Florence Price: Symphony no. 1 in Em

performed by the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble under Leslie B. Dunner

(cover image by Dave Robinson)

This is a historic symphony.

Florence Beatrice Smith was born to Florence (née Gulliver) and James H. Smith on April 9, 1897 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Wikipedia says she was “one of three children in a mixed-race family,” but I’m not sure which of her parents was African-American, or if one of her parents was mixed, or what, but despite the prevailing sentiments of the time, her family was rather well respected. Her father was a dentist and her mother was a music teacher.

They noticed their daughter was musically talented, which is to put it mildly. She gave her first “piano performance” (a recital I assume…?) at only four years old and had a composition published by the age of 11. She graduated from high school at age 14 and enrolled not long after in the New England Conservatory, majoring in piano and organ.

Wiki tells us she initially pretended to be Mexican “to avoid the prejudice people had toward African-Americans at the time,” as perhaps she didn’t have the good reputation of her family to rely on abroad. At the conservatory, she studied with George Whitefield Chadwick and Frederick Converse, graduating in 1906, before her 20th birthday.

She taught back in Arkansas for a time before moving to Atlanta to be the head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University, but moved back to Arkansas after marrying Mr. Thomas J. Price, a lawyer. Some time after that, they moved to Chicago, where she continued studying and composing. By 1931, she was divorced and thus a single mother of two who made a living working as an organist for silent films and writing songs under a pen name. She made friends with such people as Langston Hughes and Marian Anderson, leading to a period of success in her artistic endeavors.

Today’s piece, the symphony in E minor, was written while the composer recovered from a broken foot, and eventually entered into a composing competition, where it won first prize and earned Price $500. (She actually entered four pieces, and all others also got some recognition.) This award got her national acclaim and brought her to the attention of Frederick Stock, then conductor of the Chicago Symphony, who together premiered the work in June of 1933. It became “the first symphony by a black woman to be performed by a major American orchestra,” says Wiki.

The symphony is cast in four movements, the first two alone making up more than 80% of the playing time, followed by two very short movements. I find this rather disappointing considering the epic nature that she so successfully builds in the first two movements.

The work opens with bassoons and is pentatonic from the get-go. It’s like the sound of an American Sibelius, epic, only having just begun, but full of momentum toward some as of yet unknown (to the listener) destination. These opening gestures culminate in an almighty climax, with plenty of brass and orchestral color. The second subject, that seems to spring from the first, is as warm and round as the first was commanding. This is our content for the rather long first movement, but there’s more to it than just those colors. The areas of delicacy and intricateness in some of the quieter passages is magical, really, and we see how it all derives from the opening and explores the different sides of this one singular idea. Just about the time we start to think the first movement is overstaying its welcome, it does come to an end, but not in quite the way you’d expect.

It feels we’ve moved a little bit away from the content of the opening, even if we return to it at the very end. It doesn’t seem like an exact recapitulation, which doesn’t bother me. It feels like we’ve moved on, a little bit, and the second movement is the kind of second movement you might expect to follow that first movement. It’s almost hymnal, with the clear, lyrical, comforting sound of a folk song, wide open spaces, fresh air and simple beauty. The brass writing is very beautiful. Instead of the English horn that Dvorak gave us, we get trumpet and its brethren, and it is equally successful.

My only gripe about this movement, as warm and sentimental as it is, is that it’s quite repetitive. There’s a surprise curve ball thrown in, again, right when you’ve just about had enough, for the central passage of the movement, but even here, we aren’t far removed from the same tune we’ve been hearing. Rather than a movement in ternary form, it sounds like this is a development/variation section. We do get an oboe later on, and some other color, in the most captivating passages of the movement. We return to the opening theme rather late in this movement, and with the solemn ring of bells. We go out with solo cello.

Next are the short movements. The previous two have each been hovering around 15 minutes, and neither of the last two break the five-minute mark, although the finale comes close. The third movement marks the first appearance of any kind of jazzy sound, reminding us that this is a work from the 1930s, and not the 1890s. It’s even got slide whistle, which feels very out of place without more sound-effect type instruments to accompany it (triangle, car horn, clapper, vibraslap, etc.) It’s not boisterous like you might expect the scherzo of this symphony to be, but rather has a cool, sort of mellow shuffle that builds to a cheerful, celebratory affair, like the music that might play behind rolling credits at a film. The finale is one that might cause an audience to start to applaud, but we have a finale yet.

The finale, only slightly longer than the previous movement, restores some of the more traditional Romantic-era symphonic energy to the work. In fact, it’s what you might think of as the sound that the scherzo should have sounded like, as it’s in some kind of triple meter, with lots of momentum. It eventually reaches a cheerier, folksy major-key, and it feels like it’s here that we’ve found some kind of synthesis of all the ideas and styles in the work. Is some of this finale material derived from the second movement?

Clearly the final two movements are much simpler and straightforward, but the finale hovers between Dvorak-inspired heft and a light, cool near-jazz sound, but it finishes with a bang.

Listening to just the first and second movements, I’d say Price’s intentions in this symphony are very clear. She’s not working to blaze any new historical, compositional trails, as the music is very clearly along the same line of thinking as Dvorak’s last symphony. Then come the final two movements. The third moves immediately away from the grand, epic symphonic tradition and much more towards like what we heard from William Grant Still, which I really did enjoy, but the juxtaposition here is odd.

There seems to be a disconnect at this point, where the movements become suddenly far shorter and move in an entirely different direction. It’s only in the finale, with its two still somewhat disparate themes, do we have some kind of finish. I wonder if this work had a history somewhat like Hindemith’s first string quartet, which also suffered from being a bit top-heavy since the composer rushed to complete it for performance. Who knows?

That criticism aside, what Price writes she writes well enough that it’s difficult not to be convinced by it, at least in the moment. From the big, booming full-bodied symphonic passages to little solos or trios here and there among groups of instruments, it has color and personality, even if it may lack some continuity, and I think it would surely be a crowd-pleaser in the concert hall.

The list of female composers people think of even today is not long. In recent days, we have people like Kaija Saariaho, Unsuk Chin, Jennifer Higdon, Olga Neuwirth, Chaya Czernowin, and many more. In decades or centuries past, there were Clara Schumann, Ruth Gipps, Ethel Smyth, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Amy Beach, all of whom have appeared on the blog, the last very recently. But I hardly ever see Florence Price mentioned in a list of female composers. With a symphony like this, and three more after it, and lots more, it’s a shame she’s not mentioned more often.

And thus ends another week of our American Symphony Series. There’s finally some (more) familiar work coming up on the weekend and into next week (maybe), so stay tuned and thank you very much for reading.

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