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Classical 101

Roland Hayes: A Tribute for Black History Month

FIVE AUDIO PIECES, ALL MUSIC     Black History Month is a good time to remember and pay tribute to tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977). The other twelve months of the year will do just as well. We can't celebrate Roland Hayes enough. If the world eventually was able to embrace Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Paul Robson and Kathleen Battle it was not only for their great artistry but because the talent of Roland Hayes got there first. Roland Hayes was born in Curryville, Georgia in 1887. His parents had been slaves; their son grew up to sing for King and Queen of England in Buckingham Palace. It was reported that young Roland Hayes's concerts in London moved the rather granite faced Dame Nellie Melba to tears. No easy thing, since Melba with her phenomenal voice and technique was not known to be the cuddly type. Her imprimatur gave Hayes a head start, but the tenor himself said later:

"If they praise your technique, that's no compliment. That means you didn't move them. No singing isn't a re-creative art. You don't create. you stir up the atmosphere so people can feel those things common to all of us."

Still, I have to praise Hayes's beautiful voice AND his technique. Listen to the spiritual "Weepin' Mary" recorded in 1942 [audio:weepin-mary.mp3] Roland Hayes sang all over Europe. In 1928 he toured Russia, but an American career proved more difficult. "It will never happen here" his own teacher told him of a black man attempting to sing lieder, melodies and arias in America's great concert halls.  The teacher was wrong. By the mid 1920s Roland Hayes was at home in Carnegie Hall and in Boston's Symphony hall. Hayes settled in Boston and died there at the age of eighty nine. This performance of Schubert's "Du bist die Ruh'" was recorded in concert at Symphony Hall on October 23, 1955. Reginald Boardman is at the piano. Hayes was nearly seventy years old.  "His voice is long past its prime" wrote one critic. "But his art is at its zenith...this is not to say that the voice has lost its beauty-once in awhile there is a flash of liquid gold" [audio:du-b-ist-die-ruh3.mp3] From the same Symphony Hall concert, here is Berlioz's L'absence. The beautiful mezza voce (half-voice) of 'Reviens, reviens' makes this performance for me. Roland Hayes had sung this to ecstatic audiences in Paris thirty years earlier. In 1955, his performance was no less beautiful [audio:labence1.mp3] Roland Hayes made recordings, but they are hard to find today. He refused to work with the inferior labels available to African American artists.  Eventually in 1939 he signed with Columbia records. There were session in the 1940s and there's archival material documenting Roland Hayes's later career. He sang through the 1960s. There was a eightieth birthday tribute in Carnegie Hall in 1967-and a recital in Boston''s (Cambridge) Longy School of Music for his 85th birthday in 1972. Handel's Where e'er You Walk was recorded for Columbia in 1942. Hayes had this in his repertoire for his first concerts in Boston in 1922 and in Paris a year later. It  "remained one of his favorites throughout his singing career" [audio:where-er-you-walk.mp3] Opera was closed to Roland Hayes. What a splendid Rodolfo he would have made. Romeo! Des Grieux! Alfredo in La traviata. It was not to be. He did champion a young woman who became the first African American soloist to perform with the Metropolitan Opera, Marian Anderson. Thirty years earlier Hayes invited the young Marian Anderson to appear in concert with him. So impressed was he by the young woman's talent that he told her family "You mark my words. Soon enough this girl will earn fifty dollars a night for her singing." She did, and then some. So did he. Roland Hayes published a memoir, its title is a tribute to his formidable mother, Angel Mo and Her Son. Mr. Hayes's daughter, Afrika Hayes Lambe went on to have a fine career as a singer mad music educator. Roland Hayes died  at home in Brookline Massachusetts on New Year's Day, 1977.  Almost sixty years earlier, on April 23, 1921, "a royal limousine drove the Georgia farm boy to Buckingham Palace. For nearly two hours he sang European art songs and spirituals for the royal family." Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was recorded in 1955. The accompanist, as he is for all of the performances heard here, is Reginald Boardman. [audio:swing-low.mp3] The musical selections used here come from The Art of Roland Hayes published by the Smithsonian, (RD 041) The notes to the CD by Robert C. Hayden have been an invaluable help. --Christopher Purdy

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.