Born Natalie Leota Henderson, June 15, 1927, in Oberlin, OH; died of cancer July 22, 1987, in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of Leota Palmer Henderson (conservatory piano instructor); father was a jazz pianist and bandleader; married Lionel Monagas; children: Michele. Education: Oberlin College, B.Mus., 1945; studied with Olga Samaroff at Juilliard School of Music, c. 1945-48; studied with Edward Steuermann at Philadelphia Conservatory, 1948-53; studied with Vincent Persichetti, early 1950s.

In the rarefied world of classical music performance, sheer interpretive ability is often the first mark by which an artist is measured. Depth of character and an ability to transmit the artful expression of the composer further delineate the hierarchy of musical performers. Classical pianist Natalie Hinderas, possessed of a profoundly diverse musical expression, from the lyrical to the percussive, was viewed through another spectrum: Her place in the classical music world was reflected not by the tone colors and shadings that infused the notes she played, but by the color of her skin.

At the time of her death in 1987, Hinderas was recognized as "one of the first black artists to establish an important career in classical music," as was reported in her New York Times obituary. Although racial description as a means of definition is least expected in the arts, her reputation had to be built--not unwillingly--on advancing the work of the black classical artist, both the composer and the performer. But of equal importance for Hinderas was the indoctrination of young people to the unbiased artistic pleasures and human scope of classical music, the very attributes that guided her into the field.

Natalie Leota Henderson was born on June 15, 1927, in Oberlin, Ohio, into a family with a deep musical heritage. Her great- grandfather had been a bandleader and teacher in South Carolina; her father was a jazz pianist who toured Europe with his own group, her mother a classically trained piano teacher who served on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music. Both parents were graduates of the Oberlin Conservatory. "I grew up with music," Hinderas later understated to Raymond Ericson of the New York Times. "I listened to my mother practice. I still remember her playing Rubinstein's D minor Concerto and Franck's Prelude, Choral, and Fugue."

This attention to the art of classical music was not lost on the young Hinderas. Indeed, she began playing the piano at age three. Her inherent talents matured under her mother's tutelage, and at the age of eight, she gave her first full recital on the piano. Immediately afterward, she was accepted into Oberlin Conservatory's Special Student's School. Hinderas's orchestral debut, playing Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto, came with the Cleveland Women's Symphony in 1939. She was 12.

When Hinderas received her degree in music with honors from Oberlin in 1945, she became the conservatory's youngest graduate and one of its most prominent--her senior recital had attracted one of the school's largest audiences. She subsequently won an audition for advanced study at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. There she was guided by the distinguished concert pianist and instructor Olga Samaroff, who brought out from Hinderas's playing a warm, romantic feeling.

Samaroff (who had changed her surname from Hickenlooper, and who convinced her student to change hers to the more exotic Hinderas) recognized Hinderas's potential for greatness but was also realistic in her view of the young pianist's future in the classical world. "She used to say," Hinderas related to Shirley Fleming in High Fidelity/Musical America, "'My dear, you're going to have a hard time."' Previously, Hinderas had been judged--and praised--solely on her talents. Samaroff's forewarning, however, would unfortunately prove prophetic.

After Samaroff's death in 1948, Hinderas continued her studies for the next five years with Edward Steuermann at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music. Steuermann deepened her ability to handle the arduous technical and intellectual demands of classical music's more exacting compositions. At this time she also studied composition with Vincent Persichetti.

In the early 1950s, Hinderas's career seemed to be blossoming. While continuing her studies with both Steuermann and Persichetti, she made her European debut and signed a contract with NBC-TV to make appearances on network programs, both classical and variety shows. A Cleveland television station broadcast Hinderas in concert in 1953. One year later, she debuted at New York City's Town Hall.

With a program featuring Mozart's Sonata in F, Ravel's Alborado del Gracioso and Jeux d'eau, Berg's Piano Sonata, Hindemith's Sonata No. 1, and Chopin's F minor Ballade, Hinderas demonstrated to a New York Times reviewer that she had "honest musical instincts. Very often she shaped a phrase with real authority, leaving no doubt that a strong controlling force was engaged." Although this critic found fault with some of her execution--a certain lack of musical maturity in the Hindemith and Chopin pieces--he nonetheless foresaw Hinderas, after a few more years of experience, taking her place as a world-class pianist accompanied by world-class orchestras.

Hinderas did gain valuable artistic insight in the following years. She traveled around the United States on a recital tour, performed with the National Symphony, and gave concerts in the British West Indies. During 1957 and 1958, she gave televised recitals in Austria, England, Germany, Holland, and Italy. In 1959 she won an award from the Leventritt Foundation, which sponsored subsequent performances with numerous orchestras. None of these, however, were recognized as world-class.

But Hinderas remained tireless in her quest to expose audiences to the classical repertoire, producing two series on classical music for a Philadelphia radio station in 1959. That year she also began a four-month world tour under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, visiting Sweden, Yugoslavia, Iran, Jordan, Taiwan, and the Philippines and giving lecture/recitals on American music and fostering cultural goodwill. In 1961 she appeared on behalf of the American Society for African Society at the opening of a cultural center in Largos, Nigeria. A second State Department tour took place in 1964. This time she traveled to Sweden, Poland, Yugoslavia, and England, and, in addition to her recitals and seminars, performed with the Dubrovnik and Skopje Symphony Orchestras.

Even after these performances on the world's stages, Hinderas was not given the opportunity to perform with the best orchestras in the United States. "Orchestras simply wouldn't hire a black woman--this was in the days when there weren't even black players in the orchestras," Hinderas told Fleming. "People used to say to me, `You're the only black musician around.' And I think I was until Andr, Watts--he broke the barrier. Before that I felt like a freak; it was a terrible sense of responsibility."

A more self-centered musician might have been deterred by the lack of exposure with a renowned orchestra, but Hinderas, devoted to the art of classical music, instead sought to reach an audience for the art's sake, not her own. In 1966 she joined the faculty of Temple University's College of Music and began lecturing and performing at various colleges and music festivals around the country. The college lecture/recital became a calling for Hinderas. She explained why to Fleming: "Young people are an untapped source--they can be a good audience because they're less inhibited, less structured than older people, though of course they have their own form of `structure' and that can be limiting too. But I talk to them about the importance of music, how it is an enunciation of one's life, really the expression of what they're living. I try to set up a dialogue and ferret out their questions and doubts."

Hinderas also sought to reconcile the black community to her art, fighting the idea, as she told New York Times contributor Ericson, that "classical music is white man's music." To this end, she began touring southern black colleges in 1968, performing the music of black classical composers and lecturing on the history of black classical musicians in the United States. "I'm trying to change the jazz- and gospel- oriented image," she told Fleming. "People have never associated us with the classics."

To dispel this notion, not only for the black community but for the global community as well, Hinderas recorded Natalie Hinderas Plays Music by Black Composers for the Desto label in 1971. The two-record set featured the works of nine composers: R. Nathaniel Dett, Thomas H. Kerr, Jr., William Grant Still, John W. Work, George Walker, Arthur Cunningham, Stephen A. Chambers, Hale Smith, and Olly Wilson.

The significance and necessity of the recording was confirmed by Leslie Gerber in a review for American Record Guide: "It is hardly possible to be unaware of the tremendous contributions made by black musicians to American folk, popular, and jazz music; but one may sometimes wonder what blacks have achieved in the more academic forms of the tonal art." This anthology showed Gerber exactly what some of them had achieved, and his highest praise was bestowed on Hinderas. "I would welcome the opportunity to hear her in works from the classical repertoire," he wrote. "Of all the musicians whose acquaintance I have made through these records, she is the one who has made the most thoroughly favorable impression on me."

That impression was felt elsewhere as well, and Hinderas's talent was finally fully recognized in the fall of 1971 when conductor Eugene Ormandy invited her to play Alberto Ginastera's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. With this debut, she became the first black woman ever to appear as an instrumental soloist in the regular series of any major symphony. Another first was the selection of music. In this setting, a work by Grieg or Chopin would traditionally have been offered. But Ormandy and Hinderas chose instead to feature the Argentine composer's 1961 work, which would highlight Hinderas's strengths as a pianist. James Felton, reviewing the concert for High Fidelity/Musical America, lauded the choice, remarking, "Like some writhing marine animal, the work seemed to ripple over cross rhythms and asymmetrical bars, handled at the keyboard with tensile strength. Miss Hinderas was now leader, now follower, now a full partner in forceful tuttis that reinforced a recurrent percussive wallop."

Immediately afterward, Hinderas was engaged to play with major orchestras across the nation: the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Atlanta Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony. She found her appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl particularly satisfying; she explained to the New York Times' Ericson that early in her career a manager had told her, "You know, Natalie, a little colored girl like you can't play in the Hollywood Bowl."

Again, an artist of lesser character might have been content to sit and accept the laurels. But Hinderas remained committed to developing the public's recognition and appreciation of classical music. She believed a greater understanding could be achieved through the media, specifically television. "It is time we change the total direction of classical music in this country and got support from the public media," she declared to High Fidelity/Musical America contributor Fleming. "Watergate has proved that we are directed by public relations techniques. The major TV networks are molding our minds and they have the responsibility to further the arts. You can lead people into anything if you know how to."

The music Hinderas created was large and physically exuberant, but it took the world almost 20 years to notice it. She fought for and gained recognition and respect not only for herself as a performer, but also for the contributions of black musicians and composers to the world of classical music, a world where color is only a shading of a note. "To begin with, of course, she is a pianist," began Fleming's 1973 profile of Hinderas. In a more color-blind society, this would have been the initial standard by which Hinderas was measured.

by Rob Nagel

Natalie Hinderas's Career

Concert pianist and educator. European debut, early 1950s; appeared on NBC-TV network programs and produced shows, early 1950s to 1987; U.S. debut piano recital, Town Hall, New York City, 1954; toured U.S., Europe, and West Indies, mid- to late 1950s; two U.S. State Department tours abroad, 1959 and 1964; produced radio series on classical music, Philadelphia, 1959; Temple University's College of Music, began as associate professor, became professor, 1966-87; toured southern black colleges, giving lectures/recitals, 1968; recording debut, Natalie Hinderas Plays Music by Black Composers, 1971; appeared with major U.S. orchestras, including New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Chicago Symphony, 1971-87.

Natalie Hinderas's Awards

Fellowships from the Whitney, Rosenwald, and Rockefeller foundations; Leventritt award; Fulbright grant; Governors' Award for the Arts (Pennsylvania); Pro Arte award; honorary doctorate from Swarthmore College.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 16 years ago

Excellent biography, bibliography and discography. Do you know of any available film footage of hers that may become available online?

over 16 years ago

Very well written biography of my sister.