Florence Price: Symphony No. 1
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.
Price’s First Symphony was composed in 1931, where she wrote to a friend that:
“I found it posisble to snatch a few precious days in the month of January in which to write undisturbed. But, oh dear me, when shall I ever be so fortunate again as to break a foot!”
The symphony won the Rodman Wanamaker Prize in 1932, which brought Price’s music to the attention of Frederick Stock, who was conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Stock then premiered a performance of the work in 1933 with the CSO. Price’s First Symphony won critical acclaim and was marked as the first symphony by an African-American woman composer to be performed by a major American orchestra. The symphony takes a traditional four movement structure, with all four movements bringing something different to the table. Described as a “tour-de-force” work by critics, it is no wonder the work received such popular reviews.
Movement I – Allegro ma non troppo
Based on two melodies reminiscent of the African-American spiritual, the first movement is the longest of the symphony. The second theme is heavily influenced by Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Price’s rich string writing makes for an exciting opening movement, with the winds, brass and percussion also being effectively utilised throughout the movement. Price’s use of folk melodies makes an impact during this movement. From the sweeping melody lines to the quirky changes in orchestration during the music, the grass roots feel of the music is perhaps why it became so popular. The use of percussion is particularly interesting, with Price using both tuned and non-tuned percussion to build tension, add drama and heighten the colourful explosions of sound she creates.
Movement II – Largo maestoso
The second movement is based on a hymn-like melody that is inspired by Price’s interest in church music. The melody is first heard at the start of the movement, when the ten-part brass choir play it with an unusual percussion accompaniment. Throughout this movement Price explores not only the development of this hymn, but also the textures within the orchestra. The importance of both of these things makes this an exciting movement that is exploitative and humble.
Movement III – Juba Dance
Perhaps the most well-known of all four movements of the symphony, the ‘Juba Dance’ is based on a characteristic African-American ante-bellum dance. The rhythmic element of African music in particular is of great importance, and that is what Price explores and develops in this movement of music. The strong syncopated opening sets the scene and is developed over the rest of the movement.
Movement IV – Presto
Finishing off with a dynamic and fiery ‘presto’ finale, Price’s keen eye for technical writing shines out. The constant pulse set by the strings is transferred around the orchestra, creating a kind of perpetuum mobile effect. The slow middle part of the movement subtly builds the music back up for an exciting finish to the movement. The interlocking themes from the winds in particular are the highlight here, with the long polyphonic lines woven together expertly by Price. The ending is somewhat dark, which leaves the listener wanting and searching for more.
Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 is an exciting and multifaceted orchestral work that brings together the most important elements of a symphony and highlights each one in the various movements. From the harmonic movement of the first, to the melody of the second, the rhythm of the third and the technical writing of the fourth, Price’s symphony is a tour-de-force for orchestra. Seldom performed today, Price’s works remain largely untouched by American orchestras. However, the rich cultural heritage of her works have proven to stand the test of time, with this symphony being no different.
Hopefully soon her works will be performed more in the public domain so that she can be recognised for her fantastic contribution to American classical music.
Ⓒ Alex Burns