Florence Price: Dances in the Canebrakes

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 1953, just months before Price’s unexpected death, Dances in the Canebrakes is a short suite for piano. After Price’s death in 1953, William Grant Still orchestrated the three movements into a short orchestral suite (although for this blog the focus will remain on Price’s original piano version).

 

Movement I – Nimble Feet

The opening rag, named Nimble Feet, is a cheery piece that intertwines a typical rag accompaniment with a peppy melody. All three movements, as the title of the suite suggests, are based on old-style ballroom and stage rags, made famous by the likes of Scott Joplin. The light melody, representing the nimble feet, is charismatic and cheeky as it plays with the accompaniment. The opening movement finishes with a reprise of the opening melody as the hands unite for the final sequence of chords.

Movement II – Tropical Noon

The slow-drag style of the second movement is largely represented in the heavier accompanying hand work. The melody is dreamy and is really easy-going. The slight change in character during the middle of the movement is more assertive in its presentation, however the dreamy melody returns to bring this movement to a close.

 

Movement III – Silk Hat and Walking Cane

The title of the suite came from inspiration that Price found in the title for this movement. The cakewalk style presented in this movement is taken from the late 19th century ballroom. The sparkling melody cascades down the piano during the opening sequence and this becomes a core theme for the movement. There are three distinct sections in this movement, with each one representing the idea of theatrical and ballroom dancing. After a reprise of the opening cascading melody, Silk Hat and Walking Cane comes to its twinkling finish.

 

Final Thoughts

Florence Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes was one of her final works before her untimely death in 1953. Three twee movements of dance music, reflecting past traditions from both stage and hall. 

 

Happy Reading!

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