“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,”Nahum Danile Brascher, Chicago Defender
Premiered by the Chicago Symphony for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor inspired universal praise. The Chicago Daily News, Chicago Herald & Examiner, Music News, and Chicago Defender all lauded Price’s symphony, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt highlighted the premier in her national newspaper column, “My Day.” Yet, despite its enthusiastic reception, the symphony faded from public consciousness, for reasons quite clear to the composer herself. In July 1943, Price wrote to Serge Koussevitzky, then 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…
In retrospect, the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair theme, “A Century of Progress” is rife with irony. America was in the heart of the Jim Crow era, whose laws unraveled so much of the progress made for black Americans during reconstruction. Following her death in 1953, Price’s music was segregated to obscurity, even as it gained recognition in Canada and Europe. Only at the beginning of the 21st century has public interest accelerated in the United States. American orchestras are programming and recording her works more frequently, 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 Price’s manuscripts caught the attention of musical media outlets across the nation.
The tones and rhythms that rise from these manuscripts speak both to the musical milieu of 1930s America and to the prismatic complexities of Price’s unique compositional voice. Price’s music is often compared to that of Antonín Dvořák. Perhaps her E minor symphony reminds us of Dvořák’s “New Word” and his assertion that American composers ought to draw more earnestly upon the traditions of African American music. There is also evidence suggesting the influence of black Brittish composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Coleridge Taylor’s three U.S. tours earned him such fame that he was invited to Theodore Roosevelt’s White House in 1904. His work, like Price’s, drew heavily upon African American song. All three composers explored various “folk” musics as inspiration, yet as musicologist and Price scholar 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 expansive, kaleidoscopic sound world of the E minor symphony is built with songful and soulful melodies, with antebellum American dances and call-and-response hymns, with polyrhythms and the extensive use of “African drums,” with whooping, whistling, stomping and clapping. Price’s symphony doesn’t simply use these elements as compositional fodder or create abstract representations of musical tradition. She recreates and celebrates community acts of music making.
The most explicit example of such recreation is the Juba Dance, titled after an antebellum folk 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 the whooping vocalizations of those in attendance are played by a slide whistle.
Yet at the heart of the symphony is a combination of sounds more personal to Price – those of the organ and voice. Price was a conservatory-trained organist and pianist, and she composed more than 110 works for those instruments. She also wrote more than 100 songs and spiritual settings. The symphony’s second movement lives at the intersection of keyboard and song. There an organ-like brass chorale underlies a simple, strophic melody of unmistakably hymnal character, played by the trumpet. This is explicitly congregational music, placed at the center-point of the symphony.
Surrounding the second movement hymn and third movement dance are what seem to be classical, European idioms – a first movement sonata and a rondo finale. Yet what Price does with those idioms is more interesting than how we define them. The pervasive harmonies of American jazz, unexpected fluctuations in tempo, and persistent fragmentation of melody, phrase, and form all betray our expectations of classical symphonism and make our listening experience at once less comfortable and more captivating.
Much more can be said of compositional influence, of the particular historic moment from which the symphony arose, of sublime cultural and musical alchemy, and of what meaning we might find in the fragmentation and deconstructive processes that pervade this work. What must be said is that Florence Price stands among the American greats – with Copland, Bernstein, Amy Beach and William Grant Still. If our musical century is to be a “Century of Progress,” her voice must ring out far more often in our concert halls.