Undine Smith Moore was a composer and educator who left a lasting impact on twentieth-century music. For over forty years she taught music theory, piano, and organ at Virginia State College (later Virginia State University), mentoring many students who went on to become celebrated musicians and composers, including jazz pianist Billy Taylor, conductor Leon Thompson, soprano Camilla Williams, and soprano and scholar Louise Toppin. Moore composed over 100 works of music, of which only a fraction were published in her lifetime. She is most famous for her choral works—including Scenes from the Life of a Martyr, a choral cantata based on the works of Martin Luther King Jr., which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1981—but she also wrote several powerful songs.
Despite her many successes as a composer, Moore downplayed her compositional efforts. “One of the most evil effects of racism in my time,” she said, “was the limits it placed upon the aspirations of Blacks, so that though I have been ‘making up’ and creating music all my life, in my childhood or even in college I would not have thought of calling myself a composer or aspiring to be one.” She worked tirelessly throughout her life to support and celebrate Black musicians—for example, by co-founding and co-directing the Black Music Center at Virginia State, which aimed to educate members about the “contributions of Black people to the music of the United States and the world.” She considered the Center one of her most important achievements.
Only a handful of Moore’s songs have been published and recorded, but thankfully, her music is beginning to receive more attention from scholars and performers.
- Information about Moore from Song of America
- Information about Moore from the African Diaspora Music Project
- Information about Moore from the African American Art Song Alliance
- Walker-Hill, Helen. From Spirituals to Symphonies: African American Women Composers and Their Music. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. [includes a timeline of Moore’s life, biographical information, and information about her compositional output]
- We, Too, Sing America: African American Voices of Song (a virtual series created by Aural Compass Projects), Episode 10: Undine Smith Moore (March 24, 2021)
- Moore’s papers at Emory University