Julia Perry (1924-1979)

Julia Perry was an African American composer. She was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1924. She studied voice, piano and composition at the Westminster Choir College, came to prominence as a result of a scholarship to the Berkshire Music Centre in 1951, where she was a student of Luigi Dallapiccola. She later went to Florence to continue her studies with the Italian composer and proceeded thereafter to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. After spending nearly a decade in Europe studying with several prominent composers, she returned to the United States in 1959 to become part of the music faculty at Florida A & M College (now University) and later took a teaching position at Atlanta University.As an African-American woman Perry pushed the boundaries of race and gender during an era which saw few composers of her background gain recognition. Her career was severely hampered in 1970 when she had the first of several strokes, which left her paralyzed on the right side. She taught herself to write with her left hand and continued to compose in the 1970’s while in and out of the hospital and in declining health. She died in 1979 at age 55 in Akron, Ohio.

Julia Perry composed her Stabat Mater in 1951 and dedicated it to her mother. It was the piece that launched her career. It is composed for mezzo-soprano soloist and string orchestra. The Stabat Mater is divided into ten sections. The vocal conception, although dramatic onto quasi- operatic in conception, is grateful, properly lyrical and quite as stunning as the wide performance and legendary fame of the work itself.

Perry’s dramatic Stabat Mater (1951) opens with ominous low strings giving way to an ascending solo violin line and the entrance of the female soloist. Surrounded by a ghostly orchestral accompaniment throughout, the singing has the eerie tone of a narrator from an episode of the Twilight Zone TV series from the early 1960’s. Against Mary’s lamentation, Perry’s setting seems to juxtaposition the sound of the crowd’s agitation at Golgotha. While this piece does not overtly engage popular “Black” music, it is difficult not to hear this work as an exploration of the deep pain that Black American mothers faced as thousands of their sons were unjustly imprisoned and executed. The parallels between the biblical story—of a sham trial and the murder of an innocent man for someone else’s crime—resonates deeply with the Black experience of the American justice system in which many innocent Black men found themselves on death row. ~Josh Rodriguez

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