FLORENCE BEATRICE PRICE (1887-1953)
Symphony No. 4 in D minor (1945), 32 minutes
Florence Beatrice Price was born on April 9, 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas and died on June 3, 1953 in Chicago, Illinois. Symphony No.4 was first performed on May 12, 2018 by the Fort Smith Symphony conducted by John Jeter in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The work is scored for piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, english horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, various percussion, harp, celesta and strings.
On the outskirts of St. Anne, Illinois, Vicki and Darrell Gatwood were in the process of renovating a derelict house, ransacked and taken by the elements. The home was abandoned but by a miracle the interior had managed to stave off moisture. It was 2009 and the Gatwoods would unearth in the remains of this once summer home of a composer, stacks of books, papers, documents and musical manuscripts bearing the name Florence Price. Among these curious forgotten treasures, was Price’s Symphony No. 4. Much of this story would resonate and spread through the music world nine years later with Alex Ross’ 2018 article The Rediscovery of Florence Price in The New Yorker.
With the resurgence of Price’s legacy, her life’s work would be heavily researched by the musicologist Douglas Shadle, and history would reveal a prolific composer of keyboard, chamber, orchestral works including two violin concertos, a teacher, mother and an active participant in the National Association for Negro Musicians (NANM) and the National Federation of Music Clubs. Her career would be set against the backdrop of the racially charged early to mid 20th century.
Born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, advanced musical training for women of color where non-existent in the South. Price would need to receive her early musical training from her mother after being refused by the city’s top white instructors. After graduating from high school in 1903, Price enrolled at the New England Conservatory pursuing organ, piano pedagogy and receiving instruction in composition and counterpoint from George Whitefield Chadwick.
Graduating from the conservatory in 1906, Price would teach at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, and would remain in Little Rock raising her daughters, maintaining a piano studio, and composing extensive pedagogical music for children. As financial issues and racial tensions escalated, the Price’s relocated North to Chicago in 1927. The move would be a creative catalyst that would cradle Price in the company of a supportive network. She would continue studies with Arthur Olaf Andersen, Carl Busch, Wesley LaViolette, and Leo Sower. Hurled into the national spotlight, the performance of her Symphony in E-minor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933, would be the first time any major orchestra had performed music composed by an African American woman. Price would compose four symphonies, the second is presumed lost with only sketches remaining, and much is unknown about the Fourth Symphony which was never performed in her lifetime.
A paper trail of evidence reveals the obstacles Price faced to carve out a career amongst the titans of the male white and buried. Writing to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky in 1943, she would introduce herself as: “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.”
Her work, largely in the romantic style, would be neglected by many, including Koussevitzky, and overshadowed by the stylistic idioms of modernism taking root. Price’s music will often draw comparison with other works that have had their due in history, and no doubt the Fourth Symphony, like the Symphony in E minor will as the editor of Price’s music, Rae Linda Brown, would pen, “owes a stylistic debt to Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor ʻFrom the New World’ (1893) and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.” Dvořák and Coleridge-Taylor would integrate African-American spirituals into their works and Price would also partake writing, “It is simple heart music and therefore powerful.” She would not directly quote, but create inspired melodies and rhythms. Whether there is a debt to Dvořák, what is palpable is the voice that rings out as uniquely Price; this is the music in her veins, and this is her story to tell.
Cast into four movements, the opening Tempo moderato begins with a brief introduction with trumpets and trombones and two orchestral swells. What will standout immediately in this sonata form movement is the lush dark atmosphere of the deep South, a city noir with a theme that references the oscillating minor thirds of the spiritual “Wade in the Water.” The rich orchestration draws a curtain on an expansive sonic landscape that transports with ease. There is a world in this music, as Respighi constructed a sonic Roman Empire, Price paints an Arkansas frontier unexplored with the contours of the pastoral strings cradling solo woodwind and horn passage as characters, it is operatic.
On first hearing, motives from the melody that will serve as nuggets for development, will stand out; particularly the last descending three notes of the main theme. Price’s orchestration is masterful in pacing, exploring different instrumental colors, never predictable, with exceptional moments of melodic unison that will sound unique and fresh even to the ears of today. There is the warmth and tears of the South, but there is also the sweeping glamorous gestures and contours of industry, of a burgeoning Chicago skyline. As the movement closes in gusts of the minor mode, it is perhaps a reflection of her adoptive windy city home.
If there are comparisons drawn to Dvořák’s New World Symphony, the second movement marked Andante cantabile channels the same lullaby-like reverence of the Largo movement. A solo oboe begins above gentle woodwind chords and then the strings will answer in kind. Much of the orchestration is sectionalized into instrumental choirs. Winds alone begin, then the strings alone, then the brass choir and with each family, a solo cantor within the ranks. With each statement, the melody and harmony is varied slightly with some ornamentation or colorful reharmonization. There will be two moments in which the choirs come together in a kind of exaltation before a solo trumpet brings the lullaby to a storybook close.
In the third movement, Price composes a dance in place of a scherzo, which will be upgraded to the finale. Rhythm and syncopation are in full form in this dance called Juba, a Pre-American Civil War style utilizing foot stomping and chest beating. In 4/8 time, the rhythms pop with violins entering on the second 16th beat. There’s a Joplin-like rag character to this rhythm that gives the opening lift. In the middle Andantino section, the sound of body percussion comes through with the use of a 16th note ostinato rhythm of an Indian drum paired with cello pizzicato. The combination of drum and pluck gives a fleshiness to a tuned drum instrument. Sounding above this pattern, the English horn enters emulating a voice with a sustained note before dancing or calling into short turns. A later return to the opening music rounds out the form.
The final frolicking of the allegro scherzo movement opens in 6/8 time with a four-bar rondo theme that will return many times in many different transformations. The opening figure will tickle the ear in a Paganini Caprice No. 24 kind of way. With the repetitive figures built in, there is always a forward momentum as instrumental families take turns in the spotlight.
Placing Price’s music in the timeline of musical style can sometimes only be visible in the score. Aurally, her music channels the music of African-American spirituals viewed through the lens and expressiveness of a late romantic style. Yet, there is something unique in the musical fabric, small harmonic details that are more adventurous, choices in orchestration, and rhythmic idioms that would place her music as existing in the mid 20th century.
The symphony was completed in 1945, a year that saw the end of World War II in September. In the company of her male counterparts, Richard Strauss had just completed his elegy on German culture with the Metamorphosen in March, the ink was drying on Igor Stravinsky’s neo-classical Symphony in Three Movements, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.9 had found its final notes, and a year earlier Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra premiered in December of 1944. It was a crowded soundscape, and though largely forgotten and silenced, Price’s music since 2009 has seen a resurrection to critical acclaim, performances and recordings. With a story to tell and hear, Price’s music is relevant nearly eight decades later. As Alex Ross writes, her music "deserves to be widely heard." © MTF
*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on June 4-6, 2021.