Dolores White ’54, Composer, Educator, and Pianist, Dies at 90

A prolific composer, Mrs. White enjoyed a lengthy and diverse career incorporating teaching and performing into her artistic practice.

March 30, 2023

Cathy Partlow Strauss

Dolores White

Oberlin Conservatory alumna Dolores Rae (Miller) White ’54 died after a brief illness on Friday, March 24, 2023 at the Cleveland Clinic. She was 90.

A prolific composer, Mrs. White enjoyed a lengthy and diverse career incorporating teaching and performing into her artistic practice, while raising a family and supporting her husband, Donald, a cellist and the first Black member of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Her music reaches into American traditions and draws on ethnic and international influences. In a November 2021 interview for the Oberlin News Center, Mrs. White said, “I’ve always thought the average person needs to know about different cultures. It’s important to have exposure to different music, different genres, and different histories.” Of her composition work, she said “I take risks, I dream big, and I use humor in my works in different ways which helps to keep my optimistic views.”

Mrs. White was born in Chicago, Illinois. She attended Howard University for two years before transferring to Oberlin Conservatory of Music where she earned her bachelor’s degree in piano performance. She later completed her master of music in both piano performance and composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music, twenty years after finishing her undergraduate degree. She pursued additional studies at The Ohio State University and The Juilliard School.

Mrs. White held positions at several colleges, universities, and arts organizations, including College of Wooster, Hartt School of Music, Cleveland’s Karamu House, and the Metropolitan Campus of Cuyahoga Community College, where she served as assistant professor of music. She was also a piano instructor at the Cleveland The Music Settlement. After retiring from teaching in 2000, White continued to compose vocal and instrumental works, remaining vitally involved throughout her life.

Dolores WhiteHer most recent visit to Oberlin was in November 2021, for the occasion of the Contemporary Music Ensemble’s presentation of her work Crystal Gazing. She worked with the students in rehearsal and she delivered her composer’s notes from the stage at the performance in Finney Chapel.

Mrs. White’s interests included Afro-Cuban music and dance, and African American arts, as well as the profile of women in music. She conducted numerous workshops and lectures on these topics.

Her works have been performed by The Cleveland Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Chamber Symphony, among other artists and ensembles. Recordings of her music are on the Cleveland Chamber Symphony’s The New American Scene No. 2, which features Crystal Gazing. Her string quartet is on the Cleveland Composers’ Guild recording titled Telling Tales (Albany). A piano piece, Toccata, is included in Dark Fires, performed by Karen Walywn (Albany). Most recently, Rachel Barton Pine recorded her Blues Dialogues for solo violin on the eponymous album (Cedille).

Her pieces have been published by Willis Music Company, Boston Music Company, Cuyahoga Community College Press, Southern Illinois University Press, and Ludwig Music Publishing Company. Mrs. White was a recipient of numerous commissions and grants from the Bascom Little Fund, American Society of Composers, and the Cleveland Women’s Symphony Orchestra. Most recently, she was honored with The Cleveland Orchestra’s 2022 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Service Award.

Mrs. White was a member of the Chicago-based 6Degrees Composers and the Cleveland Composers’ Guild. She is a contributor to the book Black Women in America: A Historical Encyclopedia by Carlson Publishers. Both Dolores and Donald White’s biographies are in the HistoryMakers Digital Archive.

In fall 2021, Mrs. White established a fund at Oberlin, The Dolores '54 and Donald '57 White Prize, to support student performance-based projects that elevate the Conservatory’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Oberlin Conservatory students Malcolm Bamba and Blake Logan are the first awardees of the prize and will be presenting programs on campus this spring. They were selected on the basis of their demonstrated commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging—in particular their demonstration of these values in musical programming and artistic work—and their demonstrated excellence in musical performance.

Oberlin Conservatory’s Dean William Quillen shares, “Dolores White was an extraordinary musician and true exemplar of the Oberlin ethos. We are forever grateful to her for the many lives she touched here at Oberlin, and throughout the world, and express our heartfelt condolences to her family and loved ones.”

Mrs. White is survived by her daughter and Oberlin Conservatory piano performance alumna Dianna White-Gould ’84 (Eric), her son Darrow White (Avanda), and three grandchildren, Alexandria, Gabrielle, and Daniel.

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