Happy 90th Birthday to Leontyne Price!

Legendary American soprano Leontyne Price celebrates her 90th birthday on February 10. This coincides with the 50th anniversary season of the Metropolitan Opera at its present Lincoln Center home. The premiere of American composer Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra christened the new opera house on September 16, 1966, a suitably grand-scaled work based on Shakespeare’s tragedy and written especially for Price as Cleopatra. Price and the Metropolitan Opera were almost synonymous in the 1960s, beginning with the thunderous acclaim that greeted her house debut in 1961 (a co-debut on January 27th with tenor Franco Corelli). Price came to the Met just as she reached the prime of a great career; her performances were a highlight of each season in which she sang.

Leontyne Price (b&w) by Jack MitchellLeontyne Price, 1981 – Photograph by Jack Mitchell, CC BY-SA

When the announcement of Antony and Cleopatra was made, Barber and Price had been artistic collaborators for more than a decade. A singer himself, the composer knew Price’s voice and what it could do, and that shaped his conception of the opera’s heroine. “Every vowel,” he told The New York Times, “was placed with Leontyne’s voice in mind.” The Met’s CD presentation of Antony and Cleopatra in its newly-released inaugural season box set is the first release of the original version of the work, the sole other recording (Spoleto, 1983) being Barber’s 1975 revision, which differs significantly. Price’s Town Hall recital debut in 1954 featured the first New York performance of Barber’s Hermit Songs. The previous year, Price had sung the premiere of the work at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., with Barber at the piano (October 30, 1953), a performance likewise preserved on recording (Loeb Music Library, CD 12283 (HOLLIS record)).

-Robert J. Dennis

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Other birthday tributes

Eubie Blake 130

The Loeb Music Library holds several artifacts relating to the American pianist and composer Eubie Blake, born February 7th, 1887 in Baltimore.

In this portrait of Blake as a child, he poses on the steps of a  Baltimore home with his friend Howard “Hop” Jones and a dog. The original photograph, by an unidentified artist,  is thought to have been made in approximately 1899. The Music Library’s gelatin silver print reproduction dates from the 1970s.

Reproduction of photographic portrait of musician Eubie Blake and childhood friend Howard "Hop" Johns, 1899.

Howard “Hop” Johns and Eubie Blake, Merritt Room

We have three unusual dyeline reproductions of Blake’s manuscript scores: a ragtime piece for piano entitled Baltimore Todolo, as well as two songs from Chocolate Dandies, Blake’s moderately successful 1924 production with lyricist Noble Sissles (an earlier Sissles and Blake enterprise, Shuffle Along, was a hit and launched the careers of many significant black performers, including Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker).

Our copy of Baltimore Todolo is inscribed by the composer: “Not so easy to play, but if you practice you’ll like it, E.B.”

Dyeline manuscript copy of Eubie Blake's The Baltimore todolo.

Mus 630.133.405, Merritt Room

And Thinking of You, from Chocolate Dandies, is also inscribed: “Compliments of Eubie Blake to Mrs. Peggie Smith.”

Dyeline manuscript copy of Eubie Blake's Thinking of you.

Mus 630.133.606, Merritt Room

Smith and her husband, William, were fans who became devoted correspondents of Blake’s. Blake’s letters to the Smiths, along with Blake memorabilia the couple collected such as newspaper clippings and concert programs, make up the small and unique collection Eubie Blake Papers. Some letters from Blake’s lifelong collaborator, Shuffle Along leading man Ivan Harold Browning, are also found in this collection, as are first-edition scores, but mainly the papers are a warm and newsy correspondence between Blake and these fortunate fans.

Letter from Eubie Blake to William B. and Peggy Smith, dated 18 January 1970, postmarked Brooklyn, New York.

Ms. Coll. 105, Merritt Room

Song from Eubie Blake's Shuffle along, 1921.

Ms. Coll. 105, Merritt Room

One last extraordinary Eubie Blake item in our library is this one-page note to the composer and arranger William Grant Still.

Letter from Eubie Blake to William Grant Still, written 9 February 1959, Brooklyn, New York.

ML 410.B6247 A4 1959, Merritt Room

Isham Memorial Library is the special collections unit within the Loeb Music Library. Many of its materials are in open stacks, with rare and unique items held in the locked Merritt Room. To view Merritt Room materials, use your Special Collections Request Account. As Isham is not always fully staffed it is advisable to wait for a confirmation message from a staff member before you plan your visit.

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