ed. John Michael Cooper

  • Piano
  • 3 min

Programme Note

Florence Price published her piano arrangement of Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen with Theodore Presser & Co. (Philadelphia) in 1938. The tune is one of the best-known of the ancestral melodies that inspired many of Price's works. It was first published in 1867 in the anthology Slave Songs of the United States with the title and text incipit "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Had." The editor of this collection, William Frances Allen, states that he heard the song in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865, but also reports that the song had been heard by Lt. Col. Lee Apthorp — a music teacher, alumnus of Amherst College, and first captain and then lieutenant of the 34th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops — who asked the assembled former slaves to sing for him after the Union troops' capture of a plantation of the Sea Islands (i.e., during the Civil War): "Immediately an old woman on the outskirts of the meeting began ‘Nobody knows the trouble I've had,' and the whole audience joined in." Allen continues: "The General was so affected by the plaintive words and melody, that he found himself melting into tears and quite unable to maintain his official sternness." The reasons for this emotional power are obvious, for indeed the pain and suffering inflicted by slavery were, as James H. Cone has pointed out, "too deep for words" — and those afflictions, perpetuated by the Black Codes and the horrific tide of lynchings that swept the United States in the early twentieth century, were very much alive and current when Price composed her setting in the 1930s (as they are today). For Price, a devout Christian, the paradox of the offer of redemption from a Cross made of the same trees that were also the ultimate symbols of the lynching scourge that plagued African Americans would have been a profoundly emotional matter.

Price invested extra effort in revising her arrangement of Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen (as the tune was better known by the 1930s). She revised the original version of her arrangement twice — once in the fuchsia pencil that she often used for corrections, and once with pen and ink. These changes centered primarily on the second statement of the first verse (mm. 7-14 of Version A) and the ending. All versions begin with a chordal introduction, and this is followed first by a statement of the tune in the soprano register with simple accompaniment, and then by a restatement an octave higher. A pianistic interlude in D minor then leads to a restatement of the first verse in the tenor/baritone register, interwoven among countermelodies in the other registers, and the arrangement closes quietly. The result is an arrangement that, while neither long nor technically challenging, makes the most of the "plaintive words and melody" that had occasioned Apthorp's tears in the 1860s when he heard the newly liberated slaves join together in song.

— John Michael Cooper