Lota May Spell, teacher, musician, and author, was born in Big Spring, Texas, on February 2, 1885. She was the daughter of William Harold and Mildred Addie (Dashiell) Harrigan. Her father was a superintendent of railroads in Mexico with headquarters in Mexico City and Querétaro, and so she received her early education from tutors. She began her musical studies under August Schemmel, first in San Antonio and then at the Virginia Institute of Bristol, Tennessee, from 1898 to 1901, when Schemmel was director of music there. From 1902 to 1905 she attended the Grand Ducal Conservatory at Karlsruhe, Germany, where she completed her education in piano, harmony, and composition. Between 1905 and 1910 she performed as a pianist in Europe and Mexico. In 1910 she became an instructor in the Whitis Preparatory School of Austin, Texas. On September 8, 1910, she married Jefferson Rea Spell, a fellow student who later became a professor of Romance languages at the University of Texas; they were the parents of one daughter.
Mrs. Spell was head of the music department of Melrose Hall of San Antonio from 1910 to 1914, during which time she also completed course work at the University of Texas for the B.A. degree (1914). She received an M.A. degree in 1919 and a Ph.D. in English in 1923 from UT. She also studied at Columbia University and the University of Chicago in the summers of 1919 and 1920. From 1921 to 1927 she served as librarian of the Genaro García Library (now the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection) of the University of Texas. In the mid 1930s she was employed by the state to identify historical sites for the Texas Centennial celebrations and to write inscriptions for the monuments placed on those sites.
She was teacher of music history and appreciation at the Texas School of Fine Arts, associate editor of The Musicale (1929–33) and the Southwestern Musician (1933–47), editor of Texas Music News (1946–48), and a contributor to numerous musical journals, including The Etude. She was intensely interested in musical education, especially that of young children, and devoted much of her lifetime to developing training tools for teaching the young. From 1939 to 1971 she taught children at her studio in Austin. She prepared bulletins for the University Interscholastic League to encourage musical education in the state, including the valuable work Music in Texas (1936; later reprinted).
Lota Spell's knowledge of German, French, Italian, Latin, and Spanish, along with her interest in music, enabled her to do research in musical development throughout the western hemisphere, especially in the Southwest and Mexico, and this brought her wide recognition. Her articles appeared regularly in many important quarterlies and reviews, both musical and historical. She was generous in assisting others who were interested in these fields. Her research in Latin-American culture led to her book Pioneer Printer Samuel Bangs in Mexico and Texas (1963). She wrote articles on seventeenth-century Mexican poetess Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and on nineteenth-century Mexican diplomat, dramatist, and theater impresario Manuel Eduardo de Gorostiza. At the time of her death she had completed manuscripts on Gorostiza and on Fray Pedro de Gante, one of the first music teachers in Mexico.
Her correspondence, along with that of her husband, was given to the Latin American Collection of the University of Texas at Austin. The valuable Spell library was purchased by the University of Texas in the early 1960s. Mrs. Spell was a member and officer of many music associations, and she was named a fellow of the Texas State Historical Association. She died on April 3, 1972, in Austin and was buried in San Antonio City Cemetery Number One.
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Mrs. Jefferson Rea Spell Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
Music and Drama
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Nettie Lee Benson,
“Spell, Lota May,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 26, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
June 1, 1995
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