By Dr. Steven Seigart
Director of Music/Organist
Prelude on CAPEL
—Leo Sowerby (1895–1968)
Praise the Lord
—Florence B. Price (1887–1953)
Sung by the Meeting House Virtual Choir
Text from Psalm 117
Improvisation on a Welsh Tune
—Steven Seigart (b. 1990)
Some oft-neglected American music makes its way into our worship service today and gives the opportunity to tell the stories of two contemporaries, one a white male and one a black female , to illustrate prejudice and systemic racism in our country:
Florence B. Price, née Smith, was a composer, pianist and organist, thought to be the first female symphonist of African-American heritage. Florence was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, to upper-middle-class parents: her mother, a descendant of slaves, ran a restaurant, sold property, and served as secretary of the International Loan and Trust Company. Florence’s white father, Dr. James Smith, was a notable dentist and inventor of patented dental implements. At their Little Rock home, Smith’s parents hosted many gatherings of African-American intelligentsia, including W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington; Florence, taught by her mother, often entertained guests on the piano.
At the age of 14, Smith graduated as high school valedictorian and left Little Rock to attend the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston (she won her place after following her mother’s advice to present herself as being of Mexican descent). At NEC, she earned degrees in organ and piano, and began to compose on the urging of the principal, composer George Whitefield Chadwick. After graduating, Florence returned to the South to teach at various colleges in Little Rock and Atlanta, ultimately returning to Little Rock to marry attorney Thomas Price.
Despite her qualifications, Price (her married name) was denied membership to the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association, so she established her own music studio and founded the Little Rock Club of Musicians. But racial problems continued to escalate in Little Rock, and after a series of lynchings there the Prices fled to Chicago for their safety.
Price’s husband, however, had difficulty finding work in Chicago, and financial struggles led to their divorce in 1931. Price became a single mother to her two daughters and, to make ends meet, played the organ for silent film screenings (where she could be hidden) and wrote radio jingles under the pen name Vee Jay. All the while, Price continued to enter composing compositions with some success, and eventually came to the attention of one of her teachers, the composer and organist Leo Sowerby, who became one of her great champions.
In 1932, her big break finally arrived when she won several prizes at the Wanamaker Music Composition Contest and attracted the attention of Frederick Stock, the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He conducted a performance of her First Symphony in 1933 at the Century of Progress Exhibition, and Price became the first black women in American history to have a symphonic work performed by a major American orchestra. “It is a faultless work,” wrote The Chicago Daily News, “a work that speaks its own message … worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory.”
But Price couldn’t get her First Symphony published. It spurred her on to send a letter to the conductor of the Boston Symphony:
My dear Dr. Koussevitzky, To begin with I have two handicaps–those of sex and race. I am a woman with some Negro blood in my veins. Knowing the worst then, would you be good enough to hold in check the possible inclination to regards a woman’s composition as long on emotionalism but short of virility …
Even with her relative success, Price struggled to keep a roof over her head and was saved from destitution by friends. She suffered from poor health for most of her adult life and was often in the hospital. In May 1953, her work was gaining momentum, and she was about to fly to Europe to promote her music when she suffered a heart attack and died on June 3, 1953.
Today, for the first time, the choir sings her anthem “Praise the Lord,” an incredibly dynamic and creative setting of Psalm 117 that shows a complete mastery of harmony and counterpoint.
Leo Sowerby, the “Dean of American Church Music,” was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1895, and began piano lessons when he was seven and was teaching himself theory from a textbook at 11. His family moved to Chicago in 1909 and he continued his music studies while at Englewood High School. At age 15, Sowerby received some cursory instruction on the organ, but from then on would be self-taught. Sowerby’s debut as a composer came in 1913 at the age of 18 when the Chicago Symphony at an “All-American” concert performed his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.
He never had trouble getting published, with his first pair of published compositions being a Woodwind Quintet (1916) and Serenade for string quartet (1917), which was a birthday present to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. In December 1917, Sowerby served 15 months in the Army in England and France as a clarinetist and bandmaster. Sowerby remained in Europe after his discharge from the army and began composing a series of works including his First Symphony, which led to him being awarded the first American Prix de Rome in 1921. For the next three years, Sowerby resided at the American Academy in Rome, writing among others From the Northland, which won the Society for the Publication of American Music Award.
Sowerby returned to the U.S. in 1924 and began writing music embracing American idioms and in 1932, Sowerby joined the faculty of the American Conservatory in its composition department and remained there until 1962. He also served as choirmaster and organist of St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago from 1927 to 1961, where he wrote a large body of music for chorus and organ. His love of religious music led to his founding of the College of Church Musicians in Washington D.C., which he served as director until 1968.
Prior to World War II, Sowerby was one of the most frequently performed American composers and by 1943, had received the Society for the Publication of American Music Award four times. He received the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1946 for his cantata The Canticle of the Sun, an honorary fellowship at Trinity College in London and the Royal School of Church Music in Croydon, England (1963), and was presented to Queen Elizabeth II. He died a wealthy man, is buried in the National Cathedral (a division of the organ there is also named after him), and his works have never left the standard choral or organ repertoire.
Today, you’ll hear one of Sowerby’s lesser-known chorale-preludes for the organ based on an English folksong that is scarcely known today (it used to appear in with the text “There is a land of pure delight”), but the arrangement captures the folksong spirit with a droning ostinato accompaniment and creative registration (i.e., the stops or sounds) suggestions from the composer to add variety.
Don’t forget to record a video of you and your family singing along to the “Amen” response at the end of the service! Find out more at opmh.org/amen.