by Anthony R. Green
Throughout classical music history, one can find examples of Black composers who have had a significant number of their works lost, such as George Bridgetower and Estelle D. Ricketts. Scores of other Black composers are handwritten and in dire need of engraving and editing (including works by Harry Lawrence Freeman, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Shirley Graham DuBois). Another example of the former is the solemn, surprising salon-style piano solo by L. Viola Kinney, entitled Mother's Sacrifice - a piece appropriate to feature this Women's History Month 2019.
Born in Sedalia, Missouri as Lady Viola Kinney, she was one of five children to a father who was a cook and a mother who worked in the shops of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. When it was time for her to attend post secondary school, she attended an HBCU (historical Black college/university) called Western University, which was established in 1865 after the United States Civil War, and closed in 1943. Originally established as the Quindaro Freedman's School in Quindaro, Kansas, Western University was quite known for its strong music program, which included graduates such as Etta Moten Barnett (contralto) and Nora Douglas Holt (composer, and the first Black woman to earn a Masters degree in the USA). At Western University, she was a student in the harmony class, as well as a member of the choral society. Before graduating and moving back to her hometown in 1911, she participated in a composition competition in Omaha, Nebraska.
The competition - the Inter-State Literary Society Original Music Contest - was held in 1908. Mother's Sacrifice was Ms. Kinney's entry, and it won second place. The first place winner was Claude Minor of Lawrence, Kansas, who was also a student in the harmony class at Western University in Quindaro, Kansas. A year after the competition, Mother's Sacrifice was published by the Twentieth Century Commercial Society of Western University. This work was published when Ms. Kinney was still a student, and this publishing company released works by Black composers. The company asked some of the students why people should purchase these published works. Ms. Kinney was among the students to answer, and you can read her answer below:
Mother's Sacrifice is Ms. Kinney's only surviving work. She registered the copyrights for at least two other compositions: Show Me (1941) and Time Out for Love (1943). I wonder if there has been any work to republish the music distributed by the Twentieth Century Commercial Society. It seems like there is a treasure trove of music by Black composers just waiting to be seen and heard and performed by those interested in Black music. Until then, we will just have to wonder what it could have sounded like.
To hear Ms. Kinney's only surviving work, check out this amazing recording by the incredible Maria Corley, who is also a composer, mainly of art song!
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