Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Music of Florence Price

Florence Price
The treasures of the past may seem lost, but often enough, they are merely forgotten, or hidden. Such is the case with the music of Florence Price (1887-1953), an African-American composer whose work has never entered the mainstream canon, but which was very much in the current of the classical music of her time. In 1933, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performer her "Symphony in E," making her black woman to have her work performed by a US symphony orchestra. Yet, as Micaela Baranello reminds readers in today's New York Times, Price probably never receive a reply to her repeated requests for consideration from Serge Koussevitzky, the famous conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and champion of new music, who commissioned or premiered works by the likes of Alexander Scriabin, Maurice Ravel, Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, Albert Roussel, Bela Bártok, and Leonard Bernstein, just to name a few.

All were white men; Price did not register on Koussevitzky's radar, nor on that of many other major conductors. Baranello states, however, that she was well known among the major African American intellectuals of her era, corresponding with W. E. B. DuBois, among others. She also set poems by Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar to music. Price's background, in fact, primed her for success as a member of DuBois's "Talented 10th." Born the daughter of a prominent dentist in Little Rock, Arkansas, she showed musical talent early on, and enrolled in the New England Conservatory at the age of 14. Because of the widespread racism of that era, she passed as non-black person, claiming that she was from Pueblo, Mexico, and studied with the head of the NEC, the famed composer George W. Chadwick.

Yet numerous struggles marked her life from this point forward. Eventually she settled in Chicago, where she continued her studies in music and other disciplines at a number of institutions, including the University of Chicago and the Chicago College of Music (now a division of Roosevelt University), and, after a divorce, raised her two daughters as a single mother and worked as an organist for silent movies and under a pseudonym, wrote advertising jingles for radio. In addition to pieces she composed on her own, she also collaborated frequently with her former student, fellow composer and pianist, and frequent collaborator Margaret Bonds. It was a first prize win and public recognition for her Symphony in E in the 1932 Wanamaker Foundation Awards that led to conductor Frederick Stock's premiere the subsequent year of her orchestral piece.

Though Price's music did receive performances during her lifetime, including Marion Anderson's delivery, at her landmark 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, of Price's arrangement of spiritual "My Soul's Been Anchored in De Lord," in the years after her death from a stroke, a good deal of her work was thought to have been lost. In 2009, as critic Alex Ross relates in his recent New Yorker discussion of Price's life and work, homeowners Vicki and Darrell Gatwood found a cache of her manuscripts in what was her former summer house, in St. Anne, Illinois, outside Chicago. This has led to a mini-resurgence in interest in Price's work, including new recordings and performances, among them Janacek Philharmonic's  premiere recording of her First Violin Concerto, with University of Arkansas professor and violinist Er-Gene Kahng as soloist.

Price's oeuvre draws from a number of aesthetic springs, chief among black spiritual and vernacular music traditions, as well as American and European early 20th century Modernism. Her Second Violin Concerto "reflects the richly chromatic language of [American] composers like William Schuman and Roy Harris," and, as musicologist Douglas Shadle recently learned, she even studied with Harris briefly in 1940. To quote Baranello:
Marquese Carter, a doctoral student at Indiana University who specializes in Price’s work, said in an interview that she “uses the organizing material of spirituals. You may not hear direct quotation, but you will hear playing around with pentatonicism, playing around with call and response, some of these organizing principles that African-American scholars like Amiri Baraka have pointed out as indicative of black musical discourse.”

“Florence Price is a representation in music of what it means to be a black artist living within a white canon and trying to work within the classical realm,” Mr. Carter added. “How do we, through that, create a sound that sounds our culture, sounds our experience, sounds our embodied lives?” 
“Everything she was doing was musically mainstream but at the same time idiosyncratic,” he said. “Her music has kind of a luminous quality that strikes me as her own. Our understanding of American modernism of the 1930s and 1940s is not complete without Price’s contribution.”

Price's compositions are numerous, and despite recent interest, the question remains: who will perform, let alone premiere, many of these works? Baranello argues, and I agree, that if US symphony orchestras are serious about diversifying not just their audiences but their repertoires, composers like Price and Bonds--and María Teresa Carreño García, William Grant Still, R. N. Dett, Adolphus Hailstork, Anthony Davis, Tania León, and many others--offer a direct and corrective option. According to Baranello, the Fort Smith Symphony plans to record all four of her symphonies for Naxos, but far more orchestras need to step up, now and in the future. Yesterday, NPR featured Price's Violin Concerto No. 2 on its "Songs We Love" page.

Here are YouTube links to Florence Price's music:

Excerpts from Florence Price, Violin Concerto No. 2 (1952), dedicated to Minnie Cedargreen Jernberg, excerpts with the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra, Er-Gene Kahng, violin, Ryan Cockerham, conductor

Karen Walwyn, piano, New Black Music Repertory Ensemble, Leslie B. Dunner, conductor, from Albany TROY1295

New Black Repertory Ensemble, Leslie B. Dunner, conductor

Night by Florence Price, Amy Petrongelli, soprano, Blair Salter, piano, Kerrytown Concert House, Ann Arbor, MI

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