Past Time to Take Notice: the music of Florence B. Price
Originally written for the Cambridge Female Composers Festival
I was in my second year of graduate school looking for recital repertoire when I discovered Florence B. Price and her music. No. Discover is the wrong verb. One does not discover what is readily available upon caring to look. That second year of graduate school, I noticed Price for the first time thanks to the hard work of AfriClassical.com, vocalists Louise Toppin, Darryl Taylor, and Richard Heard, as well as musiciologist Dr. Rae Linda Brown. Their performance videos and writings revealed her intricate, virtuosic music, her jaw-dropping accomplishments, and her part in the United States’ cultural renaissance in the early 20th century. I fell for the woman. Hard.
Like many labelled as “genius,” Price (née Smith) showed remarkable aptitude for music quite young, performing on the family piano for house guests (among them the abolitionist and master orator Frederick Douglass). Recognizing their daughter’s talent and passion, Price’s parents ensured her regular lessons and encouraged her to attend conservatory. At sixteen, Price enrolled at the New England Conservatory. There, she majored simultaneously in Piano Pedagogy and Organ Performance, privately studied composition with George Chadwick, the conservatory’s Director, and in just three years, graduated the only member of her class with two degrees.
Her drive, talent, and grit would later compel her contemporaries to recognize her, at least once, as she deserved, when she became the first African American woman to have a composition performed by a major American orchestra in Chicago 1933. Price continued to write up until her death at age sixty-six. Her catalog—though much of it remains unpublished—rivals the catalog of canonical darling Camille Saint-Saens despite having twenty less years to write.
Price’s genius is evident in her compositions, especially those using her primary instrument, the keyboard. Combining her studies in Romanticism, her performing prowess, and the American cultural movement of the Harlem Renaissance, Price’s music is lyrical, technically difficult, full of emotion, and uniquely American. Take for example her art song “The Glory of the Day Was In Her Face.” For the poetry, Florence uses a sonnet by renowned Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson, the same author of the NAACP anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” The accompaniment is a constant flow of harp-like music, intensifying in volume and tempo with dramatic harmonic shifts as the singer exalts “her” finest qualities and only resting at the volta, where the love song turns to eulogy. The vocal line must sustain over this unending accompaniment, with difficult leaps across the vocal registers and concise English diction, and without succumbing to the galloping rhythm of iambic pentameter. From personal experience, it is a difficult piece to master, but when everything aligns, we catch a glimpse of Heaven itself.
Price’s instrumental music is accessible yet complex, combining the familiarity of late 19th century music theory with the African diaspora, a tradition still to take its rightful place in the American concert hall as Dvorak predicted. In her symphonies, concertos, and suites, the audience can expect to hear lush orchestrations, clear melodic lines, slave spirituals as leitmotivs, and dance rhythms kept alive by survivors on the plantations. For instance, in Price’s fourth symphony, just recently commercially recorded by Naxos for the first time, she uses the standard symphonic form of four movements, replacing the third movement minuet rhythm with the complicated three over four of the African Juba.
You may have noticed by now my avoiding Price’s trials arising from her race and gender. She was, after all, a mixed race woman, a domestic abuse survivor and single mother, and her experiences are just as much a part of her compositions as Beethoven’s late music was affected by his growing deafness. You can hear it in the drudging procession of her words and music of “Resignation,” proclaiming her life “is a pathway of sorrow” and welcoming the camaraderie and liberation that comes with death. That is the beautiful mess of intersectionality—no part of one’s experience can be separated from the others. Florence Price’s music is just as much an artifact of her classical training and musical genius as it is her blackness and femininity and motherhood. But I am not here to write a pity piece about her trials and tragedies so the industry can give itself a gold star for compassionately including her in the concert hall. She belongs in the canon based on her work alone. My aim is instead to leave you wondering: what took us all so long?
Part of the issue, of course, was a lack of access to her sheet music. Price’s manuscripts only just found a dedicated publisher, G. Schirmer in November of 2018. During her lifetime, Price was regularly rejected by publishers—including G. Schirmer—with exception when famous contralto and friend Marian Anderson availed her Metropolitan Opera celebrity to push the publishing of Price’s vocal repertoire. It has taken the work of Price’s daughter (Florence Price Robinson), and persistent musicians and musicologists to find, edit, and publish her work after Price’s death, limiting distribution and visibility to those actively looking.
The remaining barriers to Price’s rise in the repertoire are our own biases—passive, unconscious ideas of how we think the world operates, taught to us implicitly by the collective from our first moments to our last. Historically, to be labelled an orchestral master, one must have a certain story—a precocious start, early success, male identity, European ancestry—and we musicians want to perform their masterworks, to be an active part of the narrative of this grand art form we hold dear. It is natural to want to attach ourselves to the prevailing story. But we humans have evolved beyond instincts. Unless we confront our biases, some of the greatest music ever written will continue to be unseen simply because we do not see it. These confrontations are active and neverending. Sometimes it will feel tedious, time-consuming, and full of dead ends, but such is research. Such is equity. Such is a life dedicated to the advancement of music.
Who will you notice for the first time this season?
Dive deeper with spectacular accounts of Price’s biography, such as radio station WQXR’s podcast, Price of Admission or James Greeson’s documentary, Caged Bird.