Priceless: The Music of Florence Price

Saturday, Sep. 21, 8 p.m., free

Baldwin Auditorium, Durham 

Florence Price didn’t mince words in a November 1943 letter to Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra: “My dear Dr. Koussevitzky, to begin with, I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. I am a woman and I have some Negro blood in my veins.”

The then fifty-three-year-old composer was no slouch. The Chicago Symphony performed her first symphony in 1933, making her the first African-American woman to have a piece performed by a major U.S. orchestra. It was also the only performance of her music by a major U.S. orchestra in her lifetime. She was well aware of the double bind her identity created in a classical music world that was dominated by white men (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, still is).

Her music has long been neglected, but a recent revival is stirring up interest. This Saturday, a group of Duke University performance faculty, students, and alumni will present a cross-section of her chamber and vocal music in a concert called “Priceless: The Music of Florence Price” at Baldwin Auditorium. It is, as far as anyone can tell, the first performance devoted entirely to Price’s music in the Triangle, and certainly the first time most of these pieces have been heard here.

Florence Beatrice Smith was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887 to a middle-class family living in a racially integrated community. Her musical talent was apparent from the beginning: Under her mother’s tutelage, she gave her first piano recital at age four and published her first composition at age eleven. At the age of fourteen, she graduated as valedictorian of her high school and, in 1904, went to study piano and organ at the New England Conservatory. Despite attending one of the only integrated conservatories in the country, Price still felt the need to pass herself off as being Mexican rather than African-American.

After graduating with a double degree, she began teaching composition, bouncing between Arkansas and Atlanta before settling back in Little Rock in 1912. Arkansas in the 1910s and ’20s was a different place than it had been during her childhood, with white supremacist violence on the rise alongside segregationist laws. A lynching in downtown Little Rock prompted her family to move to Chicago in 1927.

Once there, she dove into the city’s musical world and entered the most productive phase of her compositional career. Her songs and piano music began to be published by major publishers, and in 1933, her first symphony and piano sonata won a first and third prize, respectively, in the Wanamaker Foundation Awards. Marian Anderson ended her famed Lincoln Memorial concert with Price’s arrangement of the spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” which would continue to be a staple of Anderson’s concerts for the rest of her career. But following her death in 1953, Price’s music mostly disappeared, beyond the occasional footnote.

That began changing when, in 2009, thirty boxes of Price’s manuscripts and other materials were discovered in her summer home in St. Anne, Illinois. Archivists at the University of Arkansas, where her papers are kept, quickly discovered dozens of unknown pieces, including two violin concertos, two symphonies, a piano concerto, and piles of other, smaller works. This discovery, alongside recent efforts to include more diverse voices in classical concerts, has led to an explosion of performances of her music.

Locally, in just the past year, the North Carolina Symphony performed her piano concerto, the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle played her first symphony, and the Raleigh Civic Symphony performed a movement from her first violin concerto and gave what may have been the U.S. premiere of her tone poem “Ethiopia’s Shadow in America.” 

On top of that, the Duke Symphony and pianist Karen Walwyn will perform her piano concerto next month in Baldwin Auditorium. It’s a remarkable turn of events.

Saturday’s concert expands the revival to her pieces for smaller ensembles. 

“I’ve been passionate about her work since I first ran across her vocal writings about ten years ago,” says pianist David Heid, who organized the concert. “When all this music was discovered, I started thinking, there’s so much stuff that doesn’t get performed for a variety of reasons.”

“Priceless” collects eight songs for soprano and piano, her string quartet Five Folk Songs in Counterpoint, her piano sonata, and six pieces for chorus. Price’s music is, in a way, a throwback, mixing grand, Romantic-era gestures with a deep understanding of folk music and spirituals, often toggling between those modes with sophistication and ease. She’s at her best when those two sides feed off each other, with rich-hued harmonies sitting alongside off-kilter rhythms and joyful melodies intentionally informed by African-American folk music.

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has written of her music, “I have the uncanny sense of hearing the symphonies and operas that women and African Americans were all but barred from writing during the Romantic heyday.” Heid describes her piano writing as “big,” saying she was “clearly a pianist at heart.”

The choral pieces are the most rarely heard, in part because the scores are so hard to come by. Heid and Duke University professor and choral director Rodney Wynkoop spent months this summer trying to track down scores, many of which are only available in the University of Arkansas archives. According to Wynkoop, Price’s delicate script was often hard to make out, but the effort was worth it. 

“[Her music] should have been heard more,” Wynkoop says. “I’m so glad to play some small role in putting this out there.”

Heid elaborates, saying of that 1933 performance with the Chicago Symphony, “It was actually fairly well-received by the papers at the time, but it was treated sort of like a comet hit the earth. It didn’t occur to anybody that, with opportunity, there would be lots of music by black women being played.” It’s a shame that it’s taken so long for Price to get the recognition she so clearly deserves. This concert is another step toward moving her out of the footnotes and into the broader musical consciousness.

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