About this Recording
8.559827 - PRICE, F.B.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 (Fort Smith Symphony, Jeter)

Florence Beatrice Price (1887–1953)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor (1932) • Symphony No. 4 in D minor (1945)


The broad arc of Florence Price’s life in many ways resembled those of the millions of African Americans who moved away from the southern United States in search of new professional opportunities and greater personal autonomy during the Jim Crow era. Born into a middle-class family in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, Price received a sound musical education from her mother after the city’s pre-eminent white instructors refused to teach her. Since opportunities for more advanced musical training were largely unavailable for women of colour in the South, her mother enrolled her at the New England Conservatory after she completed high school in 1903. There she pursued courses of study in organ and piano pedagogy while receiving tutelage in all musical disciplines from conservatory faculty, including director George Whitefield Chadwick.

After graduating from the conservatory in 1906, Price began her professional career as an instructor at segregated academies in Arkansas and Georgia. She married an attorney, Thomas Jewell Price, six years later, and the two remained in Little Rock until a brutal lynching and financial difficulties prompted the family to relocate to Chicago in 1927. During this 15-year period, she managed a large private piano studio, composed an extensive collection of pedagogical music for children, and began raising her two daughters, Florence and Edith. Price’s career as a composer erupted after she moved to Chicago, where she had developed contacts while taking summer courses at the Chicago Musical College. With the added support of leading figures within the Chicago Black Renaissance, especially Estelle Bonds, whose home served as a central gathering place for artists, Price’s works won several contests designed to support black composers. These victories propelled her into the national spotlight and garnered attention from musical luminaries like contralto Marian Anderson, with whom she collaborated extensively, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra director Frederick Stock. Over the course of her later career, Price wrote in a variety of genres for the classical and popular marketplaces and participated actively in local chapters of the National Association for Negro Musicians (NANM) and the National Federation of Music Clubs.

With few connections to a local orchestra before moving to Chicago, Price had little incentive to pursue symphonic composition. But the Rodman Wanamaker prize sponsored by the NANM, which featured an orchestral music category, afforded her a potentially gainful opportunity to explore symphonic writing without the need to secure a performance. Her Symphony in E minor won the $500 first prize in 1932. Frederick Stock took an interest in the piece and agreed to give its premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the city’s Century of Progress International Exhibition in June 1933. This concert marked the first time a major American orchestra had performed a piece written by an African American woman.

Price wrote at least two other symphonies (No. 3 and No. 4), while a fourth (No. 2) is presumed missing or incomplete; only a few finished measures survive. The circumstances surrounding the composition of her Fourth Symphony, which is featured on this recording, are opaque, for it remained unperformed during her lifetime and no evidence suggests that she wrote it for a contest. Price faced health complications during the 1940s and 1950s that might have prevented her from pursuing a performance as actively as she might have otherwise. In the months leading up to her sudden death, she was preparing for opportunities abroad and might have attempted to secure a premiere overseas had she been able to complete the journey.

As musicologist Rae Linda Brown has shown in her critical edition of the Symphony in E minor, which was used for this recording, the piece owes a stylistic debt to Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor “From the New World” (1893), and to the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Both composers integrated elements of the Negro spirituals and traditional Negro dances into their large-scale symphonic works, and Price followed suit. She once wrote, “We are waking up to the fact pregnant with possibilities that we already have a folk music in the Negro spirituals—music which is potent, poignant, compelling. It is simple heart music and therefore powerful.” Like Dvořák, Price did not tend to quote from Negro spirituals or dances directly, but rather infused the symphony with idiomatic gestures drawn from their melodies and rhythms.

The symphony follows the standard four-movement plan: an allegro in sonata form; a slow, lyrical second movement; a dance-like rondo; and a presto finale. The opening Allegro ma non troppo combines a brooding agitation reminiscent of Johannes Brahms’ orchestral music in minor keys (the Tragic Overture or the First Symphony, for example) and a flair for the grand gesture akin to William Grant Still’s roughly contemporary “Afro- American” Symphony. The movement’s broad, lyrical themes openly draw from Negro folk idioms with the heavy use of the pentatonic scale and judicious syncopation. The stately, hymn-like theme of the second movement, Largo, maestoso, presented by a full chorus of brass instruments, draws from Price’s experiences as an organist. A series of call-and-response units between various soloists and the brass chorale culminates in a grand restatement of the opening, replete with tubular bells.

Whereas symphonists in the Germanic tradition typically included a scherzo (literally, “a joke”) in the third movement, certain composers used vernacular dances in its place. The American composer George Frederick Bristow, for example, used a polka in his Second Symphony. As in many of her works in conventional genres, here Price drew from the wellspring of Negro vernacular dance by writing a “juba,” an antebellum slave style characterized by complex body percussion (foot stomping, chest patting) and syncopated melodies. Price’s colourful treatment, which includes a slide whistle, fully captures the style’s lighthearted character. The rollicking Finale is another example of one of the oldest symphonic traditions: a light, propulsive perpetuum mobile in a dance-like compound meter that culminates in a satisfying climax.

The Symphony No. 4 in D minor is cut from the same stylistic cloth, and it shares the standard four-movement arrangement, complete with a Juba Dance. The intense character of the opening movement, Tempo moderato, closely matches that of the earlier work, but the primary melody, sounded in the winds and brass after a brief introduction, is less sweeping; it also contains a quick reference to the Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water.” This compactness allowed Price to use specific motives (or bits and pieces of the tune) as the basis for extensive development and colourful elaboration throughout the rest of the movement—as if she took three notes and turned the dial on her musical kaleidoscope. After a restatement of the main theme following this developmental process, the expected secondary theme appears in its full glory in a moment that sounds like Price pulled all the stops of her organ. A grandiose coda provides a fitting close.

The primary melody of the brief second movement, marked Andante cantabile and sounded first in the oboe, is reminiscent of a gentle lullaby. A series of compact variations highlights Price’s penchant for tight ensemble writing among the orchestra’s distinct instrument groupings. She returned to an upbeat but easygoing Juba Dance in the next movement. The strings and woodwinds drive the highly syncopated melody in the opening section with the lower strings providing characteristic offbeat punctuation. A contrasting middle section unlike anything else in Price’s symphonic oeuvre interrupts the dance. A long, sinewy melody in the oboe, underpinned by pizzicato strings, paints a portrait of a different time and place altogether. The musical language strongly evokes Duke Ellington’s “jungle style,” which had become his signature by this time. As in the First Symphony, the breathless final movement, Scherzo, alternates between stern and playful moods that rise to an explosive conclusion.

Douglas Shadle
Vanderbilt University

Close the window