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Harvard Honors Jessye Norman

For this post we would like to celebrate honors received by Jessye Norman, who passed away in September 2019, starting with the honorary doctorate she received from Harvard in June, 1988. This was one of many honorary doctorates she received during her lifetime. At this time in Harvard-Radcliffe history, Radcliffe College was still awarding degrees to female students, as it was the female coordinate institution for the all-male Harvard College. Although an agreement was signed to combine admissions offices in 1977, a full absorption of Radcliffe College into Harvard University did not happen until 1999.

This photograph of Jessye Norman was taken during the convocation events.

Jessye Norman looking at the camera during convocation

Standing in the center of the following photograph is Oscar Arias Sánchez, President of Costa Rica, the recipient of the other honorary doctorate given that year.

Eight people psing for picture, including Jessye Norman

In 1997, Norman received the Radcliffe Medal, given annually to individuals whose lives and work have had a transformative impact on society. It was given to Norman at the Radcliffe Annual Alumnae Association Luncheon. An audiocassette of the luncheon is available by appointment only in the Schlesinger Library. Also bestowed the honor was musician Lena Horne, a recipient in 1987.  

Harvard wasn’t finished giving Norman awards. In 2016, she was awarded the W.E.B Dubois Medal honoring those who have made significant contributions to African and African American History and Culture. The award was presented at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Ceremony at Harvard University, available on YouTube. As part of the ceremony, Ingrid Monson, Quincy Jones Professor of African-American Music at Harvard, read a passage about the power and necessity of music, from W.E.B. Du Bois “The Sorrow Songs” from his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk. Lana MC Lyte’ Moorer, an acclaimed female hip-hop musician, was also presented the award in the same year for her contribution to music.

These photos, along with photos of the luncheon, are held at the Radcliffe College Archives at the Schlesinger Library and are available upon request. Photographs used with permission from the Schlesinger Library.

Radcliffe Medal Recipients

Harvard Honorary Degree Recipients

W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Recipients

Happy 90th Birthday to Leontyne Price!

Legendary American soprano Leontyne Price celebrates her 90th birthday on February 10. This coincides with the 50th anniversary season of the Metropolitan Opera at its present Lincoln Center home. The premiere of American composer Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra christened the new opera house on September 16, 1966, a suitably grand-scaled work based on Shakespeare’s tragedy and written especially for Price as Cleopatra. Price and the Metropolitan Opera were almost synonymous in the 1960s, beginning with the thunderous acclaim that greeted her house debut in 1961 (a co-debut on January 27th with tenor Franco Corelli). Price came to the Met just as she reached the prime of a great career; her performances were a highlight of each season in which she sang.

Leontyne Price (b&w) by Jack MitchellLeontyne Price, 1981 – Photograph by Jack Mitchell, CC BY-SA

When the announcement of Antony and Cleopatra was made, Barber and Price had been artistic collaborators for more than a decade. A singer himself, the composer knew Price’s voice and what it could do, and that shaped his conception of the opera’s heroine. “Every vowel,” he told The New York Times, “was placed with Leontyne’s voice in mind.” The Met’s CD presentation of Antony and Cleopatra in its newly-released inaugural season box set is the first release of the original version of the work, the sole other recording (Spoleto, 1983) being Barber’s 1975 revision, which differs significantly. Price’s Town Hall recital debut in 1954 featured the first New York performance of Barber’s Hermit Songs. The previous year, Price had sung the premiere of the work at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., with Barber at the piano (October 30, 1953), a performance likewise preserved on recording (Loeb Music Library, CD 12283 (HOLLIS record)).

-Robert J. Dennis

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