Florence Price

History Hunt: Florence Price

This week, our featured musician is someone who not only was a great composer in her own right, but was the music teacher of a previously featured History Hunt composer, Margaret Allison Bonds. She also happens to share a birthday with me!

Florence Beatrice Price (birth name: Florence Beatrice Smith) was born on April 9, 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas. While her father wasn’t a musician, her mother was–on top of her other work, she taught piano lessons to various students, including her little daughter. And she started early: Price’s first public performance was when she was just four years old.

At eleven years old, Price reached another milestone long before most, through becoming a published composer (though it wasn’t until she was sixteen that she actually was paid for her work). On top of that, she graduated from high school when she was only fourteen, and as valedictorian, no less!

After she graduated, Price went to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts to continue her studies. At this time in the United States, a lot of the progress that had been made to ensure African-Americans were treated equally was being undone, both in laws and in everyday life. So, to be sure Price could go to the best school for her abilities, her mother wrote down on the application form that Price was from Pueblo, Mexico. Though there was a great deal of prejudice against Mexicans in the United States, Price’s mother believed being seen as Mexican instead of African-American would increase Price’s chances of being accepted as a student.

Price’s mother was right to worry about her daughter: while Price loved performing and composing, her real dream was to become a doctor. However, the odds against not only a woman, but an African-American one, fulfilling this dream were so high that Price decided to use her gift for music instead.

While it seems Price might have written a symphony while studying in Boston, sadly, as is the case with much of her work, the music for this symphony is lost. We do know, however, that Price graduated when she was only nineteen with degrees in both organ performance and music education with a focus on piano. She moved back to her hometown and set up shop as a piano teacher at first Cotton Plant–Arkadelphia Academy and then, a year later, Shorter College. And in 1910, when she was twenty-three, she moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and became head of the music department at Clark University.

After she married in 1912, Price taught privately and composed. During this period, she applied to join the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association–but due to racist leadership, her application was rejected.

As time went on, life became increasingly dangerous for African-Americans living in Arkansas and other southern states. Because of this, Price and her family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where prejudice was somewhat less. There, Price had the opportunity to continue her studies and did so, at not one, not two, but six different universities!

She also began publishing more music. In 1928, she received a prize and the right to publish her work At the Cotton Gin (which must have come as a surprise to her, because her husband secretly sent in the work) and she also got a contract with a different publisher to release music to help beginning pianists learn.

She spent a while living with her student, Margaret Allison Bonds, and during that time, she composed music for radio ads, played organ for silent films, and composed pop music under the name Vee Jay. When she broke her foot in 1931, Price wasn’t upset–in fact, she thought it was a stroke of excellent luck. At last, she could work on the symphony she carried in her head!

It was this work, Symphony in E Minor, as well as her Piano Sonata in E Minor, that brought her both fame and fortune when she published them. Suddenly, Price was winning prizes for her compositions–with a little help from Bonds, who would spend hours helping her copy music by hand to submit to competitions. And with this symphony Price broke a major barrier: she became the first black woman to have her music performed by a major orchestra. In this case, it was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the critics who heard Price’s music praised it universally.

That wasn’t the only orchestra to play her music, either. Soon, orchestras in Michigan and Pennsylvania were performing her work, as well as multiple orchestras in both Chicago and New York. Later, her music was even played by orchestras in Europe. And Marian Anderson, another History Hunt musician, performed one of Price’s vocal pieces during her famous White House concert in 1939.

For the rest of her life, Price continued teaching and composing. She was a proud member of the Chicago Club of Women Organists, whose other members were equally proud to play Price’s compositions. Even if her truest dream was not music, Price lived a rich, rewarding life.

Sadly, nowadays, it can be very difficult to track down recordings of Price’s compositions. Though she wrote over three hundred pieces in her lifetime, many of her works have been lost, and most are out of print. I can only hope that someday, her music will be both easy to find and well known by everyone.

Below is the third movement of Price’s Symphony in C Minor, as performed by The Women’s Philharmonic:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Florence Price, Composer, by Barbara Garvey Jackson
Florence Beatrice Smith Price at the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Florence Beatrice Price at Biography.com
Florence Beatrice Price at AfriClassical.com
MUSA 19 – Florence Price at Music of the United States of America
Price, Florence Beatrice Smith at BlackPast.org
Sounds Heard: Florence B. Price—Concerto in One Movement; Symphony in E Minor by Frank J. Oteri
Screening of Florence Price documentary featured at Nov. 5 SAU Mallory Lecture at Southern Arkansas University (image source)


Old-School Technology Plays Old-School Music

With less than a week to go before Halloween, I thought it would be fun to feature a piece of classical music that’s often used in the background of haunted houses and the like: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. But, as usual, there’s a twist:

Instead of being played on an organ, as is traditional, this Youtube user has set up eight floppy disk drives to play the music. Those of you my age and older will probably remember this noisy (but not usually musical) form of technology; for anyone born much later: these are the ancestor to USB flash drives, though they could store not even close to the same amount of data.

There are plenty of floppy disk drive remixes of music out there, including one of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme on forty (!) of them. If you’ve got a bit of spare time, why not check them out? And Happy Halloween!

Jessye Norman

History Hunt: Jessye Norman

This week, I’m taking a short break from the distant past to another still-living artist. She’s also someone who is still very well known, particularly in the world of opera. But, as we’ve seen time and time again on History Hunt, being famous in the present is no guarantee of fame in the future, so I want to do my part to make ensure this incredible musician isn’t forgotten.

So who is it I’m talking about? It’s opera singer Jessye Norman!

Norman was born September 15, 1945, in Augusta, Georgia. During this time, segregation (laws that were meant to prevent white and Black people from interacting) was still in effect. However, her parents made very sure their children knew they were worth every bit as much as white children, and the teachers at school and the members of the church Norman and her family belonged to did the same.

Right from the start, Norman showed great skill and musicality–she was only four years old when she started singing in church. Like her mother and her grandmother, she learned to play the piano, even if it wasn’t where her passion lay. And she had fun with her music: she was known to dress up in her mother’s clothes, feather boa and all, and pretend to be a famous singer.

But it wasn’t until she was ten or eleven years old that she met the music that was to change her life. She had recently been given a radio of her own as a gift, and one day, she happened to turn it on while Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti was being broadcast by the famous Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Instantly, she fell in love. She was so excited by what she heard that she made sure to listen every Saturday and did her best to share her passion with her friends at school. As she later remembered:

“Can you just imagine? You’ve got some 10- and 11-year-olds in class, one is already struggling to have their attention, then there’s somebody standing up talking about something called an opera that she listened to on the radio,” Norman chuckles. “But Carmen was a hit — you’re talking about a toreador and bullfights — oh, I had them, then!”

(Interview with Laura Battle)

But in spite of the joy she found in opera, and in the music of Nat King Cole and James Brown, it wasn’t until later that she decided to become an opera singer. When she was young, she thought she was going to become a doctor instead!

When she was sixteen, Norman entered the Marian Anderson Music Scholarship Competition, named after the great African-American opera singer (and subject of a previous History Hunt post!). Although she didn’t win, she received a great deal of encouragement from the judges. On the way back home from the competition, her high school choir teacher, who had come with her, suggested she should audition at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Luckily, Norman agreed to it, because after her audition, she was awarded a full scholarship!

After graduating two years later, Norman kept up her studies. She went to both the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and the University of Michigan. In 1968, she won an extremely important competition: the Bavarian Radio International Music Competition. As a result, she was invited to come sing in Germany at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

That was where her career really took off. She was scheduled to perform in only one role, in the opera Tannhäuser. But she impressed the director of the opera company so much that he actually knocked on her door during the intermission to hire her full time. This was (and still is!) something unheard of in the world of opera, but of everyone, Norman deserved the honour.

As a young woman, Norman not only was a powerful singer, but she knew herself and also knew to stay true to who she was. When her opera company started to push her to do roles she knew she wasn’t ready for, she didn’t go along with their demands–she left the company and started again, this time in both Italy and England.

After her debut outside of Germany, Norman toured all over Europe and also returned to the United States all throughout the 1970s. But, unlike many singers early in their career, she also knew she needed to take care of her voice. As much as she loved singing, she took a long break from touring during the end of the decade so she could come back in 1980, better than ever. And in 1983, Norman at last had the opportunity to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, the very place whose radio broadcasts had introduced her to opera when she was a girl.

Since then, Norman has sung in the inauguration ceremonies of two different presidents of the United States, sung for national anniversaries of France and Switzerland, and for Tchaikovsky’s 150th birthday. While she doesn’t perform publicly very much anymore, she still sings, speaks out against injustice, and spends a lot of time making sure her charity, Jessye Norman School of the Arts, is able to give students in her hometown the chance to study not only music, but art, dance, and theatre–for free.

And though she doesn’t talk very much about her personal life, there are plenty of rumours, including that she once received a proposal from a member of the French nobility. When asked about whether it was true, she said: “Yes, it was fascinating. It was lovely.” Even if she only lets the public in so far (as is her right), it’s clear from what we do know of Norman that she’s had and continues to have a very full and interesting life.

Below is a music video of Jessye Norman singing an aria by Richard Wagner from Tristan and Isolde, and my goodness is it incredible!

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Jessye Norman on the Academy of Achievement
Jessye Norman on AllMusic.com
Lunch with the FT: Jessye Norman by Laura Battle for the Financial Times
The ‘Marvelous Living’ Of Soprano Jessye Norman on NPR Music
Jessye Norman: a powerful voice joins America’s race debate on The Guardian.com
Jessye Norman: Dress size has nothing to do with opera singing on the Telegraph.co.uk
How opera legend Jessye Norman learned to ‘Stand Up Straight and Sing’ on PBS Newshour
Jessye Norman on Encyclopædia Britannica
Jessye Norman: Why I ignore my critics on BBC World News HARDtalk.

Jessye Norman on Wikipedia.org
San Francisco Music Preview: JESSYE NORMAN IN CONCERT (Davies Symphony Hall) (Image source)

Barbershop Choruses: Not Just For Pitch Perfect!

While the Pitch Perfect series has brought a spotlight back onto barbershop choruses and quartets, a cappella singing has been around for a very long time. There’s some really cool stuff going on in the barbershop world right now, which you can find all over Youtube–and offline as well.

Recently the 2015 International Barbershop Convention Chorus Finals were held in New Orleans, and one of the participants was the Westminster Chorus. They sang “Seize the Day” from Newsies, and while the music and harmonies are beautiful, the number really gets going when they add choreography:

Rebecca Clarke

History Hunt: Rebecca Clarke

This week, we’re moving forward in history again to visit a composer who was a citizen of both the United Kingdom and the United States, and who once was one of the most famous composers in all of England.

Important note: References to parental abuse are made in this entry. Reader discretion is advised.

Rebecca Thatcher Clarke was born on August 27, 1886 in Harrow, Middlesex, England. Her parents were both musical and she and her three siblings learned to play instruments from a young age. Normally, this would be a very good thing, but her father’s motivation for making his children study was apparently so he could have music whenever he wanted–a selfish reason. He was an abusive father to his children and was cruel to his wife as well, something no one in Clarke’s family deserved.

It wouldn’t have been surprising if Clarke had hated music because of her father, but this wasn’t the case. In fact, she spent extra time studying by copying out sheet music so she could learn how to compose.

When she was sixteen, Clarke went to the Royal Academy of Music, something very unusual for a woman at this time. Within two years, though, her father made her leave, because her theory teacher had fallen in love with her and wanted to marry her. When she was about 21, she was able to go to another important music school, the Royal Conservatory of Music. There she became the first (and only) female student of composition teacher Sir Charles Stanford. It was here she switched her focus from the violin to the viola, an instrument she was very successful with throughout her life.

But once again, her father was responsible for her studies ending too soon. When Clarke was twenty-four, she’d had enough of the terrible way he was treating her mother, and so she stood up to him. After a huge argument, her father threw Clarke out of the house and refused to let her come back.

This turned out to be both a bad thing and a good thing for Clarke. On one hand, suddenly Clarke was homeless and needed to find a way to earn money–fast. On the other, her father could never again interfere in her studies or her life: she was free of him at last.

Clarke began performing on her viola to support herself, something she was very proud of being able to do. She was hired for private parties and her teachers and friends all pitched in to help her find work. After a year of performing on her own, she joined the Queen’s Hall Orchestra as its first female member. Three years after that, she left for the United States to travel and give concerts.

In 1919, when she was thirty-three, and again two years later, Clarke submitted compositions to the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge music competition. She tied for first place the first time, but unfortunately the women who was sponsoring the competition liked her opponent’s piece better. The judges were astonished to learn afterwards that they had almost awarded first place to a fairly unknown female composer! And when her piece was played for an audience, many thought they were listening to music written by famous composer Maurice Ravel–another surprise.

Even if Clarke never did come in first in the competition, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (a pianist and composer in her own right) liked her work enough to commission a piece from her in 1923. Once again, Clarke was the first woman to receive a commission from Coolidge…and, as it turned out, the only one.

That same year, Clarke went on a world tour of the countries that had a connection with Britain. When she finished the tour, she returned to England and continued performing. Three years later, she formed the all-female English Ensemble with a violinist, cellist, and pianist. She played for BBC Radio, made recordings, and continued to perform.

When World War II started, Clarke was in the United States visiting her brothers. She ended up trapped there for the wartime period, and, as when she was kicked out of her home by her father, she needed to quickly figure out how to make ends meet. To do so, she composed, worked as a governess, and even hosted her own radio program on music!

Though Clarke eventually stopped giving public performances due to arthritis and composed rarely in her later years, that didn’t mean she gave up on music entirely. In fact, she went back and fixed up some of her earlier compositions when she was 90 years old! For many people, music is a lifelong passion, and it seems that was especially the case with Rebecca Clarke.

Listen below to Passacaglia, a powerful work Clarke wrote for piano and viola, to get a good taste of her compositional brilliance:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
The Life of Rebecca Clarke on the Rebecca Clarke Society’s website
Rebecca Clarke by Joseph Stevenson
Rebecca Clarke on Naxos.com
Rebecca Clarke on Saint Paul Sunday
“And you should’ve seen their faces when they saw it was by a woman.” Composer Rebecca Clarke on BBC Radio
A Rebecca Clarke Reader ed. by Liane Curtis
Rebecca Clarke (composer) at Wikipedia.org

Barack Obama’s Singing Career

Changing words into song through various types of editing software is nothing new. In fact, it’s nothing new to this blog–back in February, I featured my favourite pitch correction project, The Symphony of Science.

Today’s song is a little different: it chooses words very carefully from various speeches to create something brand new. It’s also a lot sillier than The Symphony of Science:

Maybe President Obama should consider putting out an album!

Élizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre

History Hunt: Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre

This week on History Hunt, we’ll be looking at yet another composer who was both famous and highly regarded in her day. In fact, she was a member of King Louis XIV of France’s court!

Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre was born in 1665. We don’t have a record of her exact birthdate, but we do know she was baptised on March 17 of that year. She was born into a family of musicians and instrument-makers, which made it easy for her brilliance to be recognised at a very young age. And it wasn’t only her family who realised she had the makings of a great musician, either: Jacquet de la Guerre was just five years old when she performed on the harpsichord for King Louis XIV!

As Jacquet de la Guerre grew up and honed her sklils, she turned more and more people into her fans. She was nicknamed “la petite merveille” (the little wonder) and called “the marvel of our century” by a writer for the Mercure galant (“Gallant Mercury”), a monthly magazine.

When she was about fifteen, she performed for Louis XIV again–and this time found herself with a royal patron. She was accepted into his court and taken under the wing of Françoise Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, the marquise of Montespan. The king ensured Jacquet de la Guerre had enough money to compose, and she in turn wrote music and dedicated it to him. It was a popular arrangement for musicians during this period in history, and one that worked well for both patron and musician.

After three or four years (we’re not sure), Jacquet de la Guerre left the court to get married to a fellow musician. She stayed on good terms with the king, though, and continued to dedicate to him nearly every single piece she published for the rest of her life.

When Jacquet de la Guerre was twenty-two, she published Pièces de clavessin (“Harpsichord Pieces”). Harpsichord music was still relatively rare in France, making her one of the harpsichord’s early adopters. She was an unusual composer, willing to try the latest musical techniques and push the boundaries of what was considered “normal” in the music of the time. She wrote not only harpsichord music, but violin sonatas, vocal music, an opera-ballet when she was twenty, and a full-scale opera–the first in France to be written by a woman.

This last, however, was not met with success and closed after five or six performances. And unfortunately, this was a big deal in Jacquet de la Guerre’s time. After all, a poor showing at such a grand musical event was often seen to reflect upon a musician’s patron, and since Jacquet de la Guerre’s patron was the king, it would have been a real blow.

But that wasn’t the end of Jacquet de la Guerre’s career–not at all. She continued to compose, perform, and improvise on the harpsichord in spite of the setback, even if she stopped publishing her music for over a decade. After 1704, she began hosting concerts at her home, which became tremendously popular with the rich and famous. Three years later, she at last published her second and third books, of harpsichord and violin music, and followed it up with three collections of cantatas.

Though Jacquet de la Guerre retired from public performances in 1717, she kept on composing. It seems she still maintained her connection with King Louis XIV–one of the last (or possibly last) of her compositions that we know of was dedicated to him on the occasion of his recovery from a serious illness. Even after her death, Jacquet de la Guerre remained one of the most highly valued French composers of her era, and since the 1990s, there’s been a real effort to once more bring back the fame she knew during her lifetime.

Here’s her Sonata in D Major for violin and continuo from her third book of compositions. It’s not long, so if you can listen to the whole thing, I highly recommend it.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre: myth or marvel? seeking the composer’s individuality, by Mary Cyr
Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre on Encyclopædia Britannica
Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre on Naxos.com
A Pioneering French Composer by Melody Nishinaga
Elizabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre on AllMusic.com
Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet De La Guerre on The Famous People
Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre on Wikipedia.org
Françoise-Athénaïs, marquise de Montespan on Wikipedia.org
Image source: Notes on the Françoise de Troy (1645-1730) Portrait of Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre