Florence Price Revival Points To Musical Trove With Stature Of Legacy

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Florence Price, shown circa 1945, composed an enormous amount of music, which is starting to enter the mainstream repertoire.

PERSPECTIVE — As recently as five years ago, virtually no one aside from a sprinkling of classical-music insiders had heard of Florence Price, a once-prominent African-American composer who was all but forgotten after her death in 1953.

But now her music is seemingly everywhere. While other Black composers like William Grant Still and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson are getting increased attention since the rise of the Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd in 2020, none has enjoyed the kind of comeback that Price’ music has seen.

Indeed, Michael Cooper, professor of music at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX, describes her sudden rise as the biggest sustained revival of public, artistic, and scholarly interest in a composer since the renewed attention to Gustav Mahler in the mid-20th century. “It looks like she is gaining a presence that is destined to stay,” he said, “and that is a wonderful thing.”

One of the next significant series of performances of Price’s music will come May 5-7, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presents her Symphony No. 3 in C minor (1938-40) with music director Riccardo Muti on the podium. The work was originally programmed for April 2020 but had to be postponed because of the Covid-19 shutdown. “We feel a commitment to her because she was a Chicagoan, after all, for most of her adult life,” said Phillip Huscher, the Chicago Symphony’s program annotator. “There is other music that orchestras could and should play, so we will be doing more.”

The Chicago Symphony became the first major orchestra to present a work by an African-American woman when it performed Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor in 1933 in conjunction with the World’s Fair held in the city that year. It was an important milestone both for her and the classical-music world in general. “When she stood on the stage that night — a Black woman composer receiving, as far we can tell, tumultuous applause for that First Symphony — that was like nothing anyone had ever seen before,” Huscher said.

Other evidence of Price’s extraordinary recent renaissance can be found across the classical-music landscape and beyond. Here are some significant examples:

  • Price was featured in an April 15 installment of the PBS documentary mini-series, Great Performances: Now Hear This, with Scott Yoo, artistic director and chief conductor of the Mexico City Philharmonic. The segment, titled Florence Price and the American Migration, traces the composer’s journey from her home state of Arkansas to Chicago, where she spent most of her adult life, and explores many of her musical influences.
  • As part of its Uncovered series, which focuses on the chamber works of historically significant Black composers, the Catalyst Quartet released a recording in February on Azica devoted to all of Price’s known works that incorporate a string quartet. Four of the six had never been recorded. The album comprises four compositions for string quartet, including two of her folk-based works for the form, which have such similar titles that they have sometimes been thought to be the same work, and the String Quartet in A minor (1935). “It’s an amazing piece,” Cooper said of the latter. “It’s a composition that would easily hold its own in the canon of string quartets.” Rounding out the release are two piano quintets with keyboard soloist Michelle Cann, who, like the Catalyst, has championed Price’s music.

Aside from her studies at the New England Conservatory of Music and a brief teaching stint in Atlanta, Price spent her childhood and early adulthood in Little Rock, Ark., during a post-Reconstruction time when it was known as the “Negro Paradise.” But she migrated north in the late 1920s to escape the rising racial violence in the once-peaceful city. She went on to become a major figure in the Black cultural scene of Chicago, producing her most important works there in the 1930s and 1940s, but faced huge roadblocks in getting broader recognition because of the double-whammy of gender and racial prejudice. “There were hundreds of doors that needed to open before we got to the place we are today, where music by Black women is being performed regularly,” Huscher said.

The Chicago Symphony became the first major orchestra to present a work by an African-American woman when it performed Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor in 1933.

Another obstacle to a revival of Price’s music was the large number of lost and unknown works, which made a comprehensive assessment of her music impossible. “We didn’t know the extent of her catalog until 2009,” said Karla Donehew Pérez, a violinist in the Catalyst Quartet. That year, a trove of the composer’s manuscripts was found in St. Anne, Ill., in the attic of what had once been her summer house, a major discovery that laid the groundwork for composer’s rise since.

Cooper’s inventory of her compositions now stands at 465, and he believes more will be added to the list as additional works are uncovered in American and European caches. He points to one such recent rediscovery — Price’s first orchestral choral work, Song of Hope (1930). The piece was not mentioned in Price’s biography or any other scholarly publications and just received its first performance in March. “It has simply, unaccountably flown beneath the radar,” Cooper said. 

It has also not helped Price’s cause that most of her music was never published during her lifetime. It was only in November 2018 that G. Schirmer announced it had acquired the publishing rights to her work, and the company has published just 113 of her works so far. “That leaves a lot of work still undone,” Cooper said. He edited 70 of those pieces, but another 90 works that he has edited have yet to be published. He is concerned that the unavailability of so many of the composer’s works could curtail and even derail what he calls the “Price movement” going forward. “What we need to have is a more holistic view of her as a composer,” he said, “and I think people actually want that. But it’s easier said than done.”

Frederick Stock conducted the Chicago Symphony in Price’s Symphony No. 1 in 1933. (Photo by Jun Fujita in the Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association)

Some of the sudden attention to Price’s music can be traced to the classical world’s accelerating embrace of diversity and inclusion, which has meant significantly enhanced programming of works by women and composers of color. One organization that has taken this mission seriously is the Philadelphia Orchestra, according to Matías Tarnopolsky, the ensemble’s president and chief executive officer. “For decades and decades,” he said, “there were many composers and performers who were not heard on the stages of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and we felt a very important responsibility to change, especially in light of the murder of George Floyd, but our process had begun before that, too.”

Still, the musicians and ensembles who have zeroed in on Price make it clear that their embrace of her music is not some empty act of affirmative action. They believe her music is worth it. “Florence Price is that good,” Cooper said. He notes that most of her pieces were written within a 27-year span from 1925 through 1952, and some of those are quite large and complex. “That is a musical imagination of incredible fertility and strength and staying power,” Cooper said. “It just kept coming. And it’s not as if the music she was creating was anything that would ever have had to earn a place in the musical world if she were white and a man. But she was neither of those two things, and that doomed it to obscurity.”

Nézet-Séguin developed an interest in Price’s music in 2011, and the Philadelphia Orchestra has made what Tarnopolsky describes as a “deep commitment” to it since. Besides digital performances and concerts in its home hall, the orchestra has taken Price’s works on tour, including a performance of Symphony No. 1 at Carnegie Hall in February. “Not only does it deserved to be played,” Tarnopolsky said, “but it also deserves to be played on the greatest stages of the world.”

Riccardo Muti will lead the Chicago Symphony in Price’s Symphony No. 3 May 5-7 at Orchestra Hall. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)