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A Biography of Helen Eugenia Hagan

Helen Eugenia Hagan wrote a virtuosic piano concerto while still a student at Yale University, then went on to a career as a popular performer and music educator for nearly a half-century.


She was born in 1891 in Portsmouth, NH, to a musical family; father John was a baritone singer and mother Mary Estella Neal was a pianist. She studied the instrument under her mother, and in 1900 gave her first concert at Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, founded in 1820 in New Haven – where the Hagans had relocated -- by a group of free men and women and former slaves.


Hagan continued her music education at Yale School of Music, where in 1912 she became the first Black woman graduate. In May of that year she debuted at the school’s Woolsey Hall the first movement (Allegro maestoso) of her Piano Concerto in C Minor for Piano and Orchestra. She was awarded for the excellence of the composition with the school’s first Samuel Simons Sanford Fellowship, taking her to Paris’ Schola Cantorum for two years of postgraduate study. In bestowing the scholarship on her, Dean Horatio Parker wrote that Hagan had presented a “brilliant performance of an original concerto (first movement) for piano and orchestra. Ms. Hagan shows not only pianistic talent of rare promise but also clearly marked ability to conceive and execute musical ideas of much charm and no little originality.”’


She returned to the U.S. in 1914 and performed the concerto around the U.S., including the Second Annual All Colored Composers concert in Chicago in 1915. William Pickens, who would go on to a storied career as an author and NAACP activist, wrote of a 1916 performance by Hagan: “She showed me and has since shown hundreds of thousands that genius [...] will out.”


Hagan took up a position in November 1918 as music director of Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (later Tennessee State University), an HBCU in Nashville.


In 1919, Reverend Henry Hugh Proctor, minister of Atlanta’s First Congregational Church and founder of the Atlanta Colored Music Festival Association, invited Hagan to join him as he ministered to some of the 200,000 Black troops at the front in France. Hagan was a standout performer, known as the “darling of the doughboys.” The soldiers “had heard some of the very best of American and foreign pianists, but none had received the ovation from the colored soldiers that was given to Miss Helen Hagan,” wrote Addie W. Hunton and Kathryn M. Johnson. “Everywhere she was received by tremendous crowds of men with rapturous applause, and her wonderful talent was never put to better use nor more deeply appreciated.”


Upon returning to the U.S., Hagan achieved another superlative, becoming in 1921 one of the first Black pianists to deliver a recital in New York City, at the famed Aeolian Hall. The New York Times, in its review of the performance, referred to Hagan as “one of those exotic musical souls born to be pioneers.”


She continued to perform around the country, from New York to Connecticut to Iowa, and in 1933 was named Dean of Music at Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. She stayed at the HBCU for two years before returning to New York and establishing a private studio at 135th Street in Harlem, which she maintained until her death in 1964.


Hagan was laid to rest in Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven in a grave that remained unmarked until 2016. That year author Elizabeth Foxwell launched an online campaign to raise funds for a proper marker. On September 29, 2016, about 20 musicians, scholars, city officials, and legislators unveiled a new headstone inscribed with her name and highlights from her life as a music pioneer.


Hagan is said to have written songs, pianoforte pieces, violin and piano sonatas, and string quartets, and one hopes that someday the music world will be blessed with the discovery of a trove of scores that will surely match the genius of her celebrated Piano Concerto.

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