A Tenor Who Never Allowed Race to Stand in His Way
The city of Boston celebrates the achievements of Roland Hayes
Roland Hayes's mother didn't raise him to be a singer. Angel Mo', as he called her, told him there was no future in it for a black man. She was an ex-slave. Roland was born in 1887 in ''the oppressive hills'' of Gordon County, Ga., as Martin Luther King Jr. would call them later when he hailed her son's inspiring rise from poverty to entertain kings and queens.
Even Angel Mo' was impressed after Hayes left his job in an iron foundry, became a preeminent tenor, and put the trophies of his European fame in her lap.
''She brushed them away and took me in her arms,'' he recalled. '' 'I'm not afraid for you, son,' she said, 'I'm not afraid for you any-more.' ''
Angel Mo' is being echoed by Bostonians this week as Hayes's adopted city goes all out to celebrate his achievement and example with concerts and lectures. Hayes was the first African-American to perform with a major orchestra, the Boston Symphony, in 1922. (Five years before, the tenor spent $400 to rent Symphony Hall so he could give a concert of art songs and spirituals there.)
''Pure,'' ''lyrical,'' ''the poet comes through'' - these were a few comments on his singing from choral directors who had heard him.
''After the voice was gone the artistry was still there,'' says another rapt rememberer, Elma Lewis, who first heard Hayes when she was four years old and her parents took her to Symphony Hall. She grew up to become his friend and the founder and artistic director of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, the kind of resource Hayes did not have when he was growing up.
Hayes turned to Europe for early training. When he was featured at a Baptist church concert in Philadelphia, he heard the young Marian Anderson and encouraged her to seek formal musical training. She applied to a music school and was turned down because of her race. She never tried another school and relied on private instruction.
Dr. King placed Hayes - following Booker T. Washington and preceding Marian Anderson - in an honor roll of those ''who with determination have broken through the shackles of circumstance.''
Miss Lewis recalls that Hayes ''put a positive spin on everything.... He accepted all the challenges and overcame them.... He was a lesson in life ... a blessing ... a gentleman to the end of his life.'' She says he would not only sing the concert but, if necessary, put up posters.
A number of black singers had preceded Hayes on the concert stage, but he was the first to reach the very top, the first to sing in Carnegie Hall, for example. Some black critics deplored the spirituals for solo voice that he elegantly brought to the concert stage in the 1920s. They felt he was placing a people's essentially choral music in the wrong musical setting.
But Hayes was not out of keeping with the classical world's recognition of the art in black folk music. Czech composer Antonin Dvorak had made a famous statement in 1895 that ''there is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source [spirituals].''
Belgian-born author Marguerite Yourcenar praised Hayes's contribution to the understanding of spirituals in her volume translating spirituals into French. In addition to all his now archival work on records, one of his arrangements can be heard as sung by Osceola Davis on the compact disc ''Negro Spirituals'' (on the Ondine label). It is ''Sister Mary Had-a but One Child,'' and it shows how he could musically shape a compelling pattern of calm and climax in less than three minutes.
Lewis says that the spirituals Hayes sang and arranged have been overemphasized in the years since his passing (1977). ''His forte was classical European music ... he was a foremost interpreter of German lieder.''
Now, 73 years after Hayes debuted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the BSO is leading Boston's tributes with its weekend concerts. The program includes the world premiere of George Walker's ''Lilacs,'' works by Mozart and Liszt, and spirituals. Already there has been a concert by the New England Spiritual Ensemble, a group seeking to renew the ''spiritual'' as Hayes knew it, in contrast with the later development of gospel music. Another tribute was at Boston University, where Hayes taught. Among concerts in February: two at the African Meeting House, one at Jordan Hall. An exhibition at the Boston Public Library continues through the month.