Born Undine Smith on August 25, 1904, in Jarratt, VA; died on February 6, 1989; daughter of James William Smith (a railroad man) and Hattie (Turnbull) Smith; married James Arthur Moore (an educator); children: Mary. Education: Fisk University, B.A. and B.Mus., 1926; Columbia University, M.A., 1931; further studies at Manhattan College of Music, Juilliard School, Eastman College of Music.

As an African American musical pioneer in the university setting, Undine Smith Moore inspired and influenced black musicians across the United States. Her compositions are widely performed and loved; many of her choral pieces are staples of the performing repertory among choirs great and small, and she also composed music in other genres, employing a broad range of expressive styles. A professor of music at Virginia State University for more than 40 years, she numbered among her students the jazz pianist Billy Taylor and a host of others who became famous in their own ways.

Moore was born on August 25, 1904, in Jarratt, Virginia, in the state's predominantly rural southern tier known among African Americans as "southside." Her father was a railroad brakeman; her grandparents were slaves. Moore's early musical life combined formal education with African American musical roots. Her mother was a voracious reader who stressed the importance of books and music lessons. Moore learned to read music and even to attempt small composition exercises by the time she was eight or nine. But she also heard the work songs and the spirituals that she would remember for the rest of her life. The family moved to the city of Petersburg, Virginia, when Moore was four, but they often spent time in Jarratt in the summers.

Winning a scholarship to Nashville, Tennessee's Fisk University seemed to seal Moore's choice of a music as her life's work, as the musical traditions at that historically black institution ran deep. Its chorus had been well known since the 1870s for its performances of spirituals. After she finished her first year at Fisk, Moore's father gave her a Steinway grand piano as a gift, and for a time she considered trying to become a concert pianist. Her music teacher back in Virginia had been a Fisk graduate, and so Moore immersed herself in the European classics that were the focus of the school's music curriculum at the time.

In 1926 Moore graduated at the top of her class with a dual degree that included studies in piano and music theory, and then decided to pursue a career in music education. She went on to Columbia University Teachers' College in New York, where she completed her M.A. in 1931, and also studied at the prestigious Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Eastman School of Music. In 1927, she landed a job at Virginia State College (now Virginia State University) in Petersburg; she would teach there until her retirement in 1972. She married fellow Virginia State faculty member James Arthur Moore; the couple had a daughter, Mary, who became a dancer and educator.

Even as an undergraduate at Fisk, Moore had already begun to compose; her first known work was an ambitious choral piece, Sir Olaf and the Erl King's Daughter, with a text based on Norwegian folklore. Her studies in New York further developed this European Romantic strain in her work, but she also was touched by the artistic ferment of the Harlem Renaissance, the awakening of African American artistic and intellectual sensibility that flowered in the 1920s. Moore began to think about ways of incorporating her African American heritage into her compositions, and when she moved back to Virginia she began to set down in musical notation some of the unique songs she had heard her mother sing in southside Virginia.

At Virginia State her creative energy was channeled mostly into small pieces for the school's choral groups and for her own keyboard students. She rarely had the chance to think on a larger scale musically, but she did explore her African American heritage with a series of choral pieces based on spirituals in the 1930s and 1940s. In the early 1950s, having reached an age when many educators are looking forward to retirement, Moore instead resumed her compositional career at full force. She reestablished contact with one of her teachers at Columbia, Howard Murphy, and embarked on further study with him in order to familiarize herself with the latest developments in classical music coming out of Europe.

Many of Moore's compositions, then, might be described as attempts to infuse a distinct African American sensibility into European forms. Many of her most popular compositions are for chorus, and draw in one way or another upon the settings of spirituals that she had absorbed during her years at Fisk. One of them, 1952's "Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord," was based on one of the songs she had transcribed from her mother's singing. Unusually successful for a contemporary composition, the work was published by Warner Bros. the following year and has remained in print ever since as a perennial favorite among college and community choirs.

Disturbed by what she saw as a deteriorating knowledge of the history of black music among her students, Moore worked during her last years at Virginia State to establish the Black Music Center, a combination archive, research center, and performance-promotion organization. "I think that black people need to remind themselves of the importance of remembering," she was quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. As with her music, Moore worked toward a broad-based approach that would touch both upon the efforts of African Americans in the classical field and upon, as she told Creative Black Artists, the "true creative genius of the black people in the ditches and the sawmills." She retired from Virginia State in 1972 and was feted by her former students in a ceremony held at New York's Town Hall.

Retirement only increased Moore's compositional productivity, and she composed prolifically until just before her death. The works she composed in late life are generally regarded as some of her best. Some of them, especially her works for instruments alone, followed European methods, including the extremely intellectually rigorous 12-tone technique, while others turned to African American history in various ways. Her 16-section choral cantata "Scenes from the Life of a Martyr" (1980), for narrator, chorus, orchestra, and soloists, combined all these influences and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize after its premiere in 1982. The work's text, depicting scenes from the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was written by Moore herself, with interpolations from the Bible and from the works of poets of various different backgrounds.

Moore traveled to Africa in 1971 and 1972 and was deeply moved by her experiences there. One of her last compositions was a trio for violin, cello, and piano called Soweto (1987); that highly complex work used the12-tone technique to explore the implications of an opening motif based on the rhythm of the name "Soweto." The work had its roots in Moore's responses to the South African apartheid system of racial segregation. "I did not choose the word. The word chose me," she was quoted as saying in the International Dictionary of Black Composers. Undine Smith Moore died on February 6, 1989.

by James M. Manheim

Undine Smith Moore's Career

Composer and educator; Goldsboro Public Schools, Supervisor of Music, 1926-27; Virginia State University, Associate Professor of Music, 1927-72, Professor Emerita, 1972-89; numerous visiting faculty appointments, 1972-89; prolific compositional activity in later life; composed choral work Lord, We Give Thanks to Thee for centennial of Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1971; completed cantata Scenes from the Life of a Martyr on life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1980; composed trio Soweto, 1987.

Undine Smith Moore's Awards

Certificate of Appreciation from John Lindsay, Mayor, New York City, 1972; Honorary Doctorate, Virginia State University, 1972; Honorary Doctorate, Indiana University, 1976; National Black Caucus Award, 1980.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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over 16 years ago

I am interested in obtaining the score to Scenes from Life of a Martyr by Undine Smith Moore. Can you advise where one might be able to find the score and parts for this piece. Any help you can provide will be greatly appreciated. Thanks Ken Kussmann Artistic Administrator Virginia Symphony Orchestra 757 213 1412