Florence Beatrice Price: Songs of the Oak. © 2022 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd

CD Spotlight

Melodic Invention and Heartfelt Sincerity

GERALD FENECH recommends a Naxos recording of orchestral music by Florence Beatrice Price

'John Jeter and his Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen provide truly splendid performances, vibrant and often pulsating, and superbly balanced.'


Florence Beatrice Price was born on 9 April 1888 in Little Rock, Arkansas. She studied composition and organ at New England Conservatory in Boston and afterwards taught as a pianist in the music department at Shorter College in Arkansas (1906-1910) and Clark University in Georgia (1910-1912). In 1926 Florence Price and her family moved to Chicago to evade the racial hatred she was surrounded with. In this city, her musical career flourished and many opportunities presented themselves for her to develop her talents as a teacher and professional musician. Seizing the chance to further her education, Price enrolled at the Chicago Music College, where she studied orchestration and harmony under such illustrious instructors as Carl Busch, Wesley La Violette and Arthur Olaf Anderson. It was also during this period of her life that Price met Leo Sowerby, who was an influential composer of church music.

It was in the early 1930s that her career rose to new heights. Price's first major orchestral work was the Symphony in E minor premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1933. This event was quite unique for its time, as this work was the first symphonic essay by an Afro-American woman to be performed by a major orchestra. This performance solidified the composer's reputation as a concert pianist and composer, and Price's popularity would continue to grow. John Alden Carpenter, a prominent composer of the time, was a great admirer of Price's work and, through his advocacy, Price became a member of the National Association for American Composers and Conductors.

Price's music is so good it even attracted, back then, the talents of renowned singer Marian Anderson who performed 'Songs of the Dark Virgin' to great public acclaim. Throughout her career, Florence Price achieved many notable accomplishments and was admired by both audiences and fellow musicians. Publishers always looked forward to making her compositions accessible to all concerned. Despite setbacks due to prejudice of race and gender, her wonderful compositions came to be enjoyed by a wide audience worldwide, and in many respects this courageous composer remains today a formidable representative of the musical culture that flourished during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s. Price died on 3 June 1953, aged sixty-five.

The variety of genres represented on this release - overtures, tone poems and dances - place Price's immense artistic imagination on full display. Opening the album, the two overtures show her deep connections to the repertoire of spirituals dating from Black enslavement. Concert Overture No 1 (1939), a rumination on the spiritual 'Sinner Please Don't Let This Harvest Pass', unfolds in a series of episodes that state the theme in its totality or present it as fragments with shifting orchestral colours and unsettled harmonies. A beautiful choral tune and a brass fanfare offer distinct emotional contrasts.

Listen — Florence Price: Concert Overture No 1
(8.559920 track 1, 8:46-9:44) ℗ 2022 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

The first half of Concert Overture No 2 (1943) presents three miniature scenes in rapid succession. Based on three spirituals, the musical character of these sections moves from sombre to poignant to ebullient. The more abstract second half combines melodic fragments from the three previous sections into a unified portrait that closes with a return to the profundity of Moses' cry for liberation found in the spiritual 'Go Down, Moses'.

Price's tone poems Songs of the Oak and The Oak, both dating from 1943, are two different propositions. The first is a tour-de-force of Hollywood influenced picturesque musical storytelling, replete with imitations of woodland creatures interacting with the mighty oak tree that seems to protect them from danger. All this is described in several statements given by a full complement of brass. Tolling chimes close the piece as the stoic oak appears to stand unshaken for eternity.

Listen — Florence Price: Songs of the Oak
(8.559920 track 3, 2:37-3:30) ℗ 2022 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

The Oak shares certain sonic elements - powerful brass and fluttering woodwinds, for example - and unfolds in a series of internally anxious, almost Wagnerian, episodes that ultimately end in tragedy.

The composer maintained an abiding interest in dance as an integral part of African American life, and American life more generally, once writing: 'Rhythm is of preeminent importance. In the dance it is a compelling, onward-sweeping force that tolerates no interruption'. Colonial Dance is a rollicking affair in triple time with a melody marked by the so-called Scotch snap, or emphasis on the second beat of the measure, giving it an angular but propulsive character. A contrasting middle section highlights pizzicato strings accompanied by bells.

Listen — Florence Price: Colonial Dance
(8.559920 track 5, 2:37-1:51) ℗ 2022 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

Arguably, Price's best-known piece is the Suite of Dances (1951), on this disc in a full orchestral version of her charming Three Little Negro Dances for solo piano. The movements in the original are entitled 'Hoe Cake', 'Rabbit Foot' and 'Ticklin Toes', and here Price's ear for orchestral colouring grants each dance a piquancy all of its own.

Listen — Florence Price: Allegro molto (Suite of Dances)
(8.559920 track 8, 0:54-1:14) ℗ 2022 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

These are works brimming with melodic invention and heartfelt sincerity, and tone and structure are ingeniously crafted. John Jeter and his Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen provide truly splendid performances, vibrant and often pulsating, and superbly balanced. This is a highly commendable issue in the ongoing Naxos cycle dedicated to American Classics that should be in your collection without further delay.

Copyright © 14 December 2022 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta








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