Groundbreaking Symphonies from Florence Beatrice Price

To celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the recent Women's March, we turn the spotlight on Symphonies Nos.1 & 4 of Florence Beatrice Price (1887–1953), the first African American woman to have her music performed by a major American orchestra. In doing so, I extend a big thank you to Naxos, whose invaluable American Classics series continues to record works by American composers both famous and relatively unknown.

Price, who was born in Little Rock, AR, first encountered prejudice at a young age, when her city's most highly regarded white music teachers refused to welcome her as a pupil. With the support of her mother, she enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music in 1903, after she had finished high school, where she specialized in organ and piano.

After marrying Attorney Thomas Jewell Price, Price taught in Little Rock until 1927, when financial challenges and a terrible lynching impelled the couple to relocate to Chicago. There, Price thrived as a musician. After winning several competitions, and befriending contralto Marian Anderson and Frederick Stock , the director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Price saw her First Symphony premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Chicago's Century of Progress International Exhibition in June 1933.

Well-played by the Fort Smith Symphony of Arkansas, conducted by John Jeter, the opening of Price's Symphony No.1 in e will surely remind music lovers of Dvorák's "New World Symphony." (Musicologist Rae Linda Brown also points to the influence of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.) Catchy melodies abound, with a variety of percussion adding color to the mix.

After a lyrical second movement which abounds in dignity, the symphony's unusual third movement Scherzo develops into a juba, a pre-Civil War slave style of music known for its foot stomping, chest patting, and syncopated rhythms. Price's answer to a Strauss waltz, this fun and energetic third movement comes complete with a slide-whistle interjection and a thunderous bass ending. The final movement at first sounds a bit like an Irish reel, but builds in energy to its big pounding cymbal-rich close.

Symphony No.4 in d also includes a third-movement juba dance of sorts. This one begins like a cakewalk, but soon develops into a touching spiritual. Fragments of the beloved spiritual "Wade in the Water" surface in the opening movement, which grows grander and more distinguished as it proceeds. Several themes are passed around in the second movement, with one harking back to the largo of Dvorak's Symphony No.9.

The final movement begins with what at first sounds like a tarantella. Douglas Shadle, author of the recording's liner notes, says that this music strongly evokes Duke Ellington's "jungle style," which was extremely popular at the time. Be that as it may, I also hear a lot of European classical influence. The finale is quite delicious, with lots of spicy energy that seems reminiscent of the whirling orchestral commentary in Mefistofele's "Le Veau D'Or" (The Calf of Gold) aria from Gounod's opera, Faust. Although the performance would have sounded even more striking at a faster tempo, the Fort Smith Symphony delivers quite the rousing, percussion-pounding finish.

The liner notes' photo of the covered stage of the multi-purpose ArcBest Performing Arts Center in downtown Fort Smith, where Price's symphonies were recorded, explains why, even in 24/96, the recording lacks ultimate air and expanse, and percussion sometimes seems a bit throttled. Nonetheless, if you turn your volume way up, you'll discover that producer, engineer, and editor Tim Handley has done his dedicated best to overcome the venue's acoustic limitations.

dougotte's picture

Thanks, Jason, for yet another interesting review. I'm unfamiliar with Price, but will definitely try this release.