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Sunday Music Musings August 1, 2020

August 2, 2020

If we are learning anything from these turbulent times, it is how history is shaped by those who “tell the story” and in classical music that has been years of dead white men (some of whom I love dearly). Just as Ginger Rogers had to do it all backwards and in heels, imagine an African American woman born in 1887 trying to get her symphonies and concertos performed! So indulge me in a very long program note about someone you may have missed in music history, especially if you are my age.

Florence Price (1887-1953) was born into a middle-class family in Little Rock, Arkansas. She attended New England Conservatory, one of the few conservatories to admit African-Americans at that time. She returned to Arkansas, married and began to raise a family, composing songs, short pieces and music for children. In 1927 she moved to Chicago, divorced her abusive husband and began to compose larger works as well.

Who is Florence Price? — Lake Forest Symphony

Price was the first black woman to have her music played by a major American orchestra when the Chicago Symphony performed her Symphony in E Minor in 1933. She sketched or finished 4 symphonies, wrote songs setting to music poems by Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar, and became well-known for her arrangements of spirituals. Her orchestral music is Dvorak-like in that it is well-orchestrated late Romantic style claiming elements of the African-American heritage in references to jazz, spirituals, and chromaticism with a luminous quality uniquely her own.

Alex Ross wrote in the New Yorker article of 2018:

“The reasons for the shocking neglect of Price’s legacy are not hard to find. In a 1943 letter to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, she introduced herself thus: ‘My dear Dr. Koussevitzky, To begin with I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.’ She plainly saw these factors as obstacles to her career, because she then spoke of Koussevitzky ‘knowing the worst.’ Indeed, she had a difficult time making headway in a culture that defined composers as white, male, and dead. One prominent conductor took up her cause—Frederick Stock, the German-born music director of the Chicago Symphony—but most others ignored her, Koussevitzky included. Only in the past couple of decades have Price’s major works begun to receive recordings and performances, and these are still infrequent.”

Price’s 4th symphony is was just premiered in Arkansas in 2018, and her re-discovered violin concertos were recently recorded by Er-Gene Kahng with the Janáček Philharmonic.

Here is the 2016 East Coast premiere of her 3rd Symphony by the Yale Symphony (on a stage dear to my heart).

Here is our friend Gloria Bangiola singing Price’s setting of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Sympathy, which receives allusion in Maya Angelou’s I know why the Caged Bird Sings. “Price’s song composition balances the extended tonality characteristic of 20th century composition with the singability of American vernacular tunes,” writes Gloria in her recital notes. “Price’s voice is crucial in any conversation about access and agency in the arts. I do not seek to speak for her by singing her composition. Instead, I strive to give Florence Price a forum to speak for herself.”

Gloria Bangiola performs Sympathy by Florence Price, poem by Dunbar

In writing this I read the New Yorker article and an oft-quoted New York Times article about how her music fell into obscurity and is now enjoying a “revival” after 2009 when, in the outskirts of St. Anne, Illinois, hours of piano music, piano duets and 2 violin concertos lost for 30 years were discovered in a summer home that she once owned that was about to be renovated.

Digging a little deeper I found this quote on the Harry T. Burleigh Society page: “The (NYT) article suggests Price and her music had been forgotten, only now returning to the public eye. Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. Florence Price’s music was performed, published, and studied during her life and after her death. Her music was not forgotten in Black classical music or regional communities, as music scholars …discussed earlier this year. Several times she contacted colleagues, such as Marian Anderson and Harry T. Burleigh, to help her access the white-dominated music publishing world… The ‘rediscovered’ Black composer is a tired, damaging trope. It reflects an active process, where certain histories and cultural memories are not considered ‘relevant’ to the mainstream until they prove useful. Black musicians kept the name of Florence Price on their lips, in their minds, and under their fingers. She was not forgotten.” – Kori Hill Ph.D. student in musicology studying Price’s concertos

In Quiet Mood (Sunday’s Prelude) is the only available organ work I know of—if you can correct me please do! It is nice in pandemic to have time to learn new repertoire and this is another piece I was working on to increase my repertoire of women composers.

Thanks for considering the music of this composer and the telling of her story.

Lead Me, Guide Me, is our hymn of the day, from the hymnal Lift Every Voice and Sing II.  Here we find another female powerhouse of a composer, Doris Mae Akers (1923 –1995). Akers was an American gospel music composer, arranger and singer. Growing up in Missouri with 9 siblings, she wrote her first song at the age of 10.  Akers moved to Los Angeles, California in 1945 and gained fame as the founder and leader of the Sky Pilot Choir and pioneer of what became known as the Doris Akers/Sky Pilot Sound, referring to her distinctive style of directing and arranging. Here she is singing “Go Down Moses” with Sky Pilot Choir. What a voice!

She was also a recording artist and songwriter in her own right, writing over 300 gospel songs and hymns. Among her best-known compositions were ‘Sweet, Sweet Spirit’, ‘How Big Is God’ and ‘Sweet Jesus’. Here she is singing “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.”

In 1958, along with her friend Mahalia Jackson, Doris co-wrote the song, “Lord, Don’t Move the Mountain,” which sold over a million records. Through the 80s and 90s she became director of music at Grace Temple Deliverance church in Minneapolis, before her death from cancer at the age of 72. She was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001. 


Lead Me, Guide Me, was recorded by many and found in many hymnals. It was even in Elvis’ last movie Change of Habit, and also became a big hit/favorite of his.  Akers wrote it in 1953 in Oakland, California. The text is an earnest plea for an intimate walk with God.

Our postlude is “His Eye is on the Sparrow” sung by Donna Ward. Although today it is a staple of African-American worship services, this was written in 1905 by two white songwriters, Canadian-American lyricist Civilla D. Martin and composer Charles H. Gabriel.  Here it is sung by actress-singer Ethel Waters who used the title for her autobiography. Mahalia Jackson’s recording of the song was honored with the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2010. (Mahalia Jackson connects this piece with the last!) It was sung by Whitney Houston in her last movie, Sparkle, which was released posthumously.

Civilla Durfee Martin (1866 – 1948) wrote many religious hymns and gospel songs in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Like Emily Dickinson she was frail and housebound. Her husband, W. S. Martin, studied ministry at Harvard, becoming a Baptist minister, later Disciples of Christ. Together they created hymns and songs, but she used the initials “C.D.” rather than her husband’s name on these collaborations. Some of her most popular pieces include “God Will Take Care of You”, “One of God’s Days”, “Going Home”, and “Like As A Father.” “His Eye is on the Sparrow” was inspired by scripture: “I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye (Psalm 32:8). “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26) and “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29–31).

Charles Hutchinson Gabriel (1856 – 1932) was a writer of over 7,000 gospel songs. He used several pseudonyms, including Charlotte G. Homer, H. A. Henry, and S. B. Jackson. Sometimes he wrote both words and music and sometimes just the music. Born in Iowa, and raised on a farm, he was given music opportunities with his father and his church. Eventually he served as music director at Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, San Francisco, California (1890-2). He moved to Chicago, Illinois, and in 1912 he began working with Homer Rodeheaver’s publishing company. To give you an idea of how prolific he was, Gabriel edited 35 gospel song books, 8 Sunday school song books, seven books for male choruses, six books for ladies, ten children’s song books, nineteen collections of anthems, 23 choir cantatas, 41 Christmas cantatas, 10 children’s cantatas, and books on musical instruction. An index to denominational hymnals published from the 1890s to 1966 lists 37 tunes by Gabriel. One tune that Grace Church (especially Daughters of Zion) would know is “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

The singer of this postlude, Donna Ward, grew up in Madison and began singing church services for me every Christmas Day from about second grade because she was my daughter Virginia’s best friend and I would bribe them both with solos. After she did her Catholic duty finishing CCD, she joined the Grace Choir permanently, becoming head chorister with Virginia, and singing many solos both gospel (City Called Heaven) and classical (Rejoice Greatly from the Messiah during which my daughter Grace fainted—but that is a story for another day!)

Donna endured the death of both of her parents (dear friends of mine) over the space of a year in 2017 and sang at both of their funerals at Grace. Now she is an elementary music teacher at both Kings Road School and Torey J. Sabatini School in Madison, and the lead singer of local cover band, Mama D & the Vexations.   Donna earned her Bachelor of Arts in Music and Theater from Muhlenberg College in 2009, achieved teaching certification in Music and Theater through New Jersey City University in 2014 and is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in Educational Leadership from The College of New Jersey.  Donna currently lives in Fanwood NJ with her fiancee and their two corgis Lily and Charley.

I had decided on all of this music weeks ago, while honoring Black Lives Matter and women musicians. I had no idea John Lewis’s funeral would be this week and Bill Clinton would reference this piece. (16:48) But such is the mystery.

I am really enjoying learning much more about the composers we sing, and especially YouTube education—there are so many historical recordings up there, whether it is Florence Price, Doris Akers or Elvis, it’s a blessing what we have access to! I hope you go down some fun rabbit holes this week!

I leave you with Donna singing a hopeful solo with Harmonium:

The Rain is Over and Gone – Paul Halley – Harmonium Choral Society -Donna Ward

I write these on Saturday and the services come out Sunday at 8. Here is a Sunday update: link to the service on Grace Church YouTube

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