By Ricky O’Bannon
Throughout February, we will highlight the work of one of the often under-celebrated African-American contributors to the history of classical music.
As an American composer in the early 20th century, Florence Price had the double disadvantage of being both African-American and a woman.
Either of those distinctions would have been enough to not have been performed in America in the 1930s, but Price composed more than 300 works and earned a champion in Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Frederick Stock. Price’s compositions offer a charming and authentic blend of jazz, spirituals, African-American church music and European art music.
Born in Little Rock, Ark., in 1887 to a mixed-race family, Price was a talented pianist from a young age. She enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music at 14, where she studied composition and graduated in 1907. She married a prominent civil rights attorney and returned to Little Rock, but racial violence — including a lynching in 1927 — caused her family to move to Chicago. In 1932, Price’s Symphony in E Minor won a prize, leading to its premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — the first composition by a black woman to be performed by a major orchestra.
Symphony in E Minor (1932)
Price’s Symphony in E Minor is comparable to William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony that predated it by two years. Both Still and Price sought to use the structure of a traditional European symphony with the sounds of folk and popular African music. In the first movement, Price uses the traditional sonata structure, but the melodies she puts through their formalized symphonic paces are spirituals, folk song and church music. The deeply religious Price again uses a hymn tune in the second movement.
The third dance movement (included left) shows just how approachable and based in vernacular Price’s compositions are. The dance is the Juba dance or hambone, which was a dance based in West Africa that was imported by African slaves to American plantations and could be performed at gatherings where instruments like drums (for fear of transmitted secret messages) were forbidden.
Concerto in One Movement (1933)
After Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Frederick Stock performed Price’s symphony, he encouraged her to write a piano concerto. Stock conducted the resulting Concerto in One Movement at the 1933 Chicago World Fair, but the concerto was rarely performed again, and a large part of the orchestral score went missing around 1940. Drew University professor Trevor Weston was commissioned by the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago to research and reconstruct the orchestral parts for Price’s concerto in 2011, which has made it available for recent performances and recordings.
The concerto itself is a great insight into Price’s composition style, that balances a traditional European classical language with folk and popular music — such as an opening that features call and response —a staple in African-American music — and later moments that sound like Rachmaninoff trying out a stride piano style.
Mississippi River Suite (1934)
The Mississippi River Suite is a 30-minute tone poem that might be best understood through the model of Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau” from Má vlast. “The Moldau” followed the progression of the Moldau River through the Czech countryside and twisted and turned musically based on the scenes the river flowed past.
Similarly Price follows the Mississippi River in her suite as the water builds from a trickle to a torrent, passes through Native American lands and finally arrives in the lands of southern spirituals and New Orleans jazz. Solo instrument voices play quotations of “Get Down, Moses” or “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” that fade in and out of listening range as if on the banks of the shore.