Trying to find unaccompanied cello music by Black composers? Look no further.
This is the third installment in my series of digital postcards about unaccompanied works by Black composers.
For those who are new to my postcards, let me introduce myself and my postcard series. I’m Erica Lessie, and for years I’ve been on a quest to find unaccompanied music for the cello. Each month, I share information on three pieces with you. Think of each summary as a short postcard with: “Just the facts, ma’am.”
My first series was about unaccompanied pieces by women composers. This year’s series is about unaccompanied pieces by Black composers. Please let me know if you have any questions or if you have suggestions for pieces you’d like to see included in future postcards.
In selecting the music every month, I keep in mind orchestra directors and students in search of contest pieces, teachers seeking supplemental literature, and professionals hankering for new repertoire.
These monthly postcards give you the information you need to help you choose a piece that’s right for you. I also include links to make it easy for you to locate and purchase the sheet music you want. I hope you enjoy exploring these pieces as much as I did selecting them.
April Postcard #1
Florence Beatrice Price was the first African American female composer to gain national prominence in the USA. Although her first (and favorite) instrument was the piano, which she studied together with organ at the New England Conservatory, she also composed symphonies, concertos, choral works, art songs, and chamber and solo instrumental pieces. Many of her pieces incorporate a distinctly African American musical idiom, drawing heavily on the rhythms and melodies of Black spirituals while leveraging the classical European training she received in her formal studies.
- Title: Bright Eyes
- Composer: Florence Price (9 April 1887 – 3 June 1953)
- Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
- Date: published 1937, transcribed 2022
- Movements: 1
- Duration of Work: 45 seconds
- Number of Measures: 44
- Number of Pages: 1
- Tempo: Allegretto
- Difficulty Level: beginner
- Highest Position Reached: first
- Technique Employed: bass clef; 6/8 time; slurs; staccato. Note: can be played entirely in 1st position with an F# on the C string
- Publisher: Erica Lessie
- Where to Purchase: email Erica
- Cost of Sheet Music*: free PDF
Recording by Erica Lessie
“Bright Eyes” was originally written for piano and transcribed by me for cello. It was published in 1937 in the collection, Three Sketches for Little Pianists.
Listening to the wonderful works of Price, I am sad that she did not compose anything for solo cello (that we know of). I have transposed this charming piece so that it can be played in 1st position. For Suzuki students, Bright Eyes would fit nicely around Rigadoon in Book 1. The second finger is used on the A string, while the 3rd finger is played on the D and G strings. There is a brief foray onto the C string with an extension from E to F#. Certain measures could be played in second or third position, making it a good piece for introducing these positions to individual students or for a mixed level cello group.
April Postcard #2
Music historian Michael Zwiebach described Adolphus Hailstork as one of “America’s most accomplished and industrious composers,” further noting that Hailstork “has worked in every classical genre, and, as a singer himself (as well as a keyboardist), he has a large, often overlooked, list of art songs.” Perhaps due to his early musical experiences as a vocalist, his compositions have a distinctive lyricism, making many of them ideal for adaptation by cellists.
- Title: Theme and Variations on Draw the Sacred Circle Closer
- Composer: Adolphus Hailstork (b. 1941)
- Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
- Year Composed: 2014
- Movements: theme and 5 variations
- Duration of Work: 12:25
- Number of Measures: 174
- Number of Pages: 5
- Tempo: various
- Difficulty Level: advanced
- Highest Position Reached: thumb
- Technique Employed: bass, tenor, and treble clefs; 4/8, 5/8, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, 15/8, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, and 5/4 time signatures; pizzicato; grace notes; harmonics; glissandos; double and triple stops; double sharps; complex rhythms
- Publisher: Theodore Presser
- Where to Purchase: Sheet Music Plus
- Cost of Sheet Music*: $9.99
Recording by Timothy Holley
“The theme (sounding like a spiritual) is actually the final chorus of the composer’s Earthrise, a profoundly bold cantata using Schiller’s Ode to Joy as text, and full of allusions to all four movements of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Hailstork’s Earthrise features a festival chorus singing in German, alternating with an African-American chorus singing in English with vernacular verve. The choruses ultimately unite to end the cantata together with Draw the Sacred Circle Closer, a translation of lines from Schiller’s Ode to Joy.” – Sheet Music Plus
“Theme and Variations on Draw the Sacred Circle Closer” consists of a theme and five variations, each more rhythmically complex than its predecessor. There are frequent meter and key changes, as well as a liberal use of accidentals.
Though this work does not require great technical prowess, a careful study of the rhythm is a must. Rhythmic intricacy is what really defines this piece and accounts for the advanced level assignation.
Hailstork masterfully links together contrasting moods and tempos to produce a thoroughly engaging work. I definitely will be devoting serious time to this piece and hope that it becomes standard repertoire in the years to come.
April Postcard #3
This third postcard also appeared in my postcards for the project with the London Cello Society, Soul Music: Works for the Cello Inspired by Hebraic Themes – Part 2. Representing Sanford’s only unaccompanied cello composition (to date), this piece musically reflects multiple characters’ points of view about a single, horrific event. It pulls from the composer’s training in big band and jazz traditions to express the conversation of ideas in the single voice of a cello.
- Title: Seventh Avenue Kaddish
- Composer: David Sanford
- Instrumentation: unaccompanied cello
- Year Composed: 2001
- Movements: I, II, III, IV
- Duration of Work: 7’
- Number of Measures: unmeasured, 32, 84, 28
- Number of Pages: 9
- Tempo: quarter note = 80, quarter note = 140, quarter note = 140, quarter note = 68
- Difficulty Level: professional
- Highest Position Reached: high thumb position
- Technique Employed: bass, tenor, and treble clefs; no time signature as well as 12/8, 4/4 times signatures; sul tasto, sul ponticello, and col legno battuto; pizzicato; grace notes, trills, double stops, tremolo
- Publisher: Oxingale Music
- Where to Purchase: Oxingale Music
- Cost of Score: $20 pdf, $25 hard copy*
Recording by Matt Haimovitz
Written for cellist Matt Haimovitz after the tragedies of 9/11, David Sanford’s Seventh Avenue Kaddish places the cellist near ground zero, playing on the streets of New York as buildings collapse, debris blinds, dust suffocates. Yet the street musician continues to wail because that is all he can do. The form of the piece is inspired by the four parts of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” – “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.”
In Sanford’s words:
“Seventh Avenue Kaddish was written to express simultaneously the point of view of a cantor, a jazz visionary, a street musician, and/or a concert cellist. They share the perhaps incorrect sense that their only tenable position in the face of catastrophic events is to soldier on as entertainers and/or professional mourners.” — Program notes in the score
Upon listening, I found this piece intriguing and original, but I couldn’t make sense of its form or rhythm. A cursory glance at the score led me to temporarily walk away from the music stand (the manuscript is handwritten with some complex rhythms), but while following the score AND listening to the music, the piece came alive for me.
The work is written in four short movements, which are played attacca. The beginning is written without a time signature (which I always find disconcerting) but the remainder is written in 12/8 and 4/4 time. With the exception of the first movement, which is a bit thorny to read, the initially scary-looking passages are just quintuplet and sextuplet sixteenth-note passages.
This definitely is a piece for an experienced player, and I am itching to get some good fingerings in the score and give it serious attention. I have the sneaking suspicion that this piece will get under my skin.
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