Wednesday, February 3, 2021 Classical Album of the Week: Pianist Maria Thompson Corley's Treasure Trove by Black Composers

Maria Thompson Corley
(Russell Frost)

Soulscapes: Piano Music By African American Women
Maria Thompson Corley, Piano
Albany Troy 857 (2006)


By Susan Lewis

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. 

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