The Pierians Incorporated

           Founded in 1958 . National Office Established in 1982

Honoring Jessye Norman

American Legend


Pierians Honor A Great Women


Our society has so many gifted and talented women in the arts. There are artists, dancers, writers and poets. There are sculptors, actors, singers and musicians. 

The Pierians honor and celebrate the talented woman who provided the beauty and grace that enriched our lives. We highlight events and achievents of her life and are grateful for such a talented singer who inspired and touched our souls.

Jessye Norman [1945 - 2019]
American Opera Singer

Jessye Mae Norman was born in Augusta, Georgia, to Silas Norman, an insurance salesman, and Janie King-Norman, a schoolteacher. She was one of five children in a family of amateur musicians; her mother and grandmother were both pianists, and her father sang in a local choir. Norman's mother insisted that she start piano lessons at an early age. Norman attended Charles T. Walker Elementary School, A.R. Johnson Junior High School, and Lucy C. Laney Senior High School, all in downtown Augusta.

"My parents told me that I started singing at the same time that I started speaking. I have absolutely no memory of not singing. And it was and remains a very natural thing for me to do".

Jessye Norman

Beginnings of An Singing Career

Jessye Mae Norman was one of five children in a family of amateur musicians; her mother and grandmother were both pianists, and her father sang in a local choir. Norman's mother insisted that she start piano lessons at an early age. Norman proved to be a talented singer as a young child, singing gospel songs at Mount Calvary Baptist Church at the age of four. At the age of seven she entered her first vocal competition, placing third only because of a memory slip in the second stanza of the hymn "God Will Take Care of You".  She later said in interviews, "I guess He has taken care of me. That was my last memory slip in public.” When she was nine she was given a radio for her birthday and soon discovered the world of opera through the weekly broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, which she listened to every Saturday while cleaning up her room.  Norman started listening to recordings of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, both of whom Norman credited as inspiring figures in her career. Jessye Norman studied at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Northern Michigan in the opera performance program. At age 16, Norman entered the Marian Anderson Vocal Competition in Philadelphia which, although she did not win, led to an offer of a full scholarship at Howard University, in Washington, D.C.. While at Howard, she sang in the university chorus and as a professional soloist at the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ.


In 1965, along with 33 other female students and four female faculty, she became a founding member of the Delta Nu chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota international music fraternity.  In 1966 she won the National Society of Arts and Letters singing competition. After graduating in 1967 with a degree in music, she began graduate studies at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and later at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from which she earned a master's degree in 1968.


Awards and Distinctions

Among the numerous honors bestowed upon Jessye Norman were: Musical America 's musician of the year, 1982; honorary doctorates from Howard University (1982), Boston Conservatory of Music (1984), University of the South (1984), and Harvard University (1998). She was given the honor of being named Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government, 1984. She also received awards for many of her recordings. 

Norman's work in the 1990s included singing at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Ariadne auf Naxos in 1993, taking part at a gala for the New York Philharmonic in 1995, and appearing at concerts throughout the world. 

In March 1997, Jessye Norman was honored by New York City's Associated Black Charities at the eleventh annual Black History Makers Awards Dinner for her contributions to the arts and to African American culture. Norman made her first appearance in Russia in 2001. She sang at the "Tribute in Light" memorial ceremony in New York City to honor those people who died in the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

A Lifetime of Achievement

In 2003, the Rachel Longstreet Foundation and Norman partnered to open the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a tuition-free performing arts after-school program for economically disadvantaged students in Augusta, Georgia. Norman was actively involved in the program, including fundraisers for its benefit.

Some vocal critics say that Norman was not a dramatic soprano, but rather had a rare soprano voice type known as a Falcon. The Falcon voice is close to a mezzo-soprano timbre, but closer to a dramatic soprano tessitura. The term Falcon roles specifically refers to parts written for sopranos instead of mezzos, as was the case with Cornelie Falcon after whom the voice type is named. The roles are thus often sung by lyric mezzos. This mix of sound is why many fans, conductors, and critics unhesitatingly refer to her as a soprano or a mezzo. At age 23, when asked by an interviewer in Germany how she would characterize her voice, she replied that "pigeonholes are only comfortable for pigeons."

Over the years Norman's technical expertise was among her most critically praised attributes. In a review of one of her recitals at Carnegie Hall, The New York Times contributor Allen Hughes wrote that Norman "has one of the most opulent voices before the public today, and, as discriminating listeners are aware, her performances are backed by extraordinary preparation, both musical and otherwise." Bernard Holland wrote in the same paper after a recital at Alice Tully Hall that she "carefully gauged her seemingly limitless resources to fit the changing textures of her material".

The Pierians Honor An American Legend!

Jessye Norman will remain as an inspiration to The Pierians, Incorporated and we celebrate and honor her life as we mourn her passing.