FLORENCE BEATRICE PRICE (1887-1953)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor (1938-39)
Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai
II. Andante ma non troppo
III. Juba: Allegro
IV. Scherzo: Finale
1938: FRAMING UNIONS
In the summer of 1938, Florence Price began composing the Third Symphony. Price had moved to Chicago from Arkansas in 1927, and by the end of the 30s, meatpacking workers in the Windy City organized across racial lines (a majority of workers were Black) to form the labor union, United Packinghouse Workers of America. Their efforts eliminated employment position segregation, giving Black workers opportunities in advancement.
Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the 74th Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) in 1935, allowing the right for private sector employees to join trade unions, and prohibiting non-independent company unions. With the Nā Hui Nui ʻElima or “Big Five” kingdom-era corporations (Alexander & Baldwin, Castle & Cooke, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors, and Theo H. Davies & Co.) controlling the Territory of Hawaiʻi’s labor market, Hilo-born longshoreman Harry Kamoku helped found the first legitimately recognized and ethnically represented union, the Hilo Longshoremen’s Association. On August 1, 1938, Kamoku led 500 protestors from various unions demanding equal wages with their West Coast counterparts. Seventy-three officers of the Hawai’i County Police Department bayoneted, gassed, and shot the peaceful labor demonstrators. Remembered as Bloody Monday, the Hilo Massacre left 51 wounded, including two children.
Born in Arkansas, Florence Price received her early musical training from her mother after being refused by the city’s top white instructors. After graduating high school in 1903, Price enrolled at the New England Conservatory and studied with George Whitefield Chadwick. Price then taught at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia and remained in Little Rock, raising her daughters, maintaining a piano studio, and composing extensive pedagogical music for children. Hurled into the national spotlight, the performance of her Symphony in E-minor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933 was the first time any major orchestra had performed music composed by an African American woman. Nevertheless, Price faced challenges in establishing a career. Writing to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky in 1943, “My dear Dr. 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.” In 2009, many of Price’s manuscripts were discovered in her abandoned summer home on the outskirts of Chicago.
SYMPHONY OF CHANGE
Price composed four symphonies. The First Symphony was unpublished until 2008. The Second Symphony is lost, and Price never lived to hear her Fourth Symphony. The Michigan WPA (Works Progress Administration) Symphony Orchestra first performed the Third Symphony under Valter Poole on November 6, 1940. Its premiere was warmly received with praise from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, yet it was never performed again until 2001.
Price described her Third Symphony as “Negroid in character and expression, a cross-section of present-day Negro life and thought with its heritage of that which is past, paralleled or influenced by concepts of the present day.” Unlike the Dvorak-kissed First Symphony, the Third demonstrates Price’s maturing style, incorporating more modernist, late-Romantic, and African American idioms.
The Andante draws first breath with a brass prelude, speaking with a heavy Wagnerian intonation. When the Allegro kicks in, Price serves baroque ingredients in the strings, seasoned with a French flavor in the winds (whole-tone scale). A solo trombone delivers the second theme through the pulpit of the African American spiritual. Tender warmth defines the second movement’s songful Andante, wind and brass sermons with a distinct French accent. The Third’s Juba: Allegro comes with a bluesy Andantino section and xylophone solo, evoking the hambone percussion (body percussion) often used in the Juba (a precursor to tap dancing). Finally, a symphonic storm at sea enlists the entire international symphony cast for a Golden-age seafaring Scherzo: Finale.
The 30-minute score calls for a large orchestra of four flutes, piccolo, three oboes, English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, five percussion players, harp, celesta, and strings.
Florence Beatrice Price was born on April 9, 1887, in Little Rock, Arkansas, and died in Chicago, Illinois, on June 3, 1953.