University of Maryland: An Operatic Star Who Raised Others’ Voices

The late vocalist Jessye Norman was famous for her recitals as well as her roles in works by Wagner and Verdi, but she also had another passion: to champion music written by and for Black people that didn’t generally take center stage in concert halls.

That’s one facet of Norman’s life that the public can discover through the Jessye Norman Papers, a collection of audio and visual recordings, correspondence, contracts, datebooks, programs, sheet music and ephemera now available through the Library of Congress. Jessica Grimmer MLIS ’21 helped process the collection as part of her field study before graduating from the University of Maryland.

Jessica Grimmer MLIS ’21 holding picture of Jessye Norman
“She wanted to showcase African American spirituals and Black artists in a way that foregrounded their place in classical music,” said Grimmer, who is a lecturer in UMD’s School of Music. “If we think about the classical canon, it’s a lot of dead white guys.”

Norman first reached global renown in 1968, when she won the ARD International Music Competition, Germany’s largest international classical music competition. She joined the Deutsche Oper Berlin, but stepped away after a few years to focus on performing recitals, “a less secure path” than being a member of an opera company, said Grimmer, who works as a copyright examiner in the U.S. Copyright Office and project archivist in UMD’s Special Collections in Performing Arts at the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library.

Known for her vocal range, Norman performed at the inaugurations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, at Queen Elizabeth’s 60th birthday celebration and at the 1996 Olympics opening ceremony. She also performed roles with the Metropolitan Opera, the Paris Opera and the Royal Opera in London.

Critical to Norman was the uplifting of Black music and composers. She performed and rearranged Duke Ellington’s “sacred concerts,” works that combined jazz, classical and choral music with gospel, blues and African American spirituals. These concerts were originally performed in churches and cathedrals across the world. Norman also recorded “Great Day in the Morning,” an arrangement of spirituals by composer and arranger Charles Lloyd Jr.

“She really purposefully programmed African American spirituals … and leaned into collaborations with both Black and women artists,” said Grimmer. Another Norman project, “woman.life.song,” on which she collaborated with composer Judith Weir, incorporated texts from Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.

Norman and her estate arranged the collection of nearly 30,000 items prior to her death in 2019 at age 74. Digitization work continues, and a finding aid—a tool that individuals can use to navigate the collection—is expected to be available in May.

Norman’s “understanding of vocal artistry places her among the most recognized and revered sopranos in the world,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden when the donation was announced in 2019. “We are pleased that this legendary performer’s papers will join the Library’s unparalleled musical arts collections.”

For her field study, Grimmer focused on the collection’s audio-visual assets and printed music series. In the sheet music, “we can see that she’s collecting not just spirituals but multiple arrangements of spirituals starting from the late 1800s all the way through more modern arrangements,” Grimmer said.

After sorting through cassette tapes, CDs and even old Betamax tapes, which can be digitized on-demand for patrons, Grimmer is pleased that both researchers and the general public can develop a greater understanding of Norman’s career. “We think about musical genius as this thing that just comes into a person, and we ignore the meticulous work that goes into it,” she said. Norman “already had the talent there, but she was not willing to rely on talent alone.”

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