Sounds Heard: Florence B. Price—Concerto in One Movement; Symphony in E Minor
conducted by Leslie B. Dunner
Since yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I thought it was an appropriate day to listen almost exclusively to music by African-American classical music composers—a group of composers who all too often get excluded from the pantheon of our nation’s most significant creative artists even at a time when we make extremely valiant attempts to celebrate diversity. While a handful of African-American composers alive now have the opportunity to hear their music performed by orchestras and other large-scale enterprises around the country and the past giants of jazz, blues, and other genres are rightfully revered (some even on postage stamps), pioneers like William Grant Still (1895-1978), R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), Ulysses Kay (1917-1995), and many others have yet to enter the standard repertoire of concert halls. Probing deep into the history of American music, an intrepid musicologist will discover that long before Jerome Kern attempted to elevate the Broadway musical to the level of opera with his 1927 Show Boat (the plot of which is curiously about miscegenation) and George Gershwin attempted to bring Broadway sensibilities to opera with his 1935 Porgy and Bess (the plot of which focuses on African Americans), the African-American “king of ragtime” Scott Joplin created an opera that did both—Treemonisha—in 1911. Long before Charles Ives and Henry Cowell exploited the sonorities of tone clusters in their piano music, a blind composer-pianist raised as a slave named Thomas Wiggins (a.k.a. “Blind Tom” Bethune) was tossing out tone clusters in a tone poem about the then-occurring American Civil War Battle of Manasses as far back as 1862 (when he was 12-years old)!
And then there’s Florence Beatrice Smith Price. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887, she was admitted to the New England Conservatory as a keyboardist (performing on both piano and organ) at the age of 14 and wound up studying composition with George Chadwick and Frederick Converse, two of the leading American symphonic composers at the dawn of the 20th century. She returned to Arkansas and, in 1912, married a prominent Harvard-trained African-American lawyer Thomas J. Price, who represented Black defendants arrested following the 1919 Arkansas race riots and was a founding member of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP. But following a gruesome lynching, they and their two children relocated to Chicago in 1927 where she remained for the rest of her life. While this was a tragedy for the people of Arkansas, it was a mitzvah to Florence Price whose music got to the attention of, among others, the prominent Chicago composer Leo Sowerby with whom she studied and who became a staunch advocate. In Chicago, she flourished as a composer, creating four symphonies, three piano concertos, and a violin concerto, plus numerous compositions for solo instruments, chamber ensembles, and choruses. By the time of her death in 1953, she had completed over 300 pieces of music, many of which received prominent performances—her Symphony in E Minor (her first), which Frederick Stock led the Chicago Symphony in the premiere of in 1933, was the very first symphony by a an African-American woman ever performed by a major symphony orchestra in the United States and remains one of the few to this day. Yet after her death, performances waned and, aside from a few of her spiritual arrangements being championed by Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price (no relation) who sang one at the White House in 1978, the only recording devoted exclusively to her music is a now out-of-print Women’s Philharmonic disc released in 2001 by Koch International Classics (which is now owned by E1 Entertainment and which they ought to reissue). That disc, which should have made listeners eager to hear more of her music, featured performances of three of her orchestral works—the expansive Mississippi River Suite, her formidable Symphony No. 3 in C Minor from 1940, and a mysterious shorter piece called The Oak which was discovered in the Eastman School of Music’s Sibley Music Library and might have never been performed during her lifetime.
The most recent attempt to right the wrong of the current neglect of Florence Price’s music is the latest installment in an ongoing series of CDs entitled “Recorded Music of the African Diaspora” featuring the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble and released by Albany Records under the auspices of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago. Like its aforementioned Women’s Philharmonic forebear, the latest addition to the Florence Price discography is also the result of some intrepid musical archaeology. The disc opens with Price’s Concerto in One Movement, a work which premiered in Chicago in 1934 with the composer as soloist and which was subsequently performed by another early 20th century African-American female composer-pianist Margaret Bonds, who later became a close friend of and frequent collaborator with Langston Hughes. Yet the original orchestral score for this composition is lost; all that has survived are three manuscripts (all in the composer’s hand): a solo piano version, a three-piano arrangement, and a two-piano arrangement containing some marginal notes about instrumentation (although it is not known if these were written by her before or after the completion of the original orchestration). The Center for Black Music Research commissioned composer Trevor Weston to reconstruct an authoritative orchestration from the surviving materials, and this work received its premiere on February 17, 2011, with pianist Karen Walwyn and the New Black Repertory Ensemble conducted by Leslie B. Dunner; the same forces appear on the present recording. The Concerto, in its current guise, is an extremely exciting and approachable work. Although it is in one movement, as the title makes clear, the Concerto is parsed in three clearly discernible sections. The opening Moderato section echoes the sound world of spirituals which were so important to Price’s musical sensibilities. The Adagio section, in which the rest of the orchestra is mostly silent, contains some extraordinary piano writing which is the most overtly jazz-tinged music of Price’s yet to be recorded. The concluding Allegretto is inspired by the Juba, an antebellum folk dance which also inspired the third movement of Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, as well as her very first Symphony in E Minor. The performance is crystalline, with Walwyn and the NBRE often sounding like a period-instrument outfit tackling one of Mozart’s fortepiano concertos.
The rest of the disc is devoted to that historic first Symphony in E Minor, a massive nearly 40-minute work. She originally intended to subtitle the work “Negro Symphony,” which immediately begs comparison to William Grant Still’s earlier Afro American Symphony from 1930 and William Levi Dawson’s 1934 Negro Folk Symphony which postdates it. But even without the verbal acknowledgement in its title, the work’s saturation with spiritual-like melodies belies its intent. Another symphony which casts a huge shadow on Price’s work is Dvorak’s 1893 New World Symphony which also uses spirituals, so much so in the first movement of Price’s symphony that her piece occasionally feels like something of a doppelganger of that celebrated work. But considering that Dvorak was borrowing his material, it is perhaps fitting that someone from the community from which it was borrowed should reclaim it for similar symphonic ends. Of course what is somewhat problematic is that Price was reclaiming this material a full four decades later, making her music sound something like a throwback to an earlier era of American symphonic music—the era in which a generation of composers responded to Dvorak’s advice to create a viable American symphonic music using native materials. This is a claim that certainly cannot be made of Price’s Concerto in One Movement, a work whose incorporation of jazz harmonies make it as up-to-date as contemporaneous attempts to do so by composers as diverse as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, George Antheil, and James P. Johnston—a great African-American composer now principally remembered only in the jazz community for his exciting stride piano recordings. But thankfully the shadow of Dvorak that hovers over Price’s first movement is less obvious in the symphony’s remaining three movements: the second movement contains some assured brass writing (would that Price had composed for symphonic winds, maybe there’s a piece lurking somewhere in someone’s archives); and the fourth contains some exciting interplay between the strings and the woodwinds—though admittedly it too sounds like music from an earlier era. My favorite part of the piece is the Juba-inspired third movement, a rondo which includes orchestral imitations of folk fiddling and banjo picking and features a slide whistle which provides a few welcome moments of true musical weirdness. Once again the performance and sound quality of the recording are outstanding.
Now to find more of Florence Price’s music! In his keynote speech to the 2012 Chamber Music America conference on January 13, 2012, Aaron Dworkin, the founder and president of the Sphinx Organization (which advocates for a greater role for Black and Latino musicians in classical music) opined that less than one percent of music performed by American orchestras is by Black or Latino composers and that he only learned that such composers ever existed when he got to college. In the list of names he cited who became heroes to him as an adult (Still, Dawson, etc.), Price was conspicuously absent. Women composers have suffered similar neglect at the hands of orchestra music programmers. Florence Price is part of two underserved demographics in our repertoire. But if the music didn’t merit rediscovery, it would just have curiosity value. The fact that she created at least a handful of worthy repertoire candidates (and who knows what else is lying around in an archive somewhere)—I treasure the Mississippi River Suite and the Concerto in One Movement (which now, thanks to Trevor Weston’s re-orchestration, can re-enter the canon)—means that attention must be paid.