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Classical Lost And Found: Florence Price Rediscovered

In 1933, Florence B. Price was the African-American woman to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra.
University of Arkansas Libraries
In 1933, Florence B. Price was the African-American woman to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra.

Born in Arkansas in 1887, Florence B. Price (née Smith) moved to Boston at age 14 where she enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music, studying with Frederick Converse and privately with George Chadwick. After graduating in 1906, she returned to Arkansas and held several teaching positions until 1927 when her family moved to Chicago.

Continuing her composition studies there, she would go on to write some 300 works and become the first black woman in the U.S. to be recognized as a symphonic composer. The two works on this new album testify to her art.

The Concerto in One Movement for piano (composed around 1934) is in three sections, beginning with a moderato, which opens with a brief orchestral introduction followed by a piano cadenza. They both hint at the sweeping main idea which has traditional spiritual overtones and is the subject of a virtuosic and harmonically inventive developmental dialogue between soloist and orchestra.

After a brief pause we get a gorgeous adagio with a lyrical theme, again with a folk-like accent. Price follows with a totally infectious final allegretto apparently modeled after the African-American juba dance once practiced on U.S. plantations.

The bulk of the album is devoted to her nearly 40-minute Symphony in E Minor from 1932, which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered the following year, making it the first such work by a black woman performed by a major U.S. orchestra.

The opening movement has melodies and rhythms typically found in Afro-American folk music, and recalls Dvorák's New World Symphony, while the following slow movement features a moving hymn tune of Price's design.

Both concluding movements are fast and return to the juba dance concept. They contain hints of fiddles and banjos, antic slide whistle effects, and a recurring three-against-two melody which end this loveable work on a whimsical note.

Pianist Karen Walwyn provides a magnificent account of the concerto, displaying her considerable technical skills. She receives enthusiastic support from the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble of Columbia College, Chicago under Leslie B. Dunner, who conducts a serviceable account of an early American symphony worthy of being rediscovered.

Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his website Classical Lost and Found.

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Bob McQuiston