Ulysses Kay (1917–1995). Concerto for Orchestra (1948)
Kay. Six Dances for String Orchestra (1954)

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When Kay’s mother asked her uncle, famed jazz cornetist Joe “King” Oliver, if young Ulysses should take trumpet lessons, he told her by no means, but to give him piano lessons—later on he could choose what to do in music. Ulysses Kay would become one of America’s finest composers of the 20th century. (And he did take those piano lessons.)

Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection.

In Fleisher Discoveries, we uncover the unknown, rediscover the little-known, and take a fresh look at some of the remarkable treasures housed in the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Fleisher Collection is the largest lending library of orchestral performance material in the world. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast up every month on SoundCloud and on Spotify; search “Fleisher Discoveries” and find every one of our podcasts.

Early on after the switch from radio to podcast in Fleisher Discoveries, we listened to the Sinfonia in E by Ulysses Kay. He shared the program with Paul Hindemith, a natural connection since Kay studied with Hindemith. Today, however, it’ll be nothing but Ulysses Kay, and we’ll hear two works of his, the Concerto for Orchestra and Six Dances for String Orchestra.

Just listing those titles should tell us something about what kind of composer Kay was. Someone in the 20th century who composes a sinfonia, a concerto, and a suite of dances will probably not be what we’d call a romantic composer. The term musicologists use as yang to the yin of romanticism would be classical, or, in modern parlance, neoclassical. Where the romantics of any age stress flights of fancy or extremes of emotional expression, neoclassicists employ balance, centering, and often, ancient forms.

When Ulysses Kay was coming of age, the composers we’d identify as neoclassical would be Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Respighi, Bartók at times, and Hindemith. And when we hear Kay’s music, we’ll tend to agree with those who call his music neoclassical. It isn’t always as simple as that, of course, but it can be helpful to keep in mind when listening to a composer for the first time.

And unfortunately today may be the first time many in our audience will have heard Ulysses Kay’s music. It’s unfortunate because he’s an excellent composer, unfortunate because audiences have always enjoyed his music, and unfortunate because as an African American composer, Kay exemplifies the breadth of what American classical music has been, and what it can be.

His family was musical. His father Ulysses Sr.—at times a cowboy, a jockey, and a barber in Tucson, Arizona—had no musical training but sang songs all the time. He married Elizabeth Davis, who played the piano, and an uncle of hers happened to be Joseph Oliver: the famous cornetist Joe “King” Oliver whose playing, whose bands, and whose compositions did so much to shape early jazz, even before we consider that he’s the one who launched Louis Armstrong. When Elizabeth asked King Oliver if young Ulysses should take trumpet lessons, her uncle told her by no means, but to give him piano lessons, and later on he could choose for himself what to do, if anything, in music.

Following his great uncle’s advice, the musically precocious Ulysses did study piano, and then violin, and then saxophone, and in his teens started his own jazz band, writing his own arrangements. In two summers while at the University of Arizona he met with the great William Grant Still—who’s appeared on Fleisher Discoveries as much or more than any other composer—and Still encouraged Kay to follow his compositional muse. He then studied with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers at Eastman, and began writing orchestral music for performance there.

Kay then won a scholarship to Tanglewood, where he studied with Paul Hindemith, newly arrived from Germany, or, I should say, newly escaped from Germany as the Nazi government had cracked down on the music of him and other so-called “degenerate” composers. Kay studied with Hindemith for a year at Yale University and then Ulysses Kay was himself drawn into World War II, enlisting in the Navy, playing saxophone and writing for bands.

After his honorable discharge in 1946, he continued studies at Columbia, he composed at the Yaddo retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, and in 1948 completed the work we will now hear, his Concerto for Orchestra. From his studies at Eastman and with Hindemith we will not be surprised to hear a work, even from a 31-year-old, solidly grounded in lyricism and the movement of lines and in a mature handling of orchestral forces.

On Fleisher Discoveries, the Concerto for Orchestra by Ulysses Kay. Scott Yoo conducts the Minnesota Orchestra.

[Ulysses Kay (1917–1995). Concerto for Orchestra (1948)]

The Concerto for Orchestra, a work from 1948 by Ulysses Kay. The Minnesota Orchestra was conducted by Scott Yoo. This is Fleisher Discoveries and I’m Kile Smith.

1958 in the Soviet Union: Tikhon Khrennikov, Ulysses Kay, Peter Mennin, Roy Harris, Roger Sessions

Ulysses Kay after the war was coming into his own. Performances, work, and awards were abounding. Last month we noted that Leo Sowerby won the very first Rome Prize, enabling him to live and compose in Rome for three years. Well, Ulysses Kay won a Fulbright and a Rome Prize, taking him to Italy with his new wife, and then was awarded a second Rome Prize so that he could extend his stay.

Back in the United States, Kay began work for the performance licensing agency BMI. He continued to compose many works, which would eventually include—among orchestral, choral, chamber, and piano works—five operas. He was part of the first delegation of American composers sent by the State Department to the Soviet Union. For 21 years he was Distinguished Professor of Composition at Lehman College of the City University of New York.

Kay began his Six Dances for String Orchestra for a Sunday afternoon CBS Radio program, String Serenade. It was a program of light music, and Kay, always the craftsman, fitted the work into the expectations of the audience. They played two dances he composed, then he wrote two more, which they again programmed. He wrote two more to round it out, and a young dance student who heard the recording we’re about to hear made a ballet out of it, which pleased Kay very much.

So here’s a schottische, waltz, round dance, polka, promenade, and galop, the Six Dances for String Orchestra by Ulysses Kay on Fleisher Discoveries. Paul Freeman conducts the Westphalian Symphony Orchestra.

[Kay. Six Dances for String Orchestra (1954)]

Six Dances for String Orchestra by Ulysses Kay. Paul Freeman conducted the Westphalian Symphony Orchestra. This is Fleisher Discoveries and I’m Kile Smith.

Kay was not known for using African American elements in his music, but it was not something he shied away from; in fact, spirituals play a part in some of his music. He was certainly very aware of prejudice: his wife Barbara was active in the civil rights movement, fighting against segregation in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was arrested in 1961, and against school segregation where the Kays lived, in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1962.

Harold Schonberg of the New York Times asked Kay, on the eve of his Soviet trip in 1958, if he would talk about racism, or as Schonberg put it in the shorthand of the day, “Little Rock.” Kay answered with the classic balance he exhibited throughout his life. He said, “Prejudice is encountered in some sections of America, not encountered in others. I worked and I studied, and I got scholarships and performances, and I’m an example. I’ll just try to explain things as I see them.”

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The wonderful composer John Biggs, 90 and living in California, wrote in to say how much he enjoyed our Leo Sowerby podcast, that his father often played Sowerby’s organ music, and how the late Paul Freeman—whose recording we just heard and who was on that Sowerby show—also conducted one of John’s pieces on our long-ago Fleisher series of CDs on Albany Records. Great to hear from you, John! And Marc in Philadelphia thought that last month’s shows was one of our best! Thank you, and we did get a lot of good responses by email and online.

And speaking of online, you can like us on the Fleisher Collection’s page on Facebook, or on my page, or right where the podcast is on Spotify and SoundCloud, and we thank you!

And remember that all of our podcasts are available all of the time, so do check us out anytime for what we hope are the enlightening stories and wonderful pieces we uncover for every show. Stay tuned for more Fleisher Discoveries podcasts coming to you every month, right here.

And thanks for joining me on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well, and I’ll catch up with you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.