Helen Hagan Gets Her Day

Lucy Gellman PhotoA New Havener turned musical torch-bearer is finally getting her due. 

That woman is Helen Eugenia Hagan, a classical pianist whose New Haven roots —  and boundary-breaking career that grew out of them —  were almost forgotten after she was buried in an unmarked grave in Evergreen Cemetery in 1964.

Thursday afternoon, a group of around 20 of musicians, scholars, city officials and Connecticut legislators gathered at the cemetery to make sure that her legacy would live on. They unveiled a new headstone inscribed with her name and highlights from her 75-year life and long history of performing around the country.

Courtest NHSOWhole chunks of Hagan’s life still remain unaccounted for and shrouded in mystery; only her Piano Concerto in C Minor, which the New Haven Symphony Orchestra performed around 1912, remains. But a cobbled-together biography reveals an extraordinary person.

Born in 1891 in Portsmouth, N.H., Hagan came to New Haven with her family when she was still very young, attending the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church after they settled in the city. At only 9 years old, she made her New Haven debut there, sliding up to the piano bench during services to play, and staying on as the pianist thereafter.

That was just the beginning. A humble beginning. A beautiful beginning. Around 1910, Hagan became the first black female student to attend (and later graduate from) the Yale School of Music, a feat that brought her acclaim as she performed with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, and then around the country at several historically black venues, in states that ranged from Connecticut and New York to small-town Iowa. On a scholarship from Yale, she was able to take her performances to France from 1912 to 1914, returning as the tide of WWI escalated for American troops going abroad.

So Hagan became, perhaps unintentionally and driven by her passion to play, a trailblazer. During and directly after the war, she was one of 19 women—and only black female performing artist—sent by the YMCA to services for 200,000 black troops stationed in France. When she returned — to a country that still honored Plessy V. Ferguson, no less — she returned to a position that she had taken at the then-called Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State University (now Tennessee State University) as the institutions second-ever music director. Under her tenure, the university acquired its first-ever grand piano. 

“She seemed to have a great ability to lead,” said Reginald McDonald, the eighth music director at Tennessee State, who flew into town for Thursday’s ceremony. “She’s inspired me.”

Tennessee State was only one feather in Hagan’s cap, one trail she was able to clear. In 1921, she returned to the East Coast to perform solo in New York City, a feat unlikely for a woman of color — or a woman at all — during that time. From there, she held teaching positions at Texas’s Bishop College and in New York, returning to New Haven when her father died in the 1950s, and again — in a casket — after succumbing to a long illness in New York City 10 years later. 

New Jersey-born writer Elizabeth Foxwell, author of the book In Their Own Words, led the effort to mark Hagan’s grave with a crowdsourced campaign that drew 22 members and local support from the current Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church and Yale School of Music Dean Robert Blocker. She said she was motivated by a sense that she had to correctly honor Hagan’s memory. 

“When I started reading the rave reviews of her performances I thought: This must be a woman of such towering talent — she blew everybody away,” said Foxwell after the ceremony. “I wish I could hear her music.”

She added that she hopes the now-marked grave would inspire musicians and artists who visited the cemetery to have the same kind of reaction that a small girl watching U.S. swimmer Simone Manuel, the first black woman to win gold in U.S. history, did earlier this year.

“May those that visit this monument, artists and other, draw achievement, and courage, and say: Me next,” she said.

To celebrate the occasion, which falls on opening night of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra’s 2016-17 season, Mayor Toni Harp officially declared Sept. 29 “Women Making Music Day” in the Elm City, which also honors the NHSO’s current composer-in-residence, Hannah Lash. She called Hagann’s work a “prolific global contribution” that she’s proud has ties to New Haven.

Lash had a different take, as a composer for whom Hagan’s legacy is living on in a very real way in her day-to-day study of music.

“I listened to her early music [which is the only work that survives] and heard Rachmaninoff, Greig, List, Chopin ... but also a charm and self-awareness,” she said. “She represents what I love most in music: The audacity to be everything one can be.” 

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