Bringing a Black Female Composer Into the Canon. Finally.
Posted February 9, 2018 12:57 a.m. EST
In November 1943, the composer Florence Price wrote to Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asking him to consider performing her scores.
“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility,” she said. “Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.”
It was her second letter to Koussevitzky; there is no evidence he ever replied to her.
Price (1887-1953) was the first black woman to have her music played by a major U.S. orchestra when the Chicago Symphony performed her Symphony in E Minor in 1933. She was a prominent member of the African-American intelligentsia, corresponding with W.E.B. Dubois and setting to music poems by Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
But after her death, she swiftly faded into the background of a canon dominated by white men, and much of her work was thought to be lost until a trove of manuscripts was discovered in 2009, in what had been her summer home outside of Chicago. Among the pieces found were her two violin concertos, the first recording of which has been released this month by Albany Records, with Er-Gene Kahng as soloist and Ryan Cockerham conducting the Janacek Philharmonic.
“My first impression was that this was such gorgeous, accessible music,” Kahng said in an interview. She will also give a live performance of the Violin Concerto No.2 with the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra in Bentonville on Saturday, Feb. 17. It was dedicated to the violinist Minnie Cedargreen Jernberg, who performed it, a decade after Price’s death, at the dedication of an elementary school in Chicago named for Price, but it has never been played with an orchestra. (Disclosure: Kahng and I are colleagues at the University of Arkansas’ department of music.)
Born to a middle-class family in Little Rock, Arkansas — her father was the city’s first black dentist, and the governor was said to have been his patient in secret — Price later wrote that she traveled with her mother to England and France at the age of 5. She was a star when she attended the New England Conservatory, one of the rare private composition students of the school’s president, the eminent composer George Whitefield Chadwick.
Her mother, however, insisted she conceal her race. Price occupied the prestigious final position in her graduating class’ recital, but the program lists her as hailing from “Pueblo, Mexico.”
In 1893, the composer Antonin Dvorak proclaimed that an American art music should be built on African-American idioms. The musicologist Douglas Shadle has pointed out that, while white composers eagerly took up this directive — arguably culminating in George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” — many largely forgotten African-American composers did as well, and often took exception to what they saw as white appropriation.
Price was, Shadle said in an interview, “really the culmination of the African-American intellectual stream that followed in Dvorak’s footsteps.” She became well-known for her arrangements of spirituals; the great contralto Marian Anderson closed her historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial with Price’s arrangement of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord.” But Price did not only quote folk songs. Describing her Symphony No. 3 in a 1943 letter to the conductor Frederick Schwass — her canvas began to broaden to the symphonic scale in the early 1930s — Price wrote that “it is intended to be Negroid in character and expression.”
“In it,” she went on, “no attempt, however, has been made to project Negro music solely in the purely traditional manner. None of the themes are adaptations or derivations of folk songs. The intention behind the writing of this work was a not too deliberate attempt to picture a cross-section of present-day Negro life and thought with its heritage of that which is past, paralleled or influenced by contacts of the present day.”
Marquese Carter, a doctoral student at Indiana University who specializes in Price’s work, said in an interview that Price “uses the organizing material of spirituals. You may not hear direct quotation, but you will hear playing around with pentatonicism, playing around with call and response, some of these organizing principles that African-American scholars like Amiri Baraka have pointed out as indicative of black musical discourse.”
“Florence Price is a representation in music of what it means to be a black artist living within a white canon and trying to work within the classical realm,” Carter added. “How do we, through that, create a sound that sounds our culture, sounds our experience, sounds our embodied lives?”
The violin concertos offer an answer. The first, from 1939, sometimes sounds like a throwback, echoing Tchaikovsky’s famous concerto for that instrument and demonstrating Price’s thorough understanding of 19th-century harmony and orchestration. But the second, composed in a single movement in 1952 and long thought lost, is, while still highly lyrical, more concentrated and harmonically adventurous. The second concerto also reflects the richly chromatic language of composers like William Schuman and Roy Harris. Shadle recently discovered that Price briefly studied with Harris in the 1940s.
“Everything she was doing was musically mainstream but at the same time idiosyncratic,” he said. “Her music has kind of a luminous quality that strikes me as her own. Our understanding of American modernism of the 1930s and 1940s is not complete without Price’s contribution.”
Writing to a conductor in the ‘40s, Price described “an accumulation of hundreds of unpublished and unsubmitted manuscripts.” She continued to compose up to her death; absent her tenacity and advocacy for her own music, her legacy was incompletely preserved and has had to be reconstructed piece by piece. But she was also meticulous, and the manuscripts that were discovered nine years ago, now in the University of Arkansas library with many of her other papers, are mostly complete and easily performed. The question is, who will perform them. Even by late last year, when challenged by a group of local musicians to diversify their programming, the Boston Symphony replied that, while it was working on the problem, audiences still wanted to hear “specifically the universal masterworks composed between 1600 and the mid-1900s.” The orchestra had programmed music by Price some months prior, but only a string quartet in a community concert, not one of the larger symphonic pieces she created as her style matured.
If U.S. orchestras truly wish to diversify their programming — the Chicago Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra, to name just two important examples, recently announced seasons without music by a single female composer, living or dead — Price is one of the many artists who deserve greater exposure.The Fort Smith Symphony in Arkansas is beginning a project to record her four symphonies for the Naxos label, based on editions prepared by the composer James Greeson, and in May will perform her First Symphony and (in a world premiere) the Fourth, another of the works unearthed in her summer house.
“While Price was quite proud of her accomplishments, she always felt like there was a limitation on the reception of her music, because of her race and because of her gender,” Carter said. When she tried to find a publisher for her song “Sympathy,” set to a Dunbar poem that later inspired Maya Angelou, one told her it was just a little bit too chromatic.
Carter speculates that Price identified with the caged bird in the poem. But, as we hear the soprano move into her upper register on the line “But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings/I know why the caged bird sings,” we can also hear the full flowering Price has always deserved.