Florence Price – Symphony No. 1 in E minor

Two of Florence Price's Violin Concertos, considered lost for decades, have been newly recorded.

“First there was a feeling of awe as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra…swung in to the beautiful, harmonious strains of a composition by a Race woman. And when, after the number was completed, the large auditorium, filled to the brim with music lovers of all races, rang out in applause for the composer and the orchestral rendition, it seemed that the evening could hold no greater thrills.” in applause for the composer and the orchestral rendition, it seemed that the evening could hold no greater thrills,”

Robert Abbot, Chicago Defender, June 1933

The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair theme, “A Century of Progress,” was rife with irony. America was in the nadir of the Great Depression and the heart of Jim Crow. 15 million Americans were unemployed, and 50 years of violence and disenfranchisement had dismantled much of the progress made by black Americans during reconstruction. The scenes of scientific and democratic progress seen in the Fair’s exhibitions sought to reassure Chicagoans of a prosperous future in a progressive city. The Chicago Urban League and De Saible Memorial Society worked strategically to ensure that the Fair would provide both employment opportunities for black residents and representations of their history – the most notable being an exhibit on Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Founder of Chicago and trader of African descent. In this context, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented a program of black composers, including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Harry Burleigh, Roland Hayes, Margaret Bonds and Florence Price.

The June 15 premier of Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor inspired praise in white and black press alike. The Chicago Daily News, Chicago Herald & Examiner, Music News and Chicago Defender all lauded the work, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt highlighted the concert in her national newspaper column, “My Day.” A critic for the Chicago Daily Tribune wrote, “Not since the eighties [1880s] has there been such a response to [a] summer night musical program.” Yet despite its reception, the symphony was quickly segregated from the standard repertory. Price advocated for her compositions with little success, and the reasons were clear. In July 1943, Price wrote to Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony.

My dear Koussevitzky,

To begin with I have two handicaps – those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.

Knowing the worst, then, would you be good enough to hold in check the possible inclination to regard a woman’s composition as long on emotionalism but short on virility and thought content; – until you have examined some of my work?

As to the handicap of race, may I relieve you by saying that I neither expect nor ask any concession on that score. I should like to be judged on merit alone – the great trouble having been to get conductors, who know nothing of my work…to even consent to examine a score…

Following her death in 1953, Americans forgot about Price’s work even as it gained recognition in Canada and Europe. Only recently has public interest accelerated in the U.S.. American orchestras are recording her works, critical editions of the first and third symphonies were created in 2008 by musicologists Rae Linda Brown and Wayne Shirley, and in 2009 a newly-discovered collection of manuscripts caught the attention of media outlets across the nation. In 2019, the first symphony was performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburg Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra and 35 other orchestras domestically and abroad.

The tones and rhythms that rise from Price’s pen speak to both the musical milieu of 1930s America and the prismatic complexities of Price’s compositional voice. Influences can be drawn, especially from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Antonin Dvořák, whose works also drew from the music of black and indigenous Americans. Yet as Rae Linda Brown suggests, Price’s use of such materials reflects a “Racial pride [that] was quintessential to the Harlem Renaissance and the black nationalist movement in music during that era.” The kaleidoscopic sound world of her first symphony is built with songful melodies, antebellum dances, call-and-response hymns, extensive use of African drums, whooping, whistling, stomping and clapping. Price doesn’t simply use these elements as compositional fodder or abstract representations of musical tradition. She recreates and celebrates community acts of music making.

Her most explicit recreation is the Juba Dance, titled after an antebellum dance that included hopping, turning, hand-clapping, thigh-slapping and foot–stomping. Price’s dance brings the listener into the very room of an imagined gathering, where djembe drums are beaten and whooping vocalizations are played by a slide whistle.

At the heart of the symphony are sounds more personal to Price – those of the organ and voice. Price was an organist and pianist, and she composed more than 110 keyboard works. She also wrote more than 100 songs and spiritual settings. The symphony’s second movement lives at the intersection of keyboard and song, where an organesque brass chorale underlies a melody of unmistakably hymnal character, played by the trumpet. This is explicitly congregational music, placed at the center of the symphony.

Surrounding the hymn and dance are seemingly Western European classical idioms – a first movement sonata and a rondo finale. Yet what Price does with those idioms is more important than Eurocentric reference points. Pervasive harmonies of American jazz, unexpected fluctuations in tempo and persistent fragmentations of melody, phrase and form all challenge our expectations of symphonism, speaking with a richer, more complex compositional voice.

More can be said of influence, of the moment from which the symphony arose, of sublime musical alchemy and of what meaning we may find in the deconstructive processes that pervade this work. What must be said is that Florence Price stands among the great American orchestral composers – with Still, Beach, Copland and Bernstein. If our musical century is to be one of progress, her voice must ring out far more often in our concert halls.

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Brian Dowdy

Brian Dowdy

conductor, guitarist

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