Nina Kennedy Lecturer | infemnity

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Internationally acclaimed concert pianist and award-winning filmmaker Nina Kennedy explains how a simple melody composed by an American slave girl ended up in a world-famous European Symphony (Antonín Dvořák's Symphony from the New World), and was thus heard in concert halls around the globe.

Nina Kennedy is available for lectures and Q&As. 

Ella Sheppard was born on Andrew Jackson's plantation "The Hermitage" 10 years before the beginning of the Civil War. Her mother, determined that Ella would not live life as a slave, was seconds away from drowning her daughter and herself, when a mysterious old slave woman appeared and announced that "...God has need for this child. She is gonna sing for kings and queens." Fearing for Ella's safety, the family's master allowed Ella's father to purchase her freedom for $350.

Lo and behold, the old woman's prophecy came true, and Ella Sheppard traveled to Europe as a member of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers of Nashville, Tennessee, where they performed for European royalty. As an arranger, she notated the melodies and harmonies of "Negro Spirituals," thus bringing them to the great concert halls of the world. Czech composer Antonín Dvořák was so moved by one of her melodies that he quoted a fragment of it in his famous Symphony from the New World, thus solidifying Ella Sheppard's place as an internationally recognized American composer.

Matthew Kennedy: One Man’s Journey

Directed and produced by Nina Kennedy


This award-winning documentary film tells the story of the charmed life of Matthew Kennedy, African-American concert pianist, composer, and former director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Nina Kennedy is available for screenings and Q&As. 

Born in the segregated South in 1921, Matthew Kennedy was known throughout his home state of Georgia as a child-prodigy. At age 12, he attended a concert given by the famous Russian pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff in Macon, Georgia in 1932. He is one of few surviving witnesses of Rachmaninoff’s magic. In his filmed interviews, Mr. Kennedy vividly describes what he remembers of the concert from his perspective in the segregated balcony for “Colored.” He was also the star of his own radio show broadcast from Macon in the early 1930s. (At that time, Matthew’s stage name on radio and in the cinema – where he played the organ to accompany the silent films – was “Sunshine.”)

Eventually he attended the Juilliard School in New York, traveled the world as a concert pianist, and directed the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers of Nashville, Tennessee from 1957 to 1986.

Founded in 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers are best known for their a cappella renditions of “Negro Spirituals,” and traveled the world to raise money for the fledgling Fisk School, one of America's first HBCUs. They sang for the crowned heads of Europe, and Queen Victoria proclaimed “… they sing so beautifully they must be from the ‘Music City.’”


Nina Kennedy is available for orchestral engagements, solo recitals, spoken-word performances, lectures, and screenings of her documentary film Matthew Kennedy: One Man's Journey, followed by Q&As.

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