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  • Writer's picturemissy curl

5 Questions with a Musician: Dr. Cynthia Cozette Lee

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

I am GREATLY honored at having an interview with Dr. Cynthia Cozette Lee, the guest musician for this week’s “5 Questions with a Musician”.

Dr. Lee is a distinguished composer, librettist and educator who has written music in contemporary classical music styles. She has a doctorate degree in Educational Leadership from Rowan University. She also holds a Masters of Arts Degree in Music Composition from the University of Pennsylvania where she studied under influential avant-garde composers, George Rochberg and George Crumb. Dr. Lee was the FIRST African American woman to receive this degree from the U of Penn. She also is a published poet and author. Her book of original poems, The Forgotten Schoolhouse is set to be published in the summer of 2020.

Dr. Lee has written for vocal, instrumental, chamber music, orchestra and composed several operas, Adea, The Black Guitar, Partway to Freedom and Let Courage Be The Light. Her music has been performed in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico at events with such distinguished organizations as the College Music Society, Flute Society of Greater Philadelphia, National Association of Negro Musicians, Women of Color Festival and the Mu Phi Epsilon International Conventions.

Her award-winning compositions Colors for Women’s Voices and Percussion Ensemble and The Martyr for Baritone and Orchestra have received awards in the Mu Phi Epsilon National Composition Contests. Her composition Nigerian Treasures in 3 Movements for solo unaccompanied flute received an award and first public international performance from the College Music Society in Vancouver, British Columbia. Dr. Lee’s orchestral compositions are Ebony Reflections for Chamber Orchestra, Nepenthe Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and A.M.E.R.I.C.A.

I have never met Dr. Lee in person before, however, after reaching out to her, she kindly gave me information about herself and her music. I am very thrilled to get the opportunity to ask her some questions about her life’s career and work.

1) As a child you received training as a pianist and flautist. How did you choose a career in composition?

First I would like to thank you, Missy, for contacting me to participate in the music blog. I am honored for this opportunity to share my music experience with you.

My wish to be a composer was a gradual decision. There was not a specific event or moment that made me want to compose. It was a series of happenings in my childhood and as a teenager. My mother, Mrs. Grace Garner Lee, realized the value of music and art in the growth and development of a child. She encouraged me to take lessons on the piano, flute, violin and guitar and to take formal lessons in ballet and jazz dance. When I was 15 years old, I learned about a Pittsburgh Flute Club Composition Contest for young people from reading a newspaper article. I sat at my piano at home and composed a short, lively canon within a few days which my older sister, Dr. Hazel Ann Lee, titled “The Nymph” to enter into the contest. I enjoyed composing. I liked starting with a musical idea or fragments of a tune I created and to form these fragments into a song. I was surprised and very happy to receive honorable mention in the contest.

I became a member of The Pittsburgh Flute Club. The officers of the club learned of my success in the composition contest and made it possible for me to receive free composition lessons the next summer with Duquesne University music composition professor, Joseph Wilcox Jenkins. I later learned that my future composition teacher at Carnegie Mellon, Roland Leich, had been one of the judges in the contest. In high school I was awarded the Victor Saudek Scholarship to receive free flute lessons from Bernard Goldberg, the principal flautist of the Pittsburgh Symphony. As I participated in my school orchestra and all-city orchestra playing the flute, acting in the senior play and the plays given through my church youth group, volunteering with a school classmate to work at the Pittsburgh Opera, it seemed the more I was immersed in the arts, the stronger my passion to compose became. By the time I entered college I knew definitely I wanted to study composing and become a composer.

2) Was there any one person, persons or life event that assisted you in discovering your passion for composition and influenced your career choice?

I was very fortunate to have a mother who recognized my musical abilities and took the time and trouble to reach out to find the best music teachers in Pittsburgh to train me in classical music. I was the youngest of 8 children and lost my father to leukemia when I was a toddler. My mother had to manage a rubbish removal business 14 hours a day. She began hauling rubbish from the Fulton building in downtown Pittsburgh. This building housed the music studios of Pittsburgh’s finest musicians. My mother told me she walked into the Fulton building one day with a turban on her head and wearing her work pants to ask Carmen Rummo, the distinguished Duquesne University professor of piano, if he would take me as a student at the age of 8. Mr. Rummo immediately agreed. My mother was physically small being 4 feet, 11 inches tall. She was the first African American woman to manage a rubbish removal business in Pittsburgh. She was also the grand-daughter of an African American slave who fought as a sergeant in the Union Army, the United States Colored Troops. My mother had strong character and intelligence. She was a positive role model in my life.

I studied over 2 years on the piano with Mr. Rummo. I also studied flute 3 years with Alois Hrabak, former Pittsburgh Symphony flautist, whose studio was in the Fulton Building. Also, as a child I attended the newly built Grandview Elementary School which had the first elementary school orchestra in the city. I learned to play the violin and flute with Mrs. Marie Mollars, our music teacher at Grandview. In junior high school, my orchestra teacher was the renowned Mr. Lawrence Peeler, Jr., who was the son of the prominent Paul Lawrence Peeler, Sr., one of the first Black music teachers hired by the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Our church, the Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church, at that time was the only Black Presbyterian church in the city. With home support, strict but caring music teachers and a strong music experience at church, I found the freedom to develop my composing and songwriting talents. I wrote two musical plays in high school. By the end of my undergraduate experience in college where I attended Jacksonville University and Carnegie Mellon University, I had written one orchestral work, several vocal and choral works and chamber music pieces for various instruments.

3) Classical music historically originates from the European tradition and culture. How did you prepare yourself to become skilled in this genre of music? What were some of the challenges you faced in becoming accomplished as a contemporary classical music composer?

I became prepared and skilled in the genre of contemporary classical music composition by studying with excellent, caring teachers who had a strong foundation in classical music. My musical training extended from the European traditions of Johannes Brahms through some of my composition teachers who were taught by musicians that learned music from students of Brahms. In other words I am 4 generations from Brahms music instruction. My initial music composition theory training and expression came from the European traditions regarding music elements of harmony, melody, rhythm, form and tone color.

However, selecting contemporary classical music composition as my major musical genre was not as clear cut as I thought it would be. I discovered many students and contemporary composers write in an atonal or dissonant style. I chose to write in a tonal style using melodies and harmonies that was the opposite style of what the avant-garde composers were writing. Again, I found I could express my musical ideas better with tonal music. I chose tonal over atonal music and sometimes felt like an outsider in my own contemporary music field because my music was different from what was being written and performed in the contemporary classical music scene.

Also, my classical music training did not prepare me for finding out in college that music composition in our society is more a business than an art form. Despite your talent you must learn the business trade of the music industry. In addition, I chose contemporary classical music and not jazz, gospel or rhythm and blues as my composition genre. My upbringing was in the traditional classical music style. Although I was well informed and appreciated the other American music styles, I found that I could express myself with a deeper insight and understanding in classical music.

I have composed 4 operas Adea, The Black Guitar, Partway To Freedom and Let Courage Be The Light in tonal styles. I wrote many flute and other chamber music works also in tonal styles. I turned to French impressionism and neo-classical forms. I believe my music has stood the test of time. I have been told my music has a freshness where listeners want to hear it again. In addition, I have been privileged to have some of my compositions receive awards in national music composition contests.

4) Many of your compositions are based on Black heritage and historical themes. Can you explain why you decided as a composer and librettist to tell stories that may be deeply personal to you?

One of my friends in high school was the daughter of a member of the Pittsburgh Opera Company. When I volunteered with her to assist with the opera productions, I wondered as a youth, where were the Black opera stories? Where were the Black opera singers? I realized then that there was a lack of performance by Black classical musicians and composers. Important and talented Black American performers were not being hired and heard by the American public.

We need American student composers not giving up on writing the stories of our Black experience in classical art forms. If Marian Anderson or Paul Robeson or composers Julia Perry or William Grant Still had given up then there would be no Cynthia Cozette Lee, the first Black person to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania with a Master of Arts degree in music composition.

5) What influenced your style of writing music? What advice do you have for young composers today as they learn to develop their personal musical style?

I have been trained to write music in all styles. Keep in mind composers 100 years ago had publishers and agents to help the composer navigate through their stylistic periods of change in composing. Today due to technology everything is needed now and the composer does not have the time to grow and reflect on developing their style. Twentieth century composers who influenced my style are the Black Nationalist composers like R. Nathaniel Dett, Harlem Renaissance composer, William Grant Still, and contemporary composers, Gian Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber. My music composition professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Roland Leich, attended Curtis Institute of Music as a composition student and classmate with Gian Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber.

My music writing style is tonal using melodies and harmonies. At the same time I try to incorporate Black historical themes in my style of writing because these themes deal with American human stories. Also, I believe music can be used in a variety of settings. Music can be sacred (religious) and secular. Music also can be performed for indoor and outdoor enjoyment. For example, I composed a series of unaccompanied flute works, one being Rivers: An African Tribute for the purpose of being performed outdoors at festivals where there are large crowds. My work Rivers uses humming and singing in the flute and some poetry narration to create an exotic sounding effect and help project the sound of the flute outdoors.

Meanwhile, another unexpected discovery I encountered in music composition when I attended college was finding out a war was going on in contemporary classical music styles of writing. I grew up learning the music of the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Impressionistic composers. Now I found that on one side were the avant-garde composers who used dissonance and chaos as the basis of their music while on the other side there were a few tonalist who believed tonal music was the better style. Some composers tried to combine both styles. Then as an African American composer some felt I needed to write music in Black styles like jazz, blues or African music and I should not pursue a career in writing music of European origins. I was glad during my youth I studied 4 years of classical Latin and studied a little Greek. I learned the word music originates from the Greek word associated with the muses who were the goddesses of music, poetry, art and dance. Therefore, music, in my opinion, is a blending of the arts and a blending of expression.

My advice to young composers is keep composing music no matter what obstacles may get in your way. Richard Wagner, sometimes waited 10 years before composing the music to his new works because it took him that long to formulate the librettos to some of his great operas. I have written opera librettos and also have composed the music for 2 of my operas titled Adea and The Black Guitar. My sister, Dr. Hazel Ann Lee, is assisting me with writing the libretto to our Civil War operas, Partway To Freedom and Let Courage Be The Light. We recently discovered why we did not complete one of the operas several years ago because each of us when we finished Scene 1 together wrote our own librettos for Scene 2 and Scene 3. We laugh about it now. Sometimes it takes patience and understanding along with maturity to develop an art form. Therefore, try to stay focused with your career and learn what you can through listening to professionals who have been there and know the ups and downs of becoming a successful composer.

For my future, I have the voice and piano version of my one act operas Adea, The Black Guitar and Partway To Freedom completed. I hope to gain a commission to score one or all four of my operas for voice with orchestra instrumental accompaniment. Also, I have my first book of poems, The Forgotten Schoolhouse, being published during the summer of 2020 by Covenant Books. I am very excited about finishing the orchestrations for my operas and also seeing my first book of poems about nature and religion published in print. I hope to continue composing music using Black historical and religious themes to help tell the untold stories of Black Americans.


Thank you, Dr. Cynthia Cozette Lee, for taking time to answer these questions for the "5 Questions with a Musician" blog!

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