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Michelle Cann - Piano




    Nora Douglas Holt was born in Kansas City, KS. She studied music composition, musicology, and music criticism at Western University, and earned a master’s degree from Chicago Musical College, becoming the first African American in the United States to receive such a degree. Later she worked as music critic for several publications. She was associated with the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance and, in 1919, co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians, while also continuing to compose and perform. After marrying her fourth husband, an elderly Chicago hotel owner named George Holt, she traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia as a socialite, composer, and performer. Before leaving the United States, she placed her nearly 200 works of orchestral and chamber music in storage. These were later stolen. Fortunately two compositions, The Sandman (a song) and Negro Dance (piano solo), were preserved because of their publication in Music and Poetry, a magazine the composer ran at one point. 

    Negro Dance, Op. 25 No. 1 (1921) draws inspiration from African-American antebellum rural dance music, most notably the “pattin’ juba”. As Solomon Northup described in Twelve Years a Slave, “the patting is performed by striking the hands on the knees, then striking the hands together, then striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other—all the while keeping time with the feet, and singing.” These percussive, rhythmic influences give us a glimpse into how Holt might have approached her wider works. 


    Betty Jackson King was a pianist, singer, educator, choral conductor, and composer, best known for her vocal works. Born in Chicago, King first started learning music from her mother. King's father, a pastor at the Community Church of Woodlawn, helped expose her to church hymns and spirituals. Along with her mother and sister, she sang in the Jacksonian Trio. King received a B.M. in piano and M.M. in composition from Roosevelt University, Chicago, subsequently completing further studies at Oakland University and Glassboro College. She taught at the University of Chicago Laboratory School, Roosevelt University, Dillard University, and Wildwood High School. King pursued careers in composing and teaching, and served as a choral conductor-clinician and lecturer in churches and universities. Her honors include a scholarship from the Chicago Umbrian Glee Club, as well as awards from the National Association of Negro Musicians, of which she served for a time as president. 

    Four Seasonal Sketches (1955): Each movement is devoted to a particular season. Spring is evocative and quite classically influenced; Summer is more “bluesy” and dramatic, at times taking us into a highly romantic world; Autumn is a lively and rhythmic dance, with a slightly exotic cast; Winter returns us to high drama.


    Florence Beatrice Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas into a mixed-race family. Her father was the only African-American dentist in the city, and her mother was a music teacher who guided her early musical training. She moved to Chicago to escape the increasingly racist South. Educated at the New England Conservatory of Music, Price was active in Chicago from 1927 until her death in 1953. She was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a work played by a major orchestra. Price composed over 300 scores, including four symphonies and four concertos, as well as choral works, art songs, chamber music, and music for solo instruments. In 2009, a substantial collection of her works and papers was found in an abandoned house on the outskirts of St. Anne, Illinois, which Price had used as a summer home. 

    Fantasie nègre No. 1 (1929) was dedicated to Margaret Bonds, a frequent and familiar interpreter of her works. The theme comes directly from the negro spiritual “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”. In 1932 Price revisited and revised the work. That project appears to have renewed her interest in its form, as she went on to pen Fantasie nègre Nos. 2 - 4 over a 3-month period. It was an extraordinary outpouring of musical inspiration in a genre that Price herself had invented, and that creatively integrated African American vernacular idioms (principally spirituals and plantation songs) with the traditional world of the European piano. While the first Fantasie nègre used an actual spiritual as its main theme, Price asserted a greater level of compositional autonomy in the other pieces, basing them on themes that stylistically evoked Black vernacular idioms, but were actually of her own making. 


    Irene Britton Smith was born in Chicago, the youngest of four siblings. She was of African-American, Crow, and Cherokee descent. In her youth, Smith took piano and violin lessons, and hoped to study music at Northwestern University. Unfortunately, this goal was not financially possible, so from 1924 to 1926 she trained at the Chicago Normal School. Smith began teaching in the Chicago Public School system in 1930, and continued to pursue her dream of studying music by enrolling in the American Conservatory of Music in 1932. Due to her busy schedule, Smith could only complete one course per year. Still, 11 years later her tireless dedication earned her a Bachelor of Music. She also attended summer classes at the Eastman School of Music in 1948, and at the Tanglewood Music Festival in 1949. In 1956, Smith earned a Master of Music in theory and composition from De Paul University. Finally, during the summer of 1958 she studied with Nadia Boulanger in the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau in France. After retirement Smith remained connected to her passion through her work as a volunteer docent for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, introducing public school children to various aspects of classical music. 

    Variations on a Theme by MacDowell (1946-7) was a set of 10 variations Smith composed while on sabbatical taking graduate composition classes at The Juilliard School.


    Margaret Allison Bonds was a composer, pianist, and arranger who drew inspiration from spirituals, folk songs, jazz, gospel, and blues. Born in Chicago, Bonds studied the piano with her mother at an early age. Subsequently she attended Northwestern University and The Juilliard School and became a close friend, pupil, and creative collaborator of Florence Price. Throughout her lifetime, Bonds experienced the isolating pain of racism and misogyny, turning to poetry and her faith as solace, and weaving religious ideologies into her art. The first Black musician in history to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bonds composed more than 200 works in her lifetime. 

    Spiritual Suite (1967) is a late work in which Bonds combines spirituals with influences ranging from jazz and blues to classical music. The first movement, The Valley of the Bones, begins evocatively and a sense of the slow blues develops into something more complex. The Bells is gentle, “bluesy”, and evocative of the spiritual Peter, Go Ring dem Bells. In Troubled Waters, the spiritual Wade in the Water is combined with an inventive rhythmic texture. The suite was composed as a finale for her solo recitals, and performed as an inspirational statement of racial and cultural pride. It became one of Bonds’ most celebrated works.


    Hazel Dorothy Scott was a Trinidad-born American jazz and classical pianist and singer. Scott moved to New York City with her mother at the age of four. She was a child musical prodigy, receiving scholarships to study at The Juilliard School when she was only eight. In her teens, she performed at Café Society while still at school. She also performed on the radio and was active as a jazz singer throughout the 1930s and 40s. In 1950, she became the first black American to host her own TV show, The Hazel Scott Show, playing with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. As a pianist, Scott had a flair for the dramatic: there is a film of her performing on two grand pianos simultaneously! Her career in America faltered after she was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, during the era of McCarthyism. Scott subsequently moved to Paris in 1957 and began performing in Europe, not returning to the United States until 1967. She was an outspoken critic of racial discrimination and segregation, using her influence to improve the representation of Black Americans in film. 

     Improvisation on Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor  and Improvisation on Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (ca. 1940): Scott’s training was as much in classical music as in jazz, and she was known for her jazz transcriptions of famous classical pieces. Some of these improvisations were included in her Decca collection Swinging the Classics. Interestingly, Scott had played this Rachmaninoff prelude, without her jazz updating, at her audition for The Juilliard School. Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 was the subject of another of Hazel Scott’s humorous jazzed-up transcriptions.

Michelle Cann


Cape Henlopen High School

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