Dorothy Maynor (1910-1996)
by Randye Jones
Dorothy Leigh Mainor was born on September 10, 1910, in Norfolk, Virginia. Her father, John J. Mainor, was pastor of Norfolk’s St. John’s Methodist Church. Her mother, Alice Jeffries Mainor, had the responsibility of raising Dorothy and her older siblings and maintaining the household. An acquaintance gave this description of the young girl:
Dorothy was a very beautiful girl, inheriting physical features from both of her parents. She had very long, soft, black hair and a lovely light brown skin. Her face was round and compatible with her chubby body. Her pretty white teeth glistened and accented her large brown eyes; her two dimples deepened when she smiled. There were few persons who did not find her to be utterly charming and attractive.1
From her father, she also gained an appreciation of their dual African/Native American heritage through their frequent hunting and fishing trips, where she became an expert marksman. Her mother taught her to cook and sew with equal expertise. Although Norfolk was–like other Southern towns–segregated, the young girl was rarely exposed to the detrimental effects of racism. The Mainor family prospered in the town’s black community, living in a two-storied wood-frame house on one of its few paved roadways. Dorothy and the other Mainor children were early exposed to music, especially spirituals:
My sister played the piano. It was a rare day when we weren’t singing in the house to her accompaniment. But it was just the sort of thing you might find in almost any home anywhere. I always sang in my father’s church. But it was while in a public grammar school that I was first encouraged in my singing. That was by the school’s woman principal.2
Because Dorothy’s teachers recognized that Norfolk’s African American schools were inadequate for her needs, her teachers recommended that she attend school outside the Norfolk area. In 1924, her parents sent her to complete her studies at nearby Hampton Institute’s preparatory program. She florished in the close-knit academic and cultural life of the school and planned to study Home Economics.
In her second year, however, she was encouraged to audition for the prestigious Hampton Choir, then under the direction of Robert Nathaniel Dett. Dett later selected her as soloist for a concert the choir gave at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The critically successful performance led to other solos with the choir at Symphony Hall in Boston and the Music Festival at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. She also joined the choir on its 40-city tour of Europe in 1930. Although Dett had left Hampton by the time she received her master of science degree in music from the college in 1933, she maintained contact with her former mentor, and he composed six settings of Negro spirituals especially for Maynor.
She received a scholarship to attend Westminister Choir College, Princeton, New Jersey, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in choral conducting in 1935. Encouraged by supporters to continue her vocal studies, she moved to New York and studied with Wilfried Klamroth and John Alan Haughton for three years. During this period, she decided to change the spelling of her last name to Maynor for professional reasons.
Professional Vocal Career
Maynor performed in concert and in competition with limited success until friends arranged for her to attend the Berkshire Music Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. They persuaded a reluctant Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to let Maynor sing for him. Upon hearing her, Koussevitsky proclaimed Maynor, “A musical revelation! The world must hear her!” He introduced her to wealthy patrons and music critics who enthusiastically received her. He also invited her to perform and record with the orchestra.
Maynor made her Town Hall premiere to a sold out audience in November, 1939. New York Times critic Olin Downes stated that Maynor “proved that she had virtually everything needed by a great artist–the superb voice, one of the finest that the public can hear today; exceptional musicianship and accuracy of intonation; emotional intensity, communicative power.”3 She made her debut at Carnegie Hall in a performance with the New York Philharmonic in January, 1940, and the following month, New York music critics unanimously awarded her the Town Hall Endowment Series Award.
Throughout the 1940’s, Maynor performed extensively in Europe, both Americas, and Australia. She was frequently featured soloist with many of American’s major orchestras. The standard Maynor recital included songs by German composers from J. S. Bach to Brahms, 19th-century French masters, and a variety of opera arias. She usually concluded with Negro spirituals, especially those set by her mentor, Dett. Musicologist Jon Michael Spencer commented:
That Maynor masterfully reimaged the “Negro” for white as well as black listeners, while maintaining the spirituals’ African musical qualities, is exemplified in audience and critical responses to her performances. Some white critics rebelled against her unwillingness to reflect her mark of slavery with so-called authentic renditions of the spirituals. On the other hand, black audiences and concert reviewers seemed to recognize in Maynor’s performances of the spirituals the authentic qualities that distinguished this music. Blacks probably saw in Maynor someone who knew she was raised the daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal minister and sang spirituals Sunday mornings in her father’s church and Sunday afternoons when neighbors gathered at their parsonage.4
In 1942, she married Rev. Shelby Rooks, a minister and educator who she known for several years. She received one of the numerous honorary degrees from Bennett College, where the school’s president convinced Maynor to join the faculty as the head of the music department.
Despite Maynor’s success on the concert and operatic stages around the world, neither she nor other African American singers of the era were able to secure entry to America’s premiere opera stage, The Metropolitan Opera. In a 1947 interview with then-Met manager Edward Johnson, music critic Paul Hume noted that:
He had been asked about Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor, Camilla Williams, Paul Robeson, Todd Duncan, and others. According to Johnson, these people in general lack operatic experience. This can hardly be cited as a reason for not appearing at the Met, since Astrid Varnay made her debut in no less a role than “Sieglinde” without having appeared previously on any opera stage. So did Blanche Thebom, singing Brangaene. And though we may be wrong, we believe that Jan Peerce, Regina Resnik, Patrice Munsel, and Rosa Ponselle all made debuts with the ‘world’s leading opera house’ without earlier acquaintance with the opera theater.5
Maynor was involved in two significant events in the 1950’s. The first marked the end of the 20-year prohibition against Blacks singing professionally in Washington’s Constitution Hall. Hall administrators’, the Daughters of the American Revolution, agreed to permit Maynor to perform with the National Symphony for the 1951-52 season. DAR president general Mrs. James B. Patton, recalled that, “there were two or three dissenting votes.”6
Maynor was the first African American to sing for the inauguration of an American president when she opened the ceremony for Dwight D. Eisenhower on January 20, 1953, with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Four years earlier, the soprano performed the Negro spiritual, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” also with “Alleluja” for Harry S. Truman’s Inaugural Gala.
A New Career
Dorothy Maynor retired from the concert stage in 1963 and quickly began extending her activities at her husband’s church in Harlem. At her husband’s urging, she decided to use St. James’ community center to create a music school for the youth of the area. Harlem School of the Arts started with 20 students and support not only of the church’s membership, but the wives of some of the most famous musicians of the era. Maynor discussed her reason for starting the school:
What I dream of is changing the image held by the children… We’ve made them believe that everything beautiful is outside the community. We would like them to make beauty in our community.7
She not only taught and served as head administrator for the school, she used her connections in the music world to raise funds for needed expansion. Maynor was so successful that by 1977, she was able to oversee the building a $2 million, 37,000 square foot facility for more than 1,000 performing and visual arts students.
Although Maynor would never be presented on the professional operatic stage, she became the first African American to be named to the Metropolitan Opera board of directors in 1975.
Maynor retired as executive director of the Harlem School of the Arts in 1979 due to her husband’s declining health and her own illnesses. The couple retired to a residence in Kendall-at-Longwood, Kennett Schare, Pennsylvania. Maynor died of pneumonia on February 19, 1996, at Chester County Hospital, West Chester, Pennsylvania.
The Voice and the Legacy
The soprano’s vocal ability was described as:
The voice itself was rare and special enough for history to have been more generous. It was marked by warmth and soul-stirring richness, with bell-like clarity in the upper range, and enhanced by a rare ability to float out a weightless mezza voce. Maynor exploited the device so well, especially in “Depuis le jour” from Louise, that her renderings of the aria still set the standard by which others are judged.8
Her diminutive size and lack of significant management have been suggested as two reasons why Dorothy Maynor did not enjoy the same sustained notoriety as her contemporary, contralto Marian Anderson. However, author Rosalyn Story noted:
But one must look to Maynor herself, her belief and resolve, for the final answers. Friends who recall the Maynor of the 1940s say she was domestic at heart, lacking the drive that propels great careers–more interested in husband, home, church and children than in international fame. [Todd] Duncan remembers her as strong-willed yet introverted, devoid of single-minded career obsession. “There was not the deep, climb-any-mountain kind of commitment that Anderson had,” he says. “Marian Anderson needed to sing the way most people need to drink water.”9
Nonetheless, Maynor has a lasting legacy through her accomplishments as an educator:
She made her priorities clear: ultimately, providing a wellspring for the art of the future is more important than any one singing voice, no matter how beautiful that voice might be. While her fans may see that as a sacrifice, Maynor clearly did not.10
1Mrs. Lettie C. Madison, interview by William F. Rogers, Jr., in Dorothy Maynor and the Harlem School of the Arts: The Diva and the Dream (Lewison, NY: The Edwin Mellon Press, 1993), 1.
2“New Singer Interviewed,” New York Times, 13 Aug. 1939. X5.
3Olin Downes, “Dorothy Maynor in Debut Recital: Young Soprano of Negro and Indian Descent Sings Before Capacity House in Town Hall,” New York Times, 20 November 1939. 15.
4Jon Michael Spencer, “The Emancipation of the Negro and the Negro Spirituals from the Racialist Legacy of Arthur de Gobineau,” Canadian Review of American Studies 24 (Winter 1994), .
5Paul Hume, “‘No Operatic Experience’: Met Head ‘Writes Off’ Fine Singers,” The Washington Post, 30 November 1947.
6Nicha Searle, “DAR to Let Dorothy Maynor Sing in Constitution,” The Washington Post, 22 April 1951. M1.
7Richard F. Shepard, “Dorothy Maynor Helps Bring Harmony to Harlem,” New York Times 5 April 1966. 43.
8Rosalyn M. Story, “Gift of Music: Soprano Dorothy Maynor, Unjustly Neglected Even at the Peak of Her Career, Leaves a Cultural Legacy through the Harlem School of the Arts,” Opera News 57 (27 Feb. 1993), 16.
The Spirituals Database is a searchable listing of compact discs, long-playing discs, 78 rpm, and audio cassette recordings by various vocalists, including this artist, of Negro Spirituals set for concert performance. Information is available about song selections spanning a century from Burleigh’s “Deep River” to the present day. To see the recordings by this artist currently represented in the database, please click on the image to the right.
To cite this page:
Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. Created by Randye Jones. Created/Last modified: February 18, 2024. Accessed:. http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/dorothy-maynor-biography.