On 15 June 1933 the Chicago Symphony performed a brand new piece by an unknown composer. The work had won first prize in a competition and the Chicago Daily News music critic declared it 'a faultless work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion ... worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertoire.' Nothing out of the ordinary in that. But the unknown composer was one Florence Price, and she was black. Florence was born in 1887 in Arkansas to a music teacher mother and a dentist father. Her mother encouraged her gifted daughter to study music and the young composer eventually went to the New England Conservatory of Music, from where she graduated with honours. In 1912 she married Thomas J Price and they moved back to her home of Little Rock, until racial tension in the city escalated, and the family had to move to a new home. In 1927 the Prices settled in Chicago, where Florence continued studying composition, and a year later she published four piano pieces.
In 1931 she divorced Thomas, and was left with two daughters to look after. She made both ends meet by working as an organist for silent film screenings and composing songs for radio ads. In 1932 she entered the Wanamaker Foundation Awards, winning the prestigious competition with her Symphony in E minor, thus creating an important page in American musical history. Indeed, this work was the first written by an African-American woman to be performed by a major symphony orchestra. Florence's music brings together the European classical tradition and the haunting melodies of African-American spirituals and folk tunes, plus influences of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. She was a deeply religious person, and one can also perceive music pertaining to the African-American Church. Florence Price died on 3 June 1953, aged sixty-six, leaving behind some three hundred compositions in different genres, but at present, recordings of her music are still at a premium.
Listen — Florence Price: Andante - Allegretto - Allegro (The Mississippi River)
(track 8, 0:00-0:57) ℗ 2021 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :
This disc in the ongoing Naxos series dedicated to her music includes the Third Symphony in C minor, The Mississippi River and Ethiopia's Shadow in America. The Symphony No 3 was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration's Federal Music Project during the height of the Great Depression. Price started the composition in the summer of 1938, but later revised the work prior to its premiere on 6 November 1940. The occasion was a big success, and with its first movement full of emotional warmth and richness of melody the Symphony was highly praised.
Listen — Florence Price: Andante - Allegro (Symphony No 3 in C minor)
(track 1, 2:41-3:39) ℗ 2021 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :
The work also includes a slow movement of majestic beauty, a third full of Negro rhythmic dance forms and a hugely vigorous fourth. All this in the relatively short space of some twenty-eight minutes. It is a pity that so far this work has not garnered the recognition it so richly deserves. Maybe this album will at last arouse more than just a passing thought.
Listen — Florence Price: Andante ma non troppo (Symphony No 3 in C minor)
(track 2, 2:49-3:42) ℗ 2021 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :
This programme also includes The Mississippi River (1934), a four-movement suite quoting several famous spirituals while capturing the struggle of Black migration across the United States; and the premiere recording of 'Ethiopia's Shadow in America' (1932), whose emphatically descriptive three movements trace the American experience of enslaved Africans.
Listen — Florence Price: Allegro (Ethiopia's Shadow in America)
(track 11, 2:10-3:04) ℗ 2021 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :
Florence Price was one of the most imaginative, versatile and prolific American composers during the first half of the twentieth century, and her music is a living testament to the indomitable spirit of all coloured people, whether they are Americans or otherwise. In this day and age, where the word 'equality' is on everyone's lips, this trailblazing composer must be listened to, if only for the sumptuous beauty of her creations. Do take the plunge. I am sure you will be returning for more without hesitation. In the meantime I await the next volume with great eagerness. Sound and annotations are to be commended.
Copyright © 18 November 2021