The collection consists musical compositions authored by pianist and composer Ruth Norman, including music manuscripts and printed scores. Norman produced a variety of works, including piano solo compositions, organ solo compositions, choral compositions, solo vocal compositions, and orchestral compositions. The collection also includes a small amount of related documents, such as concert programs, correspondence, promotional flyers, and composition lists. Finally, the collection also contains recordings of performances by Ruth Norman and others.
She composed music for both beginners and advanced performers and her works often dealt with Christian religious themes. Her works were also influenced by Eastern philosophy and commonalities among religious beliefs.
Please see the External Documents section below for detailed lists of compositions and other materials that make up this collection. Please note this inventory includes only the contents of the first accession of Norman materials, not later accruals.
Most manuscripts collections at the Georgetown University Booth Family Center for Special Collections are open to researchers; however, restrictions may apply to some collections. Collections stored off site require a minimum of three days for retrieval. For use of all manuscripts collections, researchers are advised to contact the Booth Family Center for Special Collections in advance of any visit.
Researchers are solely responsible for determining the copyright status of the materials being used, establishing who the copyright owner is, locating the copyright owner, and obtaining permission for intended use.
Ruth Norman (1927-2007) was a native of Omaha, Nebraska. She earned a B.M. Degree (1948) at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and a M.M. Degree in Piano (1953) at the Eastman School of Music. Norman completed additional composition study with Russell Woollen, Esther Ballou, and Robert Parris. She toured extensively as a pianist, specializing in the keyboard music of Black classical composers. She served as Artist-in-Residence at the Sumner School in Washington, DC. Norman wrote several works for chamber ensemble and chorus, as well as compositions for solo piano and organ. Her latter works reflect her profound interest in mysticism and eastern philosophy.
(Source: African-American Organ Composers by Mickey Thomas Terry. Ph.D. https://pipedreams.publicradio.org/articles/africanamericancomposers.shtml, last accessed February 17, 2023)
Composer, pianist, organist, scholar, teacher, wife, mother, activist, mentor – Ruth Norman was all of these and more. I first met Ruth in 1985 when she was a guest artist invited to perform a lecture recital at Trinity College in Washington, DC, as part of the celebration of Black History Month. The students who planned the month’s events asked me to introduce the program so I learned a little about Ruth in preparation for her presentation. Her performance was astounding, and the audience was mesmerized by her knowledge of the music by composers of color from the Renaissance period up to the present time. She spoke without notes and flawlessly played examples of solo piano compositions, including one of her own works.
My life intersected with Ruth’s at a time when it had a great impact on my professional goals. I had been teaching at Trinity College since 1972 and felt burned out by the repetition of yet another music history or music theory course. Although I had focused on vocal performance for all of my higher education, my teaching career had turned me into a music generalist. I believe that Ruth sensed my sagging spirits and offered not only encouragement but also a new focus for my teaching and music career. She told me that I should perform more music by black composers, particularly compositions by women since I was teaching at a women’s college; but she offered more than advice. She gave me copies of music and the results of her extensive research on the repertory that she had been presenting in her lecture recitals. This was a revelation to me. Academics are often possessive of their materials and research, not inclined to share. The generosity of spirit that I saw in Ruth was inspirational. I had just begun research on the music of women composers and had encountered the attitude of other scholars who felt that we should all go through growing pains and “reinventing the wheel” for ourselves. I could see that Ruth had no patience for that. Her goal was to get the music out to as many people as possible and, in a way, convert performers to her belief that there is an extensive repertory of music by women and minorities that they should be presenting in concerts. Sharing and collaboration were part of Ruth’s personal belief system.
From 1985 until her death in 2007, I heard from Ruth once in a while and occasionally shared concert programs with her that were presented by Friday Morning Music Club in Washington, DC. We met from time to time when she would phone and say she wanted to come over to Trinity College to copy some music for me or to show me a new composition she had been working on. I treasure all of these encounters as wonderful memories of a woman who was intense, dedicated, disciplined, spiritually centered, and inspiring. In 1995, when we were both participating in a concert at the Sumner Museum in Washington, DC, I included in my remarks to the audience the following: “I want to say that it is a pleasure and privilege to share the program today with composer and pianist Ruth Norman. We are indeed lucky to have such talent in our city and in this musical organization.” My words were inadequate but heartfelt, an expression of my deep respect for Ruth as a musician and as a woman who lived such an integrated life.
Since October, 2007, I have come to know Ruth Norman in a completely unique way. Shortly before her death I met her son, Karl Bostic, and learned more about her personal life. At her memorial service, I also met her two daughters, Judy and Kathy. In the last few months, I have learned more about the integrated life that Ruth led. When her son asked me to sort through Ruth’s music and manuscripts, I was eager to contribute what I could to the process of creating an inventory of her musical work. What I was not expecting was to find evidence of a life that was lived in such a way that family, friends, spirituality, and a musical career were woven together in a tapestry that was apparently seamless. I saw evidence of a creative discipline regarding the technique and practice of composing music, but, more than that, I saw the way that day to day life and concerns for family and friends were at the forefront for Ruth, even when she was intensely engaged in creating a new musical work. We hear a lot about multi-tasking these days. For Ruth that sometimes meant writing a quick note on the back of a manuscript page reminding herself that her son was going to call or that she needed to phone a musical colleague or friend. It might mean writing thank you notes to musicians who had performed her compositions. It might be a moment of spiritual reflection or meditation in which she would write out a quote from scripture or a philosophical reading. As I was to discover, this often resulted in Ruth writing her own inspirational texts that would be given a musical setting in a solo vocal or choral composition.
Before I had finished going through all the boxes of music manuscripts, letters, concert programs and other materials, I began to have a clearer picture of what daily life was like for Ruth. There was an amazing consistency and discipline to her work as a composer; that is, she seemed to practice the art of composition every day, an activity that can be all encompassing; but she also performed as a pianist, organist, and conductor on a regular basis. As well, she was her own agent, writing letters, seeking performance opportunities, engaging and rehearsing performers, not to mention finding funding for various projects such as making a recording of solo piano music by black composers. Her energy seemed endless. Of course, I had already sensed that energy and intensity from the opportunities that I had to meet her or talk with her on the phone. While sorting copies of concert programs, I discovered that Ruth performed as a solo pianist beginning in 1948 and continuing at least until 2005. During those years, she played standard repertory that was technically demanding and challenging as well as introducing little known piano works by black composers along with her own compositions. Her ability to move seamlessly from performing to composition, scholarship, and teaching, in addition to so many other activities, serves as a model for young musicians today. She was able to use her talents and skills to promote the music of others. As a result, her compositions were informed by knowledge of musical history and diverse styles. It is very important that Ruth’s legacy continues to serve as an inspiration to others. The research that she did on the music of black composers was shared in her lifetime so that others learned about it as well. The next generation of solo performers, composers, conductors and music educators must pick up the torch that Ruth lit in her lifetime, passing it on and adding their own insights to musical history.
Among Ruth’s complete manuscripts and loose pages with compositional sketches, there are handwritten quotes and paraphrases of passages from scripture. Some of the quotations became a part of extensive texts that Ruth set either for solo voice or for choral ensembles. Other texts that she created were inspired by readings in both Eastern and Western philosophy or other sacred writings. Most of her instrumental compositions have titles that reference the spiritual thoughts that inspired Ruth in their creation. Whether she was setting a sacred text or using a title such as “Cosmic Journey” for a solo piano work, Ruth communicated a deep faith and spirituality through her music. One of the spiritual themes that provided the most intense inspiration for Ruth was “Love.” In her composition titled “. . . Of Divine Love,” she begins with the text “God is Love and those that abide in Love abide in God and God abides in them.” She continues with her own text that illuminates and expands the scripture drawn from the words of St. Paul in the New Testament. Perhaps this is the best way to describe Ruth Norman and her place in this world. She abides in Love, and, for those who knew her, Love abides in her memory and her presence among us. Ruth’s integration of so many roles into a holistic approach to life is an exquisite example of that Love. One of the treasures that I found among Ruth Norman’s papers is a packet that she assembled with various concert programs, letters, and program notes regarding her performances and musical activities. Excerpts from these documents illustrate her generosity and unique qualities. After presenting a program at Damascus High School, Ruth received a letter from Sandra Shmookler, Chairperson of the Human Relations Committee. Dated March 21, 1980, Shmookler wrote: “Your performance at Damascus High School was the semester’s highlight of our Human Relations endeavor. Your tremendous musical knowledge and your delightful method of presentation was a pleasure and our staff and students appreciate your taking time from your schedule to perform for us.” Writing on February 5, 1985, Barbara Shissler Nosanow, Assistant Director for Museum Programs at the National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution stated:
I am so delighted that you were able to perform for us on Sunday. I cannot tell you how many people came up to me during that afternoon to say how much the music meant to the wonderful vibrant atmosphere of the afternoon. . . . How can I thank you enough for the support you have given this project during the past few months.
Another program was presented that same month at Trinity College in Washington, DC, titled “The Styles of Black Composers.” Students in music classes were required to write concert reports during the semester, and some of them chose Ruth Norman’s program for the assignment. A senior, Shelley Dryden, wrote: “Lastly, there was Molto Allegro, a toccata written in 1970 by Ruth Norman. This piece is the most memorable out of all. Its style came across as strong, fast, and tragic.” In the Spring 2004 issue of Creativity, the Arts Magazine of the Sutherland Community Arts Initiative in Illinois, Rebecca Parsons wrote an extensive description of Ruth Norman’s contributions, capturing the richness and wholeness of a remarkable woman. Composing and performing for over sixty years, Norman was a pioneer in classical music, at the time a new frontier for African-Americans. She was the first black artist on the Opus One record label. She was also the first black person to receive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Phillip Stern Foundation. Norman was the first black woman to give a solo performance at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
There is a rich history of African-Americans in classical music; and Norman has uncovered this history within her extensive research studies. Her lecture-recital presentations document black classical composers whose works date back to 1770. She has exposed this musical legacy throughout the years with her piano, organ, and choral works of black classical musicians and composers . . . Norman has also shared her knowledge with students at Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Bowie State University with her musical and historical instruction.
Norman believes that every person is put here on Earth for a purpose and that hers is, as she put it, “to share and prove that black people are so talented and intelligent, that we play all kinds of music, not just jazz and blues.” . . . Dedicating her life to the preservation and propagation of these overlooked vanguards, Ruth Norman has not only achieved this goal, but has secured a special place in musical history and hearts.
To these well deserved accolades, I add my eternal gratitude for the opportunity I had to know a remarkable woman who led a totally integrated life. Her spirit will remain with me always.
A Reflection by Dr. Sharon Guertin Shafer
Professor emerita of Music
Trinity Washington University, Washington, DC
5.5 Cubic Feet (16 boxes and 1 oversized folder)
The collection is organized into three series:
1. Music Manuscripts and Printed Scores
2. Clippings, Programs, and Correspondence
3. Music Recordings
The collection was curated by Charles Acree from 2008 to 2018, when the collection was donated to the Booth Family Center for Special Collections.
A small assortment of materials were donated by Dr. Mickey Thomas Terry in 2023. These materials were originally sent from Ruth Norman to Dr. Terry.
Gift of Karl Bostic, 2018, 2023 (GTM-20180524 and GTM-20230530). Additional materials donated by Dr. Mickey Thomas Terry, 2023 (GTM-20230214 and GTM-20230707).
The collection was rehoused into acid-free boxes when it was received in 2018. The collection was rehoused into more appropriately sized boxes and folders during processing in 2023.
The bulk of the collection had been inventoried by Dr. Sharon Guertin Shafer prior to donation. The processing archivist then sorted loose manuscript materials by title when they could be identified. Materials donated by Dr. Mickey Thomas are identified by labels on their folders or folder inserts.
Part of the Georgetown University Manuscripts Repository