Essay by Abigail Schmidt
We don’t know much about L. Viola Kinney. She was born in Sedalia, Missouri in ca. 1890. She studied choral music and harmony at Western University in Kansas. She then married and returned to her hometown, where she became a music teacher at a segregated Sedalia High School.
Unfortunately, only one composition by her has been found: a piano song called “Mother’s Sacrifice”. In 1908, when Kinney was just 18, she won a prize for it in the Inter-State Literary Society Original Music Contest. In 1909, it was published in Kansas; a copy now lies in the Library of Congress. Pianist Maria Corley included a beautiful rendition of the piece on her album Soulscapes: Piano Music By African American Women. This recording captures the tenderness and sentimentality that make Kinney’s song so moving.
“Mother’s Sacrifice” contains two major themes (which I’ll call “A” and “C”) both of which are built around a one-measure pattern. Also, both themes, and indeed the entire piece, explore emphasizing predominant harmonies. The thematic sections are connected by a transitional “B” section, which utilizes a half step sequence to move quickly across the harmonic space. I’ll dig into all this in more detail as we go. But first, I’ll define the overall form of the piece as ABCBA’, with a short introduction and conclusion.
The introduction is only six measures long, but it contains one of my favorite moments in the entire piece. After establishing the primary key of F Major with a strong I-V motion, the dominant resolves to a surprising ♭VI. The right hand then gently drifts down, leading us back to the tonic.
Figure 1: Measures 1-4
These first four measures set up the song’s fixation on using predominant chords as the climax of a given phrase. It is perhaps more conventional for the most “exciting” moment of a phrase to be centered on the dominant harmony, which provides the tension of the need to resolve to the tonic. However, in “Mother’s Sacrifice”, predominant chords like ♭VI are often used—instead of more dissonant options—to underscore melodic focal points.
The first theme reinforces this focus on predominant harmony. The A section fits (very) roughly into the structure of a double period. The first 8-bar period ends on a half cadence, and the second 7-bar period ends on a perfect authentic cadence. What is unconventional, however, is that the antecedents within both periods end not with a half cadence, but with IV.
Figure 2: A Section (mm. 7-21)
IV also corresponds with a break in the rhythmic pattern of the melody. In the right hand, the first three measures of the theme consist only of quarter notes. The inclusion of triplets provides some rhythmic interest to accompany the harmonic interest of the predominant.
As I mentioned above, the B section of “Mother’s Sacrifice” is modulatory and transitional, although it utilizes a melodic and rhythmic pattern of its own. The section can be broken into five two-measure units, each with the same melodic shape.
Figure 3: The basic two-measure unit of the B section (mm.25-26)
These units—which each contain a pair of chords— are organized into a sequence (repeated twice) that moves through the harmonic space by half steps. The first chord in each pair is a half step (or occasionally, toward the end of the sequence, a whole step) above the first chord of the previous pair; the second chord is a fifth below the first chord (consequently, the second chords of each pair are also related by a half step). The constant stream of eighth notes in the right hand adds to the transitional, unstable feeling of this section. I’ve mapped out a skeleton of the harmony in the B section below. (One note: at the end of the first staff, I labeled the transition from E Major to G Major with “PR”. This is a reference to the Neo-Riemannian transformations “parallel” and “relative”).
Figure 4: Sequences in the B Section (mm. 25-50)
As seen in the diagram above, the second iteration of the B section sequence leads us to the key of G Minor, in which the second theme, “C” is written. This eight-measure theme is repeated twice. It’s somewhat similar to the first theme in that is based around a one-measure pattern. It also harmonizes the focal point/highest note of the melody with a predominant chord—in this case, VI.
After two repetitions, the C theme is altered and transposed into the key of E-flat Major, which is VI (like we saw above) in the key of G Minor. This time, the borrowed chord III acts as the predominant chord. Below is a comparison of the two iterations of the C theme.
Figure 5: Themes in the C Section (mm. 50-74)
A’ and Conclusion
The C Section is followed by a repeat of the B section that is similar enough to the first iteration that I don’t find it necessary to dive into here. The main thing worth noting is that the second repetition of the half-step sequence lands in C Major, where it dwells for a few measures and becomes the active dominant to lead us back into the home key of F Major.
Then comes A’, which consists of two more repetitions of the theme from the A section, each with a little twist. The first iteration is ornamented; the second drops the ornaments and maintains the same rhythm as the original A theme, only this time the melody is split between the right an left hands.
Finally, at the end of A’, we get a 4-measure conclusion. Here, the tonic is prolonged by alternating with Minor IV in second inversion, before settling on a nice F Major triad.
It’s difficult to make tangible the feelings of sentimentality and warmth that “Mother’s Sacrifice” evokes. But the focus on predominant harmony, which lacks the tense pull of the leading tone, definitely helps lend the piece its gentle tone. In addition, the overall form brings it a sense of comfort. The A sections, in the home key of F Major, bookend the more tonally unstable B and C sections. As a result, landing back in F Major in the last section of the song feels like returning home after a long journey.
All score excerpts are thanks to Hildegard Publishing Company’s Black Female Composers: A Century of Piano Music. The edition of “Mother’s Sacrifice” that appears in this collection was edited by Helen Walker-Hill. You can buy a copy here.