First off, I think it’s high time I admitted that this series has morphed away from an exclusive focus on tone poems toward a general focus on whatever piece of classical music I’m grooving on at any point in time, so that’s what it’s going to be, even if I continue to call it “Tone Poem Tuesday” for reasons of alliterative nature (and the fact that I don’t really feel like launching a new posting series with new title). OK? OK!
So, naturally, let’s turn our attention to a piano concerto.
Florence Price, a Black composer who lived from 1887 to 1953, has appeared a number of times in this space over the last several months, and when 2020 is over, I wonder if her music might not be the finest musical discovery I make this year. Every work of hers I hear is vibrant and full of drama and color, and this concerto is no exception. It is lush and romantic in its orchestration, but distinctly Black in its musical language and its thematic material.
The work is in a single movement that nevertheless has three distinct sections within: the big first “movement”, the slow second movement, and a spritely third. We open with a solo trumpet sounding the first notes of what will be the first section’s main theme, a tune that is redolent of a spiritual, and that theme does in fact dominate a movement that is as big and bold in its statements as any great Romantic concerto. Then, in the slow movement, there is another gorgeous melody with a strong folk-like character (its pentatonic nature makes it even sound less moored in a specific time and place), before the final dance-like allegretto begins. It sounds like ragtime to me, but on reading a bit, apparently the finale is based on the juba, a specific dance from the plantations that predated ragtime.
Price’s concerto is one of the most delightful things I’ve heard all year, and I’ve heard a lot of delightful music this year. There is sweep and energy and emotion and lyricism and, in the end, a compellingly rhythmic dance that leaves the toe tapping, if I may invoke a rather tired cliche.
And it does all this in roughly eighteen minutes. Florence Price does something wonderfully economical here.
The work was performed in the early 1930s, with Price herself as the soloist, but unfortunately it appears to have utterly disappeared since then, until apparently in 2012 a composer named Trevor Weston was commissioned to recreate the work based on orchestral parts. Price’s own autograph score is long lost. Once again I am struck by how tenuous our grip truly is on the artistic work of our forebears.
Here is the Concerto in One Movement by Florence Price. Please give it a listen! And really, give it at least two. It deserves it.