Skip to content
BSO, Pops, Tanglewood, and Symphony Hall Logos

A Century of Song: Roland Hayes and the Boston Symphony Orchestra

One hundred years ago, on November 15, 1923, Roland Hayes became the first Black artist to appear as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Over the next 20 years, he would appear with the BSO ten times. He also rented Symphony Hall numerous times, appearing on stage as a solo recitalist a total of 39 times, from 1917 to 1955. Explore these photos, letters, clippings, programs and audio that document Roland Hayes' relationship with the BSO.

"Roland Hayes, as the leading African-American concert singer from the 1920s to the 1940s, single-handedly broke the "color line" in classical concert music, paving the way for future generations of African-American artists. During his early singing career, the all-encompassing humanity of his music provided no protection against racism, but his steadfast vision of bringing people of all races together through his music eventually overrode the prejudices of audiences and concert promoters, opening the doors of concert halls everywhere. Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and others following in Hayes' footsteps achieved permanent recognition; but Hayes’ name gradually receded from the pages of history."

(Quoted from Robert C. Hayden’s essay “Roland Hayes: The Heart of the Song,” written originally for the compact disc, “The Art of Roland Hayes,” produced by the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, 1990)

Three views of tenor Roland Hayes singing

American tenor Roland Hayes (b. 1887–d. 1977)

Photographer unknown

Boston to Europe and back again to Boston

Roland Hayes originally came to Boston on tour with the Fisk Singers in 1911 and decided to stay in Boston to establish his career. Next, wishing to research his own roots and the roots of African American music, he departed for Africa in April 1920 by way of London and Paris, but he ended up staying in Europe as his career flourished there. It was in England that former BSO conductor George Henschel would coach Roland Hayes, and in Paris that the current BSO conductor Pierre Monteux would encounter Roland Hayes and invite the tenor to perform with the orchestra.

Listen: Clip of Roland Hayes performing the Benedictus from Gretchaninoff's Missa Oecumenica with the BSO and Serge Koussevitzky on February 26, 1944 (Armed Forces Disk)

0:00 / 0:00

A Boston Tribute to Roland Hayes in 1996

Collaborating with several Boston-area organizations, the Boston Symphony Orchestra organized a citywide tribute to Roland Hayes in February 1996. In addition to producing an educational program about Roland Hayes entitled "The Quiet Hero" for distribution at Massachusetts Public Schools, the BSO put on a concert featuring Roland Hayes' repertoire performed by tenor Vinson Cole and the world premiere of George Walker's "Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra," performed by Faye Robinson. Roland Hayes' daughter and granddaughters attended the tribute.

Roland Hayes' Legacy Today

During the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Festival of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope in Spring 2023, WBUR ran a segment on the Roland Hayes' anniversary, interviewing singer Barbara Walker and conductor Thomas Wilkins.

To Learn More...

Book cover for Christopher A. Brooks and Robert Sims biography of Roland Hayes entitled Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor
To learn more information about Roland Hayes' life, readers can peruse Christopher A. Brooks' and Robert Sims' biography entitled Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor, c.2016