Classical Album of the Week: Pianist Maria Thompson Corley's Treasure Trove by Black Composers
February 1, 2021. A collection of classical music written by African-American women over the last century is a jewel—an example of the depth and range of compositions that lie waiting to be discovered. As we begin Black History Month, Soulscapes is our Classical Album of the Week. First released in 2006, its message persists in 2021, awakening us to artists too long overlooked.
The solo piano works in this album will be a delightful surprise for many—an introduction to some composers and music previously unheard, performed by pianist Maria Thompson Corley.
While Florence Price and her student Margaret Bonds have become increasingly familiar, this album introduces others who may be less widely known. They include 20th-century composers L. Viola Kinney (whose piece, Mother's Sacrifice, is her only surviving work), Undine Smith Moore (who wrote numerous choral works, including her 1981 Pulitzer-nominated cantata, Scenes from the Life of a Martyr, based on the life of Martin Luther King) and Zenobia Powell Perry (who wrote a mass, an opera, and works for piano, band and orchestra).
Also represented are contemporary composers Valerie Capers, who writes, teaches, and performs classical music and jazz, and Dorothy Rudd Moore, whose work includes song cycles, orchestral and chamber pieces, and an opera based on the life of Frederick Douglass.
In 2006, when Juilliard graduate Maria Thompson Corley decided to put together this album highlighting Black women composers, she herself found surprises. Born in Jamaica, raised in Canada, Maria was a full time professor at Florida's A&M University before settling in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A multifaceted artist, she is a pianist, composer, and educator who has also written poetry, short stories, and two novels.
Maria met with me on Zoom to talk about the joy and discoveries in creating this collection.
The best-known composer represented—and the seed from which the album grew—is Florence Price, whose Symphony in E minor was performed by the Chicago Symphony in 1933. Soulscapes features her Piano Sonata in E Minor, a lush work that won First Prize in the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Music Competition. Here is the first movement, Andante-Allegro:
Looking for work that would contrast with the Price, Maria turned to a New York based composer she'd met named Valerie Capers, which led to her discovery of the innovative and engaging “Portraits in Jazz, for piano.”
Juillard-trained, blind since she was six years old, Capers is a classical and jazz pianist and teacher; of the 13 classical miniatures, 11 recall the styles of different jazz musicians, from Ella (Ella Scats the Little Lamb) to a mellow Billie Holiday (Billie’s Song).
Other pieces in Caper's set summon Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, and saxophone geniuses Charlie Parker and John Coltrane:
In exploring more music for Soulscapes, Maria drew on a reference book by Hildegard Publishing, edited by Helen Walker Hill - Black Women Composers: A Century of Piano Music (1893-1990). She was looking for, and found, music that reflected the depth and breadth of this repertoire, starting with the reflective Mother's Sacrifice, written in 1909 by L. Viola Kinney, a music and English teacher who lived in Sedalia, Missouri.
“I was trying to have a variety of styles. I wanted to make sure I included things that were more traditional - romantic - and then a couple of nods to jazz because Troubled Water, by Margaret Bonds, [what she wanted for the last work on the album] masterfully combines jazz and classical idioms in that piece.”
The other works the album indeed show a range, from A Little Whimsey, written in 1982, by Dorothy Rudd Moore to the dissonant Before I’d Be a Slave by Undine Smith More.
Florence Price’s Sonata for Piano in E Minor, and Zenobia Powell Perry’s Homage (to William Levy Dawson) lead to the well known Troubled Water, by Margaret Bonds, who studied with Price and Dawson.
1 - Viola Kinney, Mother's Sacrifice, for piano.
2 -13 Valerie Capers, Portraits in Jazz for piano
Ella Scats the Little Lamb; Waltz for Miles; Sweet Mr. Jelly Roll; The Monk; Blues for "the Duke"; A Taste of Bass; Billie's Song; Mr.Satchmo; Cancion de la Havana; Bossa Brasilia; Blue-Bird; Cool Trane
14 - Dorothy Rudd Moore, A Little Whimsey, for piano
15 - Undine Smith More, Before I'd be a Slave
16-18 - Florence Price, Piano Sonata in E Minor
19- Zenobia Powell Perry, Homage (to William Levi Dawson) for piano
20 - Margaret Bonds, Troubled Water, for piano
"I think the act of making a recording of piano music by Black women is itself a bit of a statement," says Corley. "We have a variety of things we are able to do, and here we are doing it. Listen."
You can hear the entire album here on Spotify.
Maria Thompson Corley is now at work on a second volume of Soulscapes.
Black History Month on WRTI is supported by Temple University, home to the first Department of Africology and African American studies in the country to offer a doctoral program.