Columbia's Rare Book & Manuscript Library Acquires Papers of Composer Ulysses Kay

NEW YORK, October 2, 2009 – Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library has acquired the papers of the noted American composer, Ulysses S. Kay (1917-1995). A prolific and important composer of contemporary symphonic, chamber, and choral music, Kay also wrote five operas, the most substantial and last of which, Jubilee (1976) and Frederick Douglass (1991), were based on themes from African-American history.


Kay was encouraged by William Grant Still to study music and attended the University of Arizona as an undergraduate. He received an MA in composition from the Eastman School, where he worked with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers, and then studied under Paul Hindemith at Yale. After serving in the Navy during WW II, Kay returned to New York to work with Otto Luening at Columbia. Between 1952 and 1968 he worked as an editorial advisor and later music consultant with Broadcast Music Inc., building a name for himself as a composer by writing music in the evenings and on weekends. Kay finished his career with two decades as a professor at Herbert Lehman College (CUNY), retiring in 1988.

Kay’s work had been praised by critics for its rich and skillful lyricism adapted to contemporary idioms. Kay himself described his work as “enlightened modernism.” During his successful career Kay received many fellowships and awards, including six honorary doctorates and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Highlights of the collection include a large number of Kay's scores in manuscript, a substantial collection of press cuttings relating to performances of Kay's works and those of his colleagues, diaries from his student years, and notes for speeches on numerous topics. His correspondence includes letters from William Grant Still and from his wife Barbara Kay during her periods of imprisonment as a Civil Rights activist, and detailed correspondence with librettist Donald Dorr about the construction of his last two operas.

The noted composer John Corigliano, who taught with Kay at Lehman College, said of his colleague: “Dr. Ulysses Kay was a wonderful composer, gentleman and colleague. His music speaks for itself - it is true and honest, and never driven by fashion. Those who were fortunate enough to know him also saw his gentleness and kindness. I am lucky to have known him.”

When organized and processed, the Kay papers will be available for use. For further information, call the RBML at 212-854-5153.

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