Chadwick-Trained, Dvořák-Inspired, Price Rises Again

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The music of Florence B. Price is enjoying renewed interest. She was a prolific composer, born in Little Rock, Ark., and active professionally in Chicago in the mid-20th century. (Photo, University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections)

Florence Beatrice Price: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4. Fort Smith Symphony/John Jeter. Naxos 8.559827. Total Time: 69:04.

DIGITAL REVIEW – It was in 1932 that Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony gave the premiere of Florence Beatrice Price’s Symphony No. 1, the first time a major American orchestra had played a piece written by an African-American woman. Price (1887-1953) was born in Little Rock, Ark., but moved to Chicago in 1927. Most of her music is all but unknown today, but this new recording should go far in making amends.

The Naxos CD is the first recording of Price’s Fourth Symphony.

The family had enough money to send Florence to the New England Conservatory, where she majored in piano and organ. Among her teachers was George Whitefield Chadwick. After graduation she returned to Arkansas where she made a living as a music teacher.

Florence Price married the attorney Thomas J. Price in 1912 and they had two daughters. It appeared that Price was destined to live out her life in Little Rock as a homemaker and part-time music teacher. That all changed with an increase in racial conflict during the 1920s. Florence was refused admission to the all-white Arkansas Music Teacher’s Association and found herself unemployed. The family decided to try to improve its prospects by moving to Chicago in 1927 where Price took further musical studies and soon found herself involved in the city’s vibrant musical life. She found teaching work, and G. Schirmer and McKinley published some of her songs and piano pieces. Under the pseudonym Vee Jay she even managed to publish some popular songs and make some good money doing it.

Price’s Symphony No. 1 was premiered in 1933. (Chicago Symphony Archives)

Price wrote over 300 compositions, and some of them were widely performed. Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price became interested in her music and often sang some of her arrangements of spirituals. More recently baritone Thomas Hampson recorded some of her songs (Cedille 90000180). Her orchestral music, while still not widely known, has been played by some major conductors including Barbirolli and Goossens.

Price’s Symphony No. 1 was premiered June 15, 1933, during Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition. It was part of a concert titled “The Negro in Music” and also included works by Harry T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and John Alden Carpenter.

The Symphony No. 1 is the better piece on this CD, with a striking recurring brass chorale forming the basis of the slow movement and a lively scherzo titled “Juba Dance” based on a dance form which can be traced back to the slave era on Southern plantations. The music is basically conservative for its time – no indication Price was influenced by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, or Copland, or even Debussy.

But the “Juba Dance” does feature a slide whistle, an instrument occasionally used in popular music or jazz at the time, but rarely in classical music. For the record, Ravel and Hindemith used the instrument for its novelty effect. While the style of the symphony owes something to Dvořák and Chadwick, Price clearly has something to say that is unique and memorable.

Price’s Symphony No. 1 was previously recorded on the Albany label.

This is not the first recording of Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1. That honor goes to Leslie B. Dunner and the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble who recorded the piece in 2011 (Albany Records TROY 1295). While that recording is quite good, the new one is better. The Fort Smith Symphony has a larger string section, and under John Jeter it plays with verve and intensity.

The Symphony No. 4 of 1945 was never published and often seems labored rather than inspired. But like the Symphony No. 1 it has a “Juba Dance” movement. There is no slide whistle this time around, but the rhythms are infectious. As far as is known, Price composed four symphonies, but apart from a few bars the Symphony No. 2  has not survived.

While Price was trained in a predominantly white musical world, she was acutely conscious of her race and its rich musical heritage. Like other black composers, she was inspired by the counsel of Dvorák, who came to America in 1892 to head up the National Conservatory in New York. Dvořák soon realized that American composers wrote music that was essentially imitation European; they seemed unaware there was plenty of home-grown music that could provide raw material for a distinctively American music. Dvořák famously didn’t mince words:

“The future of this country must be founded upon what are called Negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition developed in the United States.”

Dvořák spoke these words at a time when segregation was a fact of life and there was little respect for the African-American cultural heritage. He showed the way himself with his New World Symphony, which does indeed draw on indigenous sources. Price and others got the message,  eagerly embracing the slave songs and spirituals they knew so well from their ancestors and their churches.

Fort Smith is a town of only 88,000 people on the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma, but it has a first-class regional per service orchestra. The Fort Smith Symphony plays brilliantly under its long-time music director John Jeter and the recording quality is excellent.

Riccardo Muti, the present music director of the Chicago Symphony, has taken a recent interest in the music of Florence Price, and has programmed her Symphony No. 3 for concerts April 24-26, 2020. The work was commissioned by the WPA’s Federal Music Project during the Great Depression in the 1930s. A recording was made in 2001 by the Women’s Philharmonic under Apo Hsu (Koch International Classics 7518), but a new CSO/Muti version would be most welcome.

Also of special note on this website: John Lambert drew our attention to the music of Florence Price on the occasion of the performance of her rediscovered piano concerto in North Carolina.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org) and www.myscena.org.