It is with great sadness that we announce that Dr. Robert Starling Pritchard II departed this life on November 7, 2016 at his home in Dumfries, Va. He passed away as he was listening to his piano composition “Eulogy and Elegy for Clyde Kennard,” which was written in honor of civil rights leader Clyde Kennard and was based on Civil Rights Movement songs. He leaves his beloved friends, Henri and Lisa Polgar, George Newcomb, Peter McFarren and too many others to mention who benefitted from his wisdom and understanding. He is also survived by his sister, Jean Pritchard and brother, Kent Pritchard.
Below are excerpts from the Gale Publications “Contemporary Black Biographies.” written by Lisa Weitzman which paint a vivid picture of his life:
“Robert Starling Pritchard has been heralded as history’s first commercially recorded African American virtuoso concert pianist. However, Pritchard is more than simply a pianist. His various multicultural and humanitarian activities throughout the world distinguish him as a true Renaissance man.
Pritchard was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1927. Before his birth Pritchard’s mother, Lucille, had a vision that her son would be the first viable African American classical pianist. During her pregnancy, she would frequently place a hand-wound Victrola in front of her stomach so that her baby would be infused with spirituals, blues, jazz, and the works of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin.
As a young child, Pritchard moved with his family to New York. Along with many other African American families, the Pritchards left the South in search of a better life in the industrial North. Pritchard’s mother ultimately made the decision to leave so that her children would not be raised in the South’s harsh racial climate. The Pritchards settled in Buffalo which, at the time, offered one of the most promising job markets for African Americans. They were unable to find work, however, and moved to Syracuse. Starling, Pritchard’s father, found employment in the city’s burgeoning steel mills. Pritchard was also exposed to music at an early age. He was introduced to the piano by his father.
From an early age, Pritchard’s parents encouraged him to study classical piano. He proved to be a child prodigy and was chosen for private study with pianist Kirk Ridge. Pritchard gave his debut performance with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra at the age of 15 and also performed in solo recitals. Throughout the 1950s, he studied with renowned musicians such as Carl Friedberg, Robert Goldsand, Hans Neumann, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Edwin Fisher, and Eleanor Amzel. During his undergraduate years at Syracuse University, Pritchard maintained a full teaching schedule, served as choir director and organist for local Syracuse churches, and devoted time to composing his own musical works.
In 1957, Pritchard performed as part of the U.S. State Department’s cultural exchange program. He became the first African American concert pianist to tour Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa as a solo performer.
During the late 1950s, Pritchard assisted in the creation of music education programs in universities throughout Africa and the Caribbean. In 1959, he established the first music department at the University of Liberia. He also sponsored the opening of the West African Institute of Music, Arts, and Crafts in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, and served as the first artist-in-residence for the Republic of Liberia. Pritchard and his students also performed piano recitals in order to fund the institute’s programs. Joseph W. Taff, editor of Monrovia’s Daily Listener, remarked to the New York Times that Pritchard “has accomplished more for the cultural advancement and development of Liberia and West Africa than many Trade and Economic Missions who have visited the country.” Pritchard assumed similar responsibilities in Haiti during the late 1950s and contributed to revitalizing the Conservatoire Nationale de Musique d`Haiti.
Pritchard returned to the United States and, on April 9, 1961, debuted at the New York City Town Hall. His performance earned excellent reviews from music critics. The New York Times reported that Pritchard, “knew how to communicate a sense of musical presence, a feeling for shape, line, phrasing and style. There was the authentic and assured ring of real artistry.” In October of 1962, Pritchard became the first African American to perform at New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Philharmonic Hall. He dazzled the audience with pieces from Bach, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, Chopin, as well as his own compositions. That same year, he served as director of the Watermead Concert Series in Pennsylvania and produced his first recording entitled, A Piano Recital.
During the early 1960s, Pritchard served as a visiting humanities lecturer at both the New School for Social Research in New York and at Barnard College. At the New School, he established the first “for credit` African American studies course offered apart from a historically black college or university. Pritchard also held the position of humanities curriculum specialist at the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina.
In addition to his work in the United States, Pritchard continued to support the international music community. In 1960, he was commissioned by the Council of Ministers of the Mali Federation to submit a proposal for the establishment of the first Festival Mondial des Arts Negres (First World Festival of Negro Arts). Ultimately, this proposal was implemented in 1966 under the auspices of the government of Senegal and UNESCO
Pritchard’s dedication to music is only one manifestation of his greater interest in humanity and the arts. His tours throughout the world convinced Pritchard that people everywhere needed to be enlightened about the legacy of African American culture and history. Pritchard used his musical career, recounted Traci Lucien of Modern Maturity, “as a springboard to bring world-wide attention to black history” in general.
Remembering local celebrations of African American accomplishments during his childhood in Syracuse, Pritchard worked to expand upon the Negro History Week Observance founded by the distinguished African American scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926. His efforts culminated in the national observance of Black History Month, which was first launched in 1965 and is now an annual event. Administered by the Panamerican/Panafrican Association, which Pritchard founded in 1968, Black History Month has not only become a part of school curriculums and institutions in the United States, but also in countries throughout the world.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Pritchard continued to tour and perform around the world. In 1972, he founded the Pritchard Concert Ensemble and toured throughout Africa. In 1976, Pritchard served as the musical director and pianist for the United Nations Symphonic and Choral Concert Gala. This gala, which commemorated both the 13th anniversary of the founding of the Organization of African Unity and the American Bicentennial, featured the Black Festival of the New World Symphony, the Spelman and Morehouse College Choirs, and the Pritchard Concert Ensemble. The gala also showcased symphonic and choral works by New World composers of African descent. In 1987, Pritchard toured in Korea, China and the Philippines.
In 1989, Pritchard accepted the position of artist-in-residence at Lincoln University, one of the nation’s oldest institutions of higher learning for African and African American students. While at Lincoln, he established the Pritchard Summer Festival of Music, which showcased the masterpieces of composers-of-color from the Americas, Europe and Africa. Pritchard also coordinated a series of festival master classes, music symposia, and an American Black Writers Conference and served as advisor on cultural affairs to the president of Lincoln University.
During the 1980s, Pritchard continued to foster cultural understanding both in New York and in his native Syracuse. In 1980, he revived the Impartial Citizen Newspaper, which was originally established in 1848. He also founded the Mayor’s Permanent Conference on Minority Affairs in Syracuse in 1983 and was named co-chairman. The conference served to foster dialogue between elected officials and the public and private sectors on a variety of issues affecting Syracuse’s multi-ethnic communities. These issues included youth and recreation programs, public safety, minority business enterprise, employment, housing, political representation, education, and health. Pritchard also founded the New York State Federation of Minority Media, and was appointed to the New York State Advisory Council on Human Rights by Governor Mario Cuomo in 1984.
With his remarkable talent and world vision, Pritchard has touched many lives throughout the world. Despite his struggles with acute intermittent Porphyria, a chronic metabolic disorder, Pritchard remains committed to expanding Black History Month on a global basis. Well-educated, highly-cultured, and driven by global humanitarian aims, Pritchard truly symbolizes the modern Renaissance man.
ORDER OF SERVICE
Musical Prelude, The late Robert S. Pritchard, pianist (rec)
Johann Sebastian Bach “Toccata and Fugue in C m”
Opening Selection Michele Fowlin, Soprano
Franz Shubert, “Du Bist Die Ruh”
Scriptures Afrika Hayes-Lambe
Old Testament (Psalm 23)
New Testament (John 14: 1-6)
Prayer of Consolation Henri Polgar
Musical Selection Michele Fowlin, Soprano
“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”
Expressions George Newcomb, Peter McFarren, Raycurt Johnson
Afrika Hayes-Lambe, Jessica Mushala
Musical Selection Michele Fowlin, Soprano
“Give Me Jesus”
Expressions Lisa McFarren-Polgar
Musical Selection The late Robert Pritchard and Henry Polgar, Pianists (rec)
RS Pritchard, “Eulogy and Elegy for Clyde Kennard”
The Eulogy Dr. Luke E. Torian
Closing Prayer Dr. Luke E. Torian
Recessional The late Robert Pritchard, pianist (rec)
RS Pritchard, “Ti Jacques” Suite Sur Melodie Folklorique d’Haiti”
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