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At Tanglewood, an 80-year-old ‘gem’ gets its premiere

A young Ulysses Kay at the piano.Ulysses Kay Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

How did Mary Ferrillo learn about Ulysses Kay’s Sonatine for viola and piano? The same way anyone finds anything these days — Google.

“I spend so much time online looking up keywords like ‘viola,’ ‘viola sonata,’ ‘piece for viola and piano,‘” said Ferrillo, who joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s viola section last fall. “I’m always looking for music beyond the standard viola repertoire. I think it’s a little boring for listeners to hear the same offerings for viola over and over again.”

She doesn’t remember what magic phrase led her to the website of the American Composers Alliance, but that’s where she discovered Kay’s Sonatine. She’d been looking for a piece to perform for Tanglewood’s BSO Musicians in Recital virtual concert series, and this looked like a perfect fit. It was a comfortable duration. Kay had studied at Tanglewood in 1941. What’s more, Ferrillo and her fellow BSO musicians were eager to showcase more works by composers of color like Kay.

However, Ferrillo noticed, the 1939 piece was said to be withdrawn. How had the ACA come to publish a newly revised edition in 2019? Ferrillo e-mailed the publishers with some questions.


“The contact I had responded and said … ‘if you play it, let us know, because it would probably be a world premiere,’” Ferrillo said. “I was like ‘Oh, I should probably let everyone know that I have stumbled into this.’”

With Friday’s BSO Musicians in Recital program, Kay’s Sonatine will finally see its world premiere, more than 80 years after its composition.

As for why Ferrillo was able to stumble upon the previously-withdrawn Sonatine in the first place, it’s partially thanks to violist Juliet White-Smith, who found facsimiles for both the Sonatine and a longer Sonata (also for viola and piano) decades ago while exploring the Eastman School of Music library as a doctoral student.


Kay was very given to self-criticism, White-Smith explained over the phone. Over the course of his career, he withdrew many pieces. White-Smith remembered looking up a 70-something Kay in the White Pages in 1993 to tell him she’d be performing the sonata. His response was “How did you come across these scores? I don’t even have a copy of the score,” White-Smith said in a phone interview.

Kay was still happy to hear his music would be performed. “He was delighted that I was performing the piece, and finding some joy, and making this work public,” said White-Smith, who is now a professor at Ohio State University. More recently, White-Smith contacted Kay’s daughter Virginia about digitizing those two viola/piano pieces for a project with the American Viola Society. Because of the Kay family’s pre-existing agreement with ACA, the pieces were digitized from copies in Kay’s papers at Columbia University and distributed through the ACA. And that’s where Ferrillo found the Sonatine.

A portrait of the Kay family: Ulysses, Barbara, and baby Virginia, between 1951 and 1953. Ulysses Kay Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

Kay, who died in 1995 at age 78, wrote more than 140 compositions during the course of his life: upward of 25 pieces for orchestra, a handful of film and TV scores, plentiful music for solo voice, choir, and chamber ensembles of various configurations, and five operas including one based on the life of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. During his summer at Tanglewood, Kay studied with Paul Hindemith, who encouraged the young composer to follow him to Yale — which Kay did for a year. (Hindemith’s Sonata for Viola and Piano will also be performed on Friday’s program, featuring BSO violist Daniel Getz.)


From there, Kay did a stretch as a Navy musician and furthered his studies at Columbia University (where his archives are now stored). Then he became the first Black person to receive the Rome Prize, which sent him to the American Academy in Rome for three years of study. In 1958, he traveled to the USSR with a select delegation of American composers, where Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducted his music.

Kay ultimately made his home near New York City, working at Broadcast Music Inc. in the 1950s and ‘60s and later teaching at Lehman College of the City University of New York. His wife, Barbara Kay, also a musician, was a civil rights activist who was arrested and jailed for participating in the 1961 Freedom Rides in Mississippi as well as protesting school segregation in the Kay family’s home base of Englewood, N.J.

But the Sonatine dates from before all that, during Kay’s graduate studies at Eastman (where he earned his master’s degree in 1940, while still in his early 20s). And it’s “a gem” of a piece, Ferrillo said.

“He was such a young composer, but [the Sonatine has] such a refined and specific musical personality,” she said. “It sits beautifully in the viola’s hands. ... It covers a lot of musical ground in a pretty compact musical package. It’s such a pity that other than the sonata, he didn’t move toward writing more viola music for us. That voice works so beautifully for the viola.”


She doesn’t typically play many recitals, but she says the Sonatine is “absolutely” a keeper for her repertoire, and she aims to eventually take on the longer Sonata. “It’s from two years later, and that was around the time he was working with Hindemith,” she said. “So it would just be great to see where his style went from there.”


Featuring works by Ulysses Kay, Paul Hindemith, Rebecca Clarke, and Luciano Berio. 8 p.m., July 31.

Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify Columbia University’s role in digitizing Kay’s music.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at Follow her @knitandlisten.