Julia Perry (1924–1979)
Julia Amanda Perry was an American composer, conductor, and teacher. She achieved acclaim for works that blended 20th-century European techniques with the music idioms of her Black American heritage. Her compositions include three operas, 14 choral works, 12 symphonies, many vocal works, and several chamber works for eclectic instrumental combinations.
Born in Lexington, Kentucky on March 25, 1924, Perry grew up in Akron, Ohio, playing violin and piano. She went on to study piano, voice, and composition at Westminster Choir College, where she earned her bachelor and master of music degrees, and received conducting training at The Juilliard School. Her works from this period are mostly songs and choral music, which are heavily influenced by spirituals. Some short pieces incorporate aspects of the blues.
Perry also spent summers at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts, where in 1951, she studied composition with Luigi Dallapiccola. The following year, she received a Guggenheim fellowship to continue studies with him in Florence, Italy; another Guggenheim fellowship in 1954 enabled her to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, France. While in Europe, Perry developed an abstract style of which dissonant harmonies, shifting rhythms, and contrapuntal textures are prominent characteristics. She also became active as a conductor.
In 1959, Perry returned to the United States. During the 1960s, her works were performed by the New York Philharmonic and other major orchestras to critical acclaim. She received numerous awards and accolades, including a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1964. In response to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, Perry sought to reference Black American musical idioms more explicitly in her compositions. Works like A Suite Symphony (1976), for example, draw on rock and roll and rhythm and blues.
In 1971, Perry suffered the first of several strokes that left her paralyzed on the right side. Undaunted, she taught herself how to write with her left hand. She continued composing until her death, at age 55, on April 24, 1979, in Akron, Ohio.