Florence Price, a long overlooked African American composer of symphonies and concertos, is having unprecedented visibility right now thanks partly to the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Her Symphony No. 1 was recently taped for this week’s installment of the orchestra’s “Digital Stage” series, available starting 8 p.m. Wednesday (through Sunday).
The piece was a major breakthrough for Price (1887 –1953) when it won the lucrative Wanamaker Foundation Award in 1933. That honor was announced at what is now the Center City Macy’s, just up the street from the Kimmel Center where the work’s “Digital Stage” taping took place.
Going forward, “we’ll play all of her symphonies in the next few seasons,” said music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. “The idea is that we’ll start a real Florence Price project with concertos and symphonies and other works. It’s long overdue that we restore her to the place that she holds in the history of American music.”
Born in Little Rock, educated in Boston and later based in Chicago, Price (1887 –1953) had a vast output of four symphonies (the second of which may be lost), three concertos, chamber music, and more than 100 songs — much of which was discovered in 2009 in what was once her country home in St. Anne, Ill. Other finds in her native Arkansas have since turned into a music scholar’s holiday.
How often is such a substantial musical output discovered relatively all at once?
Musicians in different parts of the country who stumbled upon her music independently have begun finding each other and championing Price’s works. These efforts were accelerated by the Black Lives Matter movement and centralized by G. Schirmer Inc. (which has the publishing rights) and ONEcomposer, an advocacy group founded by Cornell University faculty members that aims to celebrate unsung musicians.
Considered something of a child prodigy in her native Little Rock, Price attended the New England Conservatory in the early 1900s, became firmly established among the Harlem Renaissance intelligentsia, and had a brief stint running a music school in Atlanta before moving to Chicago. She had episodes of poor health, failed marriages, and a reticent personality that didn’t lend itself to promoting her own music.
But Price was also busy — as a working musician whose main instrument was organ. What allowed her to finish her Symphony No. 1, in fact, was a broken foot that left her unable to do anything but compose.
The symphony shows how much she took to heart Antonin Dvorak’s belief that spirituals and other African-American music could be the basis of great concert works, and with the same surging sense of momentum, succulent orchestration, and lyricism. Price adds a signature African-flavored percussion. In many of her works, the mournful spiritual “Go Down Moses” (also known as “Let My People Go”) hovers in the harmonic background.
The Wanamaker award came with what now amounts to a $10,000 prize but also criticism over the balance she struck between her conservatory training and African-American roots.
“What we found in letters and diaries is that it was viewed negatively that she didn’t have more of the Black African-American sound. Her idiom erred too much on the side of the European model,” said ONEcomposer co-founder Tamara Acosta.
Then, too, her particular European models were falling out of fashion. In the years following her 1933 success, American composers were embracing the more rustic Americana codified by Aaron Copland.
Such opinions matter little now. Price’s music — with its mellifluous lyricism — is welcome today for reasons that once worked against it. The Philadelphia Orchestra video recording represents the kind of major-orchestra visibility that she dreamed of — and perhaps a quality of performance that hadn’t been available to her since her 1933 Chicago Symphony success.
In this performance, the Philadelphians are audibly in the process of learning the symphony — her scores have a meticulous clarity — and finding Price’s personality beyond the Dvorak template on which the music is based.
Nezet-Seguin says he is still working to understand the first movement’s thematic development — though unlike some conductors, he explores the music’s digressive corners with a certain faith that its larger meaning will reveal itself. The many incidental solos are particularly well served by individuals in the orchestra.
The performance does seem to lose Price’s train of thought, but when it appears to go into the weeds, one hears only flowers. The lyricism of Price’s wind instrument solos means that no matter where the symphony is at, it’s a congenial place to be.
The second movement’s melodic brass chorale, which is both stately and incredibly warm-hearted, evolves into a call-and-response narrative with instruments taking on a cumulative emotional effect.
Typical of Price, the third movement is based on African dance. I hear a troubling refraction from vaudeville and the stereotypes it perpetuated. Price, though, was most likely paying an affectionate homage to Black social dance of that era. Nézet-Séguin took it at a slower, less-flashy tempo than some performances I’ve heard, giving the movement the substance that I suspect Price intended.
That vaudeville association comes up even more in other works. “There needs to be incredible care in which you can handle this messaging,” said ONEcomposer co-founder Stephen Spinelli, “and be very open minded to the music’s possibilities.” Nézet-Séguin talks about the importance of identifying the details that are distinctly Price’s.
One clear-cut success this year came from pianist Michelle Cann, the recently appointed Curtis Institute faculty member, who demonstrated intuition, intelligence, and passion in a streaming performance in July of Price’s Piano Sonata in E minor with the Chamber Music Society of Detroit.
Indisputably, this sonata is a major contribution to the piano repertoire. How much Price’s other compositions follow that path remains to be seen.
Cann, who is scheduled to play Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement with the Philadelphia Orchestra in January, says “Florence Price is actually a symbol for so many lost voices ... from the past and even now.”
The Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, also this week’s “Digital Stage” program, is an interesting counterpoint. He, too, went into eclipse for seeming hopelessly retro in his own time. But not now.
Tickets for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Nov. 25-29 streaming program are $15 and are available at philorch.org.