Listening Tour

Listening Tour

A photo essay. To view all 16 images, check out the email edition.

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“In 1912, a New Haven resident—the first Black woman to earn a degree from Yale University—took the stage with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra to premiere her Piano Concerto,” the NHSO writes in 2023. “111 years later, New Haven audiences will once again have the opportunity to experience Helen Hagan’s music live in a concert hall.” Tonight’s concert actually honors three historic and interconnected composers, including Florence Price and Margaret Bonds. But Hagan’s intimate connection to New Haven makes her first among equals.

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The Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center

Born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1891, young Helen Eugenia Hagan soon moved with her family to a home at 83 Whalley Avenue. They attended Dixwell Church, located at the time at 100 Dixwell Avenue, where research indicates Hagan performed on the organ as early as age 9. Later, while still a student at New Haven High School (now named Hillhouse High, then located on the modern-day site of Yale’s Morse College), she matriculated to the Yale School of Music, located where College Street Music Hall now stands. She earned her historic degree in 1912, the same year she and the symphony premiered her concerto in Woolsey Hall. A half-century later, in 1964, she was buried in New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery in an unmarked grave, an indignity that was rectified in 2016.

We can easily admire but can’t easily connect to Hagan’s moves during those 52 interim years—studying in Paris on scholarship; touring America to critical acclaim; entertaining US troops in France during World War I; earning a graduate degree in education from Columbia; teaching music at historically Black colleges in Tennessee and Texas; establishing the Helen Hagan Music Studio in New York. Nonetheless, thanks to research and resources courtesy of a web of local individuals and organizations, we can follow, both in her time and ours, her footsteps through New Haven. And thanks to the power of the internet, we can simultaneously commune with Hagan through her concerto—the piano version, not the fully orchestrated commission slated for tonight’s symphony show.

Cue it up, then take this virtual tour through Helen Hagan’s New Haven, both past and present.

Written by Dan Mims.

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