Classical Music with William Price King – Leontyne Price – The Early Years.

classical music

Welcome to the last in the Classical Music with William Price King series. And to finish the series on some of the great contemporary opera singers of our time, we will be covering the life and work of American Soprano Leontyne Price. This outstanding soprano rose to international acclaim in the 1950s and 1960s, and was one of the first African Americans to become a leading artist at the Metropolitan Opera.

Leontyne Price said this of her debut at the Met: It was the first operatic mountain I climbed, and the view from it was astounding, exhilarating, stupefying.

In an interview Leontyne Price once recalled that Maria Callas had told her, during a meeting with the older diva in Paris, “I hear a lot of love in your voice.” The sopranos Renee Fleming, Kiri Te Kanawa, Jessye Norman, Leona Mitchell, the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, bass-baritone Jose Van Dam, and the counter tenor David Daniels, have talked about Leontyne Price as an early inspiration.

Among her many honors are the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964), the Spingarn Medal (1965), the Kennedy Center Honors (1980), the National Medal of Arts (1985), numerous honorary degrees, and 19 Grammy Awards, 13 for operatic or song recitals, five for full operas, and a special Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989, more than any other classical singer. In October 2008, she was one of the recipients of the first Opera Honors given by the National Endowment for the Arts.

William Price King now picks up the story in the 1920s and Leontyne Price’s early years and influences.


After a long wait of 13 years, James who worked in a lumber mill and Katie Price, a midwife and member of the church choir, welcomed their daughter, Mary Violet Leontyne Price into the world in February 1927 in Laurel Mississippi.  She was to become the focus of their loving attention and was introduced to music at the age of three when given a toy piano leading to lessons with a local teacher. James and Katie sacrificed much to ensure that Mary’s musical talent was developed, and even sold the family phonograph to fund the purchase of an upright piano despite their daughter still being in kindergarten.

Katie Price’s influence as a member of the church choir was instrumental in encouraging her daughter’s singing.

At 14, Leontyne was taken on a school trip to hear contralto Marian Anderson sing in Jackson; an experience she later said was inspirational. Marian Anderson who was born in 1897, was one of the most celebrated singers of the 20th century. Most of her career was spent performing in concerts and recitals in major venues and with prominent conductors and orchestras throughout the US and Europe between 1925 and 1965.

Here is an example of the inspirational voice of Marian Anderson, that Leontyne Price would have heard in the early 1940s, singing a spiritual Deep River.. Marian lived to the wonderful age of 96 and inspired many young singers in the 20th century.

In her teen years, Leontyne accompanied the “second choir” at St. Paul’s Methodist Church, sang and played for the chorus at the black high school, and earned extra money by singing for funerals and civic functions.

During the war years, Leontyne worked part-time alongside her aunt in the home of a wealthy white couple, Alexander and Elizabeth Chisholm. Mrs Chisholm actively encouraged Leontyne to play the piano and also discovered Leontyne’s incredible singing voice. This led to her accompanying her at several recitals and church concerts in the state during Leontyne’s college years.

Aiming for a teaching career, Leontyne enrolled in the music education program at the all-black Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, Ohio. Her success in the glee club led to solo assignments, and she was encouraged to complete her studies in voice. She sang in the choir with another soon-to-be-famous singer, Betty Allen. With the help of the Chisholms and the famous bass Paul Robeson, who put on a benefit concert for her, she enrolled at the Juillard School in New York City. She won a scholarship and was admitted to the studio of Florence Page Kimball, who would remain her principal teacher and advisor throughout the 1960s.

In the summer of 1951, she studied in the opera program at the Berkshire Music Center and sang the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss with a German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It combines slapstick comedy with beautiful music and the theme was aimed at appealing to a less high brow audience than traditional opera.

This is the first leading role that Leontyne Price performed during her long and illustrious career and in this slightly later recording shows the beauty of her voice.

In this aria full of despair, Ariadne, after having been left by her love Theseus, describes the land of death to which she will go to escape her pain. She welcomes death, thinking that in death she will find everything that she has been denied in life. Price is in great shape in this aria and handles the difficult high *tessitura passages very well.

The dark color of her voice is intriguing, yielding a fascinating portrait – soulful, heartfelt, melancholic – of Ariadne. A memorable moment. and a remarkable triumph.

* tessitura – The range of a vocal or instrumental part in a musical composition.

This was followed in 1952 with the role of Mistress Ford in the Juilliard student production of Verdi’s Falstaff and to her casting in the all-black opera, Four Saints in Three Acts by American composer and critic Virgil Thomson. When the opera went to Paris after its initial two week run on Broadway, Leontyne Price joined the cast of the Robert Breen/Blevins Davs revival of George Gershwin’s Porky and Bess in the title role on tour. With its major city tour including Chicago and Washington over it in the U.S, the production, sponsored by the State Department began a tour of Europe.

Summertime is an aria that Gershwin composed in 1934 for the opera “Porgy and Bess,” a brilliant mixture of jazz and song styles of blacks from the South during the early twentieth century in the U.S.

Leontyne Price was 25 years old when she recorded this. ‘Bess’ was her break-through role. Summertime is a lullaby sung by Clara to her baby in Act I, indicating that everything is going to be all right. The song is reprised in Act III, by “Bess” and Price sings it passionately with a knockout downward *glissando which climaxes this performance. Her voice is exquisite. A real treat!

*glissando – a continuous slide upwards or downwards between two or more notes.

Primarily Leontyne Price focused on a recital career, particularly because of the earlier influences of Marian Anderson and other successful black concert singers including Roland Hayes and bass baritone William Warfield.

However, the role of ‘Bess’ was to demonstrate that Leontyne Price had both the voice and performance skills to sing on the operatic stage.  This led to the Metropolitan Opera inviting her to sing Summertime at the Met Jamoboree fund-raiser in 1953 at the Ritz Theater on Broadway.. this made Leontyne the first African American to sing with the Met, although not on the actual stage of the Met. That distinction when to Leontyne’s childhood inspiration Marian Anderson who sang Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo un Maschera in January 1955.

Whilst touring with Porky and Bess, Leontyne found time to also sing the premiere of Hermit Songs.

Hermit Songs is a cycle of ten songs for voice and piano by Samuel Barber. Written in 1953 on a grant from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, it takes as its basis a collection of anonymous poems written by Irish monks and scholars from the 8th to the 13th centuries, in translations by W. H. Auden, Chester Kallman, Howard Mumford Jones, Kenneth H. Jackson and Seán Ó Faoláin. They are small poems, thoughts or observations, and speak in straightforward, droll, and modern terms of the simple life these men led, close to nature, to animals and to God.

The Hermit Songs received their premiere in 1953 at the Library of Congress. Samuel Barber accompanies Price on piano. The most famous of these songs is The Monk and his Cat which Price performs with sensitivity, restraint, control, and charm.

Additional sources:

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About William Price King


William Price King is an American jazz singer, musician and composer. Originally he studied classical music and opera but over the years his style has evolved to what many refer to as the ‘sweet point’ where music and voice come together so beautifully.

His vocal mentors are two of the greatest giants in jazz, Nat King Cole and Mel Torme. His jazz album, ‘Home,’ is a collection of contemporary songs and whilst clearly a homage to their wonderful legacy it brings a new and refreshing complexity to the vocals that is entrancing.

His latest album Eric Sempe and William Price King is now available to download. The repertory includes standards such as “Bye Bye Blackbird” (a jazz classic), Sting’s “Englishman in New York,” Queen’s “The Show Must Go On”, Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and other well-known jazz, pop, and rock classics.

William and Eric Sempe have also brought their own magic to the album with original tracks such as Keep on Dreaming and Red Snow with collaboration with Jeanne King
Download the new album.

William is currently in France where he performs in popular Jazz Venues in Nice and surrounding area.

Connect to William

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Twitter – @wpkofficial
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You will find the previous artists..  Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Kiri Te Kanawa in this directory.

Thank you so much for stopping by and your feedback is always very welcome. Sally