We’re back for another week of Classical in Conversation and this time we’ve got the wonderful Zenobia Powell Perry on our minds! Inspiring a generation of young black musicians, showing us all it’s never too late to start, and putting her own stamp on the classical piano sound is just a fragment of the legacy she has left behind.
Never Too Late!
Zenobia was born in Oklahoma to parents of African-American and Creek Indian descent. Her grandfather, who had been a slave, would sing traditional spirituals to her, an oral tradition passing on Christian values and describing the grief of slavery. It would be with this background that Perry first heard Hazel Harrison perform, the first fully-American musician ever to appear with a European orchestra, and it was at this moment that Perry knew she needed to study music.
Though her father wasn’t supportive of her musical studies, Perry went ahead to the Cecil Berryman Conservatory, and later to study privately with black pianist and composer Robert Nathaniel Dett.
And it wasn’t until Zenobia Powell Perry reached her forties that she started seriously composing. After studying her Composition Masters at the University of Wyoming, Perry began leaving her lasting mark on the classical piano world, and what a mark this would be! She embodied a sound influenced both by the traditional classical styles and her grandfather’s songs, thrown together with the rising influence of jazz and folk styles in the 1940s and 1950s, all makes for a real cocktail of character.
An RSL Perry Story!
And when you begin your RSL Classical Piano journey, you’ll find Perry’s cocktail infused throughout, starting with her “Vignette No.1” in the Debut grade. Though simple, this piece is a beautiful introduction to counterpoint with two musical lines fighting for the attention of the listener’s ear. Short but sweet, “Vignette No.1” still has the distinctive Perry sound, slightly dissonant and jaunty and waiting for that perfect cadence to arrive.
In Classical Piano Grade 1 you’ll find another piece from Perry’s Piano Potpourri, this time “Orrin and Echo”. This piece presents to us a development on that contrapuntal feel with the additional challenge of a melody and accompaniment in the opening. The melody in “Orrin and Echo” should be beautifully sung out, and echoed with the same thoughtfulness in the left hand.
And the final instalment of the RSL Perry story is in our Grade 4 books, with “Round and Round”, No.11 in the Piano Potpourri series. With a much fuller harmony than the previous two pieces, you can really start to get a flavour of what Zenobia Powell Perry is about here: it’s a lot of fun to play with its swirling sequential patterns and glorious melodies!
We really hope that you can weave Perry into your own piano story, as she really deserves a place there. With so much to learn from every piece, your repertoire and technique will be all the better for her influence! Not forgetting that you’d be honouring a moment in American history, a moment where black American composers would begin to be recognised for their fantastic work and unique contributions to musical culture. Now THAT is worth celebrating!
If you’ve enjoyed learning a little more about Zenobia Powell Perry today, then be sure to read up on some other composers that may be new to you, especially our female counterparts! We’ve got Germaine Tailleferre, Nikki Iles and Florence Price all ready and waiting.