Florence Price: Peter Go Ring dem Bells

For voice and piano (edited by John Michael Cooper)

Sale price$14.00

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Additional Info

  • Composer
    Florence Price
  • Publisher
    G Schirmer Inc
  • Arrangement
    Voice/Piano (VCE/PF)
  • Format
    Vocal Score
  • Genre
    20th Century


For voice and piano (edited by John Michael Cooper)

Florence Price's vocal setting of Peter, Go Ring dem Bells is based on one of the most popular of all African American spirituals. (She also arranged it for piano solo.) Like many other spirituals, its origins may well extend back to the early nineteenth century; however, its earliest documented appearance occurs in connection with The Hampton Institute (now Hampton University, Virginia). Like its better-known counterpart, the Port Royal Experiment, the Hampton Institute was born of Union generals' decision to treat any former slaves who reached Union lines as "contraband of war," not to be returned to their former masters. This decision led well-meaning Northern Whites in September 1861 to begin holding classes outside Union-held Fort Monroe, Virginia, in order to provide rudimentary education to newly free Blacks. These classes became an official "normal school" where arithmetic, geography, grammar, reading, and writing, as well as housekeeping skills, were taught beginning in 1863, and eventually grew into the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute and then into Hampton University — one of the oldest historically Black colleges of the United States. By 1872 the Institute was sufficiently well known to attract the attention of Booker T. Washington (1856-1915; alumnus 1875), and by 1874 its success merited the publication of a book authored by two of its teachers, with an added section titled "Cabin and Plantation Songs, as Sung by the Hampton Students," arranged by the Institute's music director, Thomas P. Fenner.5 This appendix included (p. 174) a four-part harmonized setting of "Peter, Go Ring dem Bells" — a setting whose melody is identical to Price's, and whose words and harmonies are similar. After noting in a preface to this section that his purpose was the "preservation" "this music of bondage," whose existence many former slaves despised as "a vestige of slavery," Fenner provides the music of "Peter, Go Ring dem Bells" with this introductory note:

A secret prayer-meeting song, sung by Thomas Vess, a blacksmith and a slave. He especially sang it when any one confessed religion. Thomas Vess was a man whose heart was given to these songs, for in the neighborhood where he lived, it seemed like a prayer-meeting did not go on well without him. I have long since learned wherever he was known what happiness he got from them. — J. M. Waddy
Like many other spirituals, "Peter, Go Ring dem Bells" offered a rich web of allusions to other melodies and double-meanings. The former are most obvious in the central "I heard from heaven today" section (mm. 23-30), whose first two phrases resemble those of the spiritual "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray." The textual double-meanings are obvious in the "I wonder where…" phrases (mm. 14-21): although these phrases' references to separation might be read as after-death meditations, for former slaves and their descendants they were certainly a bitter allusion to chattel slavery's heartless and incessant separation of family and friends by selling relatives to other owners. Indeed, this, more than the after-death reading, fits with the lyrics' wondering where those departed ones have gone — especially since spirituals typically evoke heaven (up) to symbolize the North: hearing from heaven today would have been understood as receiving word about someone who went north.
Price herself — long an observer to the Great Migration and eventually a participant in it — surely identified with these textual suggestions as well as the music. The defining and pervasive features of her setting are its overriding sentiment of joy and its evocation of ringing bells throughout.
— John Michael Cooper

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