Florence Price was a Black composer who lived from 1887 to 1953. Her work was always held in fairly high regard–she was the first Black woman to have a work performed by a major symphony orchestra, in 1933, when her Symphony in E minor was played by the Chicago Symphony.
And yet, her work was also neglected, much of it forgotten, and quite a bit of it almost destroyed.
In an article in The New Yorker, Alex Ross relates this anecdote that is both shocking and not the least bit surprising in any way, assuming one knows something about the history of art, of music, and of race in the United States:
n 2009, Vicki and Darrell Gatwood, of St. Anne, Illinois, were preparing to renovate an abandoned house on the outskirts of town. The structure was in poor condition: vandals had ransacked it, and a fallen tree had torn a hole in the roof. In a part of the house that had remained dry, the Gatwoods made a curious discovery: piles of musical manuscripts, books, personal papers, and other documents. The name that kept appearing in the materials was that of Florence Price. The Gatwoods looked her up on the Internet, and found that she was a moderately well-known composer, based in Chicago, who had died in 1953. The dilapidated house had once been her summer home. The couple got in touch with librarians at the University of Arkansas, which already had some of Price’s papers. Archivists realized, with excitement, that the collection contained dozens of Price scores that had been thought lost. Two of these pieces, the Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, have recently been recorded by the Albany label: the soloist is Er-Gene Kahng, who is based at the University of Arkansas.
The reasons for the shocking neglect of Price’s legacy are not hard to find. In a 1943 letter to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, she introduced herself thus: “My dear Dr. Koussevitzky, To begin with I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.” She plainly saw these factors as obstacles to her career, because she then spoke of Koussevitzky “knowing the worst.” Indeed, she had a difficult time making headway in a culture that defined composers as white, male, and dead. One prominent conductor took up her cause—Frederick Stock, the German-born music director of the Chicago Symphony—but most others ignored her, Koussevitzky included. Only in the past couple of decades have Price’s major works begun to receive recordings and performances, and these are still infrequent.
The musicologist Douglas Shadle, who has documented the vagaries of Price’s career, describes her reputation as “spectral.” She is widely cited as one of the first African-American classical composers to win national attention, and she was unquestionably the first black woman to be so recognized. Yet she is mentioned more often than she is heard. Shadle points out that the classical canon is rooted in “conscious selection performed by individuals in positions of power.” Not only did Price fail to enter the canon; a large quantity of her music came perilously close to obliteration. That run-down house in St. Anne is a potent symbol of how a country can forget its cultural history.
Early in her life, Price knew that the world would be prejudiced against her, as a Black person; so she decided on a course that she hoped would help allay those prejudices. For a time she identified as Mexican. Her early years were spent in Arkansas, but when the situation of living in the South as a Black person (and family) became untenable, she and her family relocated to Chicago.
This piece, which I just heard for the first time several days ago and have been listening to repeatedly since, is a startlingly effective three-movement tone poem that includes elements of late Romanticism, jazz, and even hints of African chant. It is entitled Ethiopia’s Shadow in America. The movements are delineated as follows:
I. Introduction and Allegretto: The Arrival of the Negro in America when first brought here as a slave
II. Andante: His Resignation and Faith
III. Allegro: His Adaptation. A fusion of his native and acquired impulses
I have not been able to find much information at all about this piece, beyond what I’ve cited above. It has only been performed in its entirety in just the last few years, which I find astonishing because it’s a very compelling piece! Its middle movement, which takes on an almost hymnlike spiritual quality, is flanked by two movements of tragic brooding on the one hand and energetic optimism on the other.