Florence Price: The Oak

Context

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, Florence Beatrice Smith Price received early musical training from her mother. Price went to study at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, graduating in 1906 with a Soloist’s Diploma in Organ Performance, and a Teacher’s Diploma in Piano Performance. Whilst at conservatoire, Price also studied composition with Wallace Goodrich, Frederick Converse and George W. Chadwick.

After completing her degree, Price returned back to the south to teach music at the Cotton Plant-Arkadelphia Academy in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Shorter College in North Little Rock, Arkansas and then at Clark University in Atlanta (1910-1912). After around 20 years teaching, Price and her family moved to Chicago to ultimately escape the racial tension in the south. It was here that she was able to properly establish herself as a concert pianist, organist and composer.

During her career Price received many accolades. She composed over 300 compositions, including 20 full orchestral works and over 110 art songs. Her orchestral works in particular were performed by leading American orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Michigan W. P. A. Symphony Orchestra, the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago and U.S. Marine Band, to name but a few. Price also worked with esteemed vocalists such as Ellabelle David, Todd Duncan and Blanch Theborn. 

Price was the first African-American woman composer to earn national recognition. Seen as a pioneer among women, she was celebrated constantly for her achievements. She was in the cluster of composers in the 1930s-40s that helped define America’s voice in classical music. Her musical style represents her cultural heritage, but also the national Romantic style of the period.

 


The Music

Composed in 1943, The Oak is an unpublished tone poem that has only in the last few years been professionally recorded. Unlike many other of Price’s works, The Oak is notably more serious in tone and character. The foreboding string opening slowly grows as more instruments enter the mix. Price’s rich orchestral writing shines here as the woodwind interludes go against the rich and sonorous strings.

The Oak explores a number of different moods and atmospheres, from mysterious to more aggressive and irritated. The work has been described as an “orchestral essay” as it is explorative and behaves in a different way to a symphony or overture.The rich and sonorous textures are very present throughout The Oak, with Price’s writing for woodwind and brass stealing the limelight at calculated intervals. As the big climax of the piece is reached in the last minute of the piece, the explosion of orchestral colour and intensity also comes to its head. Dissonant chords fly through the orchestra as the ensemble unite for one final chord.

 

Happy Reading!

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