as Acting Dean of Fine Arts. He was
later appointed as Director of the School of Music. Fax composed for many
musical media including piano, chorus, chamber ensemble, orchestra, and has
three operas to his credit.

In the example, Fax mixes elements of neo-classicism with
influences of the Black Church. The first movement of his Three Pieces for Organ
is based on a Negro spiritual. (Example 8)

Organ Compositions Unpublished Scores)-[selected]

The Pastor [1944]

Prelude and Chorale [1952]

Variations on Maryton [1960]

Three Pieces: (Free, Hauntingly [1963], Allegretto [1965],
Toccata [1966])

Three Organ Preludes: St. Martin [1964], Crusader's Hymn
(Offertory-Transposed to A Major), St. Anne [Fragment, 1964]

Two Chorale Preludes: Crusader's Hymn [1964], Kremser [1968]

Postlude on "I'll Never Turn Back" [1972]

Noel Da Costa (b.
1929) was born in Lagos, Nigeria. He later moved to Jamaica where he lived
until the age of 11, at which time he came to the United States. He received a
B.A. degree from Queens College (City University of New York) and was awarded a
M.A. degree from Columbia University. While still in graduate school at
Columbia, Da Costa became the recipient of the Seidl Fellowship in Music
Composition. He later studied with Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence under a
Fulbright Scholarship (1958-61). Currently, Da Costa holds the post of Associate
Professor of Music in the Mason Gross School of the Arts in Rutgers University
where he has taught since 1970. His musical output consists of a large variety
of compositions which include music for piano, solo instruments, chamber
ensemble, voice, chorus, orchestra, as well as five operas.

Exemplifying Da Costa's stylistic diversity are two
examples, the first of which is the theme from Da Costa's Variations on
'Maryton', based on the English hymntune known as "O Master, Let Me Walk
with Thee." (Example 9)

A second example of a composition based on a melody of
African origin is Da Costa's Chililo: Prelude for Organ after an East African
Lament, which is based on the Mozambique ceremony of lamentation. (Example 10)

Organ Compositions (Unpublished Scores)

Maryton (Hymntune and Variations) [1955]

Generata (for solo organ and string orchestra) [1958]

Chililo: Free Transcription for Organ [1970]

Chililo: Prelude for Organ after an East African Lament

Triptich for Organ (Prelude, Processional, Postlude) [1973]

Spiritual Set for Organ (Invocation, Affirmation, Spiritual,
Praise) [1974, Publ. by Belwin-Mills (unavailable since 1986)]

Ukom Memory Songs (Organ and Percussion) [1981]