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Peter Bagley, longtime UConn choral conductor, dies at 88

UConn School of Fine Arts
Dr. Peter Bagley taught music at the UConn Storrs campus for nearly 3 decades and influenced countless singers and future choir directors. In 1957, he became the first Black teacher in the Greenwich public school system.

The UConn community is mourning the death of Peter Bagley, a professor who taught at the Storrs campus for nearly three decades. The choral conductor influenced countless singers and future choir directors, and was one of the first prominent Black choral conductors in the U.S.

Bagley died on Saturday, Jan. 20. He was 88 years old.

"Most everyone associated with UConn Choirs knows of the legacy of Dr. Bagley," the group wrote in a statement. "He was important as a musician and human and was one of the pathfinders for African-American choral conductors in the United States."

Bagley earned a bachelor’s degree in music education at the Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam.

In 1957, he became the first Black teacher in the Greenwich public school system. One of the pieces he wrote for his middle school choir was a setting of the spiritual "Live-a-Humble.”

“When I was in the All-State band in 1976, the All-State choir sang that piece,” said Jamie Spillane, director of Choral Studies at UConn. “I sat and watched the choir. And it was powerful.”

Bagley’s version of “Live-a-Humble” is performed by many high school and university choirs every year.

Bagley would go on to earn a master's and a doctorate degree in choral conducting from Indiana University. After a 16-year stint at SUNY New Palz, he was named director of Choral Activities at the University of Connecticut in 1984.

Over the years, Bagley’s reputation for getting the most out of his choirs became legendary, and for much of his career he was in high demand around the world as a choral clinician and adjudicator.

Bagley made an impact on a choir, even if he was only with them for a short amount of time, Spillane said.

“I mean, people who just had [Bagley] in an honor choir for two or three days. And their lives were changed in those two or three days. That’s a person who profoundly affected people. And I get it.”

Bagley also earned a reputation as someone who demanded excellence from his singers, but was also kind and caring.

“Woe to you for arriving late, or coming without a pencil or not being prepared, Spillane said. “You know, the man wasn't a yeller, ever. But you had the face of Peter to deal with.”

Bagley was also a skilled mentor to up-and-coming choral directors, Spillane said.

"Generations of singers and choral musicians entered the profession under the powerful mentorship of Dr. Bagley," the UConn Choirs statement reads. "And we are forever grateful."

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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