— by Kim Davenport
On Thursday, February 3, 1944, the soprano Dorothy Maynor performed a program of opera arias, art songs, and spirituals at the Temple Theater. Although perhaps a less familiar name to us today than Marian Anderson or Paul Robeson – both highly-regarded African American singers who also visited Tacoma in the 1940s – her visit was greatly anticipated and appreciated by Tacoma concert-goers.
When one learns more about Maynor’s life and work, it is surprising that her story is not better known today, as her biography includes just as many notable “firsts” for an African-American classical artist as did that of Anderson or Robeson. Born in 1910 in Norfolk, Virginia, her first introduction to singing was in the church where her father was pastor. Her talent obvious from an early age, Maynor pursued her study of music at the Hampton Institute, a historically black college in Hampton, Virginia, and later at the Westminster Choir School in Princeton, New Jersey.
In 1939, she performed at the Berkshire Festival where she was noticed by Sergei Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Impressed by her singing, he arranged her debut at The Town Hall in New York City in December of 1939. Despite the fact that the she was prevented from performing in many venues because of the color of her skin, Maynor did tour extensively throughout the United States, Europe, and Latin America, performing in concert halls and frequently on the radio.
She was the first African American to sing at a presidential inauguration, performing at both President Harry S. Truman’s inaugural gala in 1949 and at President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1953 presidential inauguration at Constitution Hall, where the Daughters of the American Revolution had famously refused to let Marian Anderson sing in 1939.
In 1964, she founded the Harlem School of the Arts, an institution designed to give music education at a reduced rate to the children of Harlem. Under Maynor’s directorship the school grew from 20 students to 1,000 by the time of her retirement in 1979. In 1975, she became the first African-American on the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Opera. She died in 1996.
But back to her visit to Tacoma in February of 1944. Her program, announced in The News Tribune in the days leading up to the concert, was a testament to her wide range as an artist. Spanning English, French, German, and Italian, it included opera arias by Handel, Verdi, and Strauss; art songs by Debussy, Schubert, Brahms, Medtner, Hageman and Watts; and several negro spirituals.
The review of the concert in The News Tribune was published a few days after the concert, under the straightforward headline Great Voice Thrills All. The review read, in part:
“Opinions may differ as widely as the poles today on the matter of the concert gown worn by Dorothy Maynor for her program at the Temple Theater Thursday evening [unfortunately no photographs exist to help us come to our own opinions on this!] but expressions on this young Negro soprano’s voice, her manner and charm of singing are likely to be overwhelmingly alike – all in her favor.
Miss Maynor has an abundance of musical riches to offer. The great beauty of her voice lies in the rounded, smooth fullness of tones, modulated to moderate volume, and in her exquisitely clean-cut pianissimo, the latter demonstrated most perfectly to an audience which fairly held its breath while she sang the Brahms Lullaby and Schubert’s Ave Maria.
She performs with great simplicity and sincerity, qualities most notable in the presentation of spirituals of her own race. The latter formed one of the most satisfying groups on her program. She has the dramatic ability to imbue with poignancy an aria like Pace, Pace, from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. But Miss Maynor also is possessed of a gay good humor, engaging smile and mischievous eyes, all of which add up to chuckles for the audience when she sings such encores as Comin’ Through The Rye or The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat.
All in all, Dorothy Maynor afforded a lot of pleasure with her music last night.”
The following playlist contains a wide variety of Maynor’s performances which have been compiled by the Library of Congress. The beauty and expressive range of her voice speaks for itself.