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Composer Focus: Dorothy Rudd Moore


To celebrate the start of May, Līva Blūma writes about Dorothy Rudd Moore. We'll be performing her duo 'Modes' for viola and cello on 5th May in Cambridge for Fitzwilliam Lunchtime Concerts and part of her Baroque Suite for solo cello in Guy's Hospital on 29th May.


Dorothy Rudd Moore (born 1940) is an African-American composer and soprano who can claim a diverse compositional output: pieces for chamber ensembles, song cycles, orchestral music as well as an opera. Moore is a leading female composer of colour and has received commissions from The National Symphony, Opera Ebony, and the Buffalo Philharmonic.

Born and raised in the small town of New Castle, Delaware, Moore developed her love for music at an early age. She took up piano lessons with the encouragement of her family, which, together with listening to performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra, later compelled her to become a composer. Even as a child, Moore recalls making up songs and music in her free time, without really realising what composition was and what it meant to be a composer. Like many others, at the time she thought that all composers were “white, male, and dead”.


Supported by her parents, Moore continued her piano studies at Wilmington School of Music and was taught by Howard High School music teacher, Harry Andrew. Moore learned to play clarinet so that she could join the band at the Howard High school, an ensemble that was historically all-male.


For her higher education, she considered Harvard, but instead enrolled at the historically-black Howard University in Washington D.C., where she began her studies as a music education major, later on changing her focus to composition. She graduated from Howard in 1963 and received the Lucy Moten fellowship, allowing her to study in France at The American Conservatory at Fontainebleau, an establishment that schooled such important figures of 20th-century music as Aaron Copland, Virgil Tomson, Elliott Carter, Louise Talma, and others. She was then a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, a legendary French composer and music educator active in both France and the USA.


In 1964, Moore married cellist, conductor and composer Kermit Moore, who, like his wife, championed contemporary music. Their marriage would result in many artistic collaborations, including premieres of Dorothy’s music. One of her pieces – Baroque Suite – was inspired by the Bach Cello Suites and eventually became a wedding present to Kermit.


Starting from mid 1960s, Moore embarked on her music career as a music educator. She taught in the Harlem School of Arts, New York University, and Bronx Community College.

In 1968, she co-founded the Society of Black Composers, a group of young, artistically diverse composers who sought to develop their own compositional skills along with promoting the work of both classical and contemporary black composers.


When trying to describe Moore’s compositions, one is struck by their well-planned structures, which nevertheless leave room for wit and expression. In an interview, she has admitted that in order to set texts to music she is obliged to memorize them first. One of her most notable vocal chamber music pieces is the cycle From The Dark Tower for contralto, cello and piano. The piece, like all the other vocal compositions of Moore, sets poetry by African-American poets including Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Arna Bontemps, and Countee Cullen. Such choice of poets underlines her belief that her music is “her black power statement”.

Another notable vocal composition, Weary Blues, lyricizes a Langston Hughes poem; it is a colourful piece with deep debts to the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American cultural and social movement emanating from that northern Manhattan space and spanning from the 1920s to the 1940s. Weary Blues is written with the typical seriousness of the composer while also employing jazzy expression that may cause listeners to dance along.

Moore has also written a musically and dramaturgically ambitious opera, Frederick Douglass, a work in three acts that stretches to 180 minutes. The bio-opera features Frederick Douglass, an African-American writer, orator and rights activist integral to Black development in Antebellum and Reconstruction-era America. Listen to the excerpt Lullaby for an introduction to the opera. Consider also lending an ear to Moore’s Moderato (the first movement of Modes for String Quartet.) Copies of her music are available from the American Composer's Alliance.

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