After earning her bachelor of music degree from Yale in 1912 and studying in France, pianist Helen Eugenia Hagan (1891–1964) entertained black troops in France in spring/summer 1919—one of the 19 black US women with the YMCA (that included Helen Curtis, Addie Waites Hunton, and Kathryn Johnson) who served abroad during or just after the war. Hunton and Johnson’s Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces (1920) refers to Hagan as “the only colored artist sent to France” (p. 153), and the Pittsburgh Courier dubs her “the darling of the doughboys.” (Her 1912 passport application describes her as a 5-foot-2 music teacher with an “olive” complexion.)
As part of the “Proctor Party” formed by request of General Pershing, she accompanied Joshua E. Blanton, who taught spirituals to the servicemen, and Congregational minister Henry Hugh Proctor, who delivered sermons and led the soldiers in folk songs. Proctor wrote in Between Black and White (1925), “The transformation of these dejected men was almost instantaneous when they forgot themselves in song” (p. 158). Proctor placed the number of their total audience at more than 100,000 (p. 160); the entry on Blanton in Who’s Who in Colored America (1942) places the number at 275,000. (Blanton, a Hampton graduate, established the St. Helena Quartet to foster the preservation and performance of spirituals; he later served as principal of the Voorhees Institute in South Carolina.)
Hagan returned to the United States in August 1919 on the Nieuw Amsterdam.
Prior to her service in France Hagan had taken up a position in November 1918 as music director (meaning music dept chair) at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (aka Tennessee State University). She married John Taylor Williams of Morristown, NJ, in August 1920 (a 1932 letter from Hagan to W. E. B. Du Bois hints at a 1931 divorce). In October 1921, she became the first black pianist to perform a solo recital in a New York concert venue. In 1931 the NAACP magazine The Crisis stated that she was the first African American woman to be appointed to the chamber of commerce in Morristown. Still performing in public, she pursued graduate-level work at Teachers College, Columbia University. Starting in 1933 she taught at Bishop College in Texas and also gave private music lessons in New York. Hagan died in March 1964 and is buried in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery next to her parents (a crowd-funding campaign to finance a grave marker has succeeded; a dedication ceremony is envisioned for fall 2016. Further details will be posted on the blog when available).
Although Hagan is credited with composing “songs, pianoforte pieces, violin and piano sonatas and string quartettes,” it appears that only her Piano Concerto in C Minor survives. American pianist Lola Perrin and the Greek pianists who compose the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble are working on transcribing and performing Hagan’s concerto (performed by Hagan at Yale in 1912). It was for this concerto that Hagan received the Samuel Simons Sanford Fellowship, with Yale Department of Music dean Horatio Parker lauding Hagan’s
brilliant performance of an original concerto (first movement) for piano and orchestra. Miss Hagan shows not only pianistic talent of rare promise but also clearly marked ability to conceive and execute musical ideas of much charm and no little originality. (Report of the President, 1908–09, p. 138)
As noted in an Iowa State Bystander review of a March 1915 Hagan performance in Des Moines, “Miss Hagan was truly a master in her art.”
• Rev. of Helen Hagan performance by Lucien H. White, New York Age, 27 Jan. 1916.
• Letter from Helen Hagan to W. E. B. Du Bois, 25 Mar. 1932. “It has been a hard year, for the musician especially. Many of my concerto were cancelled….the pianist can no longer make a living in the concert field…”
• Reply from W. E. B. DuBois to Helen Hagan, 29 Mar. 1932
• Listen to the first movement from Hagan’s sole surviving composition, Piano Concerto in C Minor (1912), performed by the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble. Video courtesy of pianist Lola Perrin, who transcribed the concerto.