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Ysaye Barnwell to Honor Marian Anderson

Former 'Sweet Honey in the Rock' Member Writes Musical Composition

Stacy M. Brown | 4/2/2014, 3 p.m.
Ysaye Barnwell

“I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me, to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes. I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me, to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes. You used to rock me...” — "Wanting Memories," Sweet Honey in the Rock (1993)

When presented the invitation to join forces with the Washington, D.C.-based a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, a native New Yorker, said a music career wasn’t exactly something she had in mind.

“I am a violinist by training, my father taught me, but I had no intention of being in music,” Barnwell said.

However, despite initial uncertainty, Barnwell didn’t decline the 1979 invitation.

“I was in a totally different profession, but I was conducting a choir and studying sign language. [Sweet Honey in the Rock Founder] Bernice Johnson Reagon happened to have gotten up one morning and came to the church where I was singing solo. Afterward, she told me she was with the group and that they were looking for a new member,” Barnwell said.

After a month-long audition where Barnwell learned as many as 40 songs, she became a member of the internationally-acclaimed, multiple Grammy Award-winning, all-African-American woman ensemble who’s recorded and produced more than two dozen albums over four decades.

“I had the best time ever,” said Barnwell, 67, who retired from the group in 2013 and continues to teach – she holds several degrees, including a Master of Science in Public Health from Howard University – and she creates musical compositions for others.

Barnwell has been commissioned to write a new choral piece to pay tribute to Marian Anderson, an internationally-renowned concert contralto in a concert at Constitution Hall in Northwest.

The Saturday, April 12 event, which is titled, “Of Thee We Sing,” and presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS), will be hosted by renowned opera singer Jessye Norman and it marks the 75th anniversary of the famous 1939 concert Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of 75,000 people.

“What’s interesting is that the Daughters of the American Revolution wouldn’t let her perform on the stage at Constitution Hall because she was black,” Barnwell said.

“But, it worked out so well because, instead of performing for 4,000 people inside, she went outside and 75,000 people got to hear her and that changed everything for Marian Anderson.”

The WPAS concert, in which the Washington Informer counts as one of the media partners, also marks the 50th anniversary of Anderson’s final District appearance in 1964.

Nearly 300 singers from WPAS’s Men and Women of the Gospel and several other local groups are scheduled to perform during the event, highlighted by Barnwell’s choral piece.

“I think I was about nine when I saw Marian Anderson at the Metropolitan Opera and I still have the program and the newspaper from the next day,” said Barnwell, whose music will be directed by Stanley Thurston. “I have always been inspired by the fact that she sang both European and African-American classical repertoire, and her dignified heroism.”