New Sounds from a Familiar Face: Florence B. Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2

Photo: Florence Price (University of Arkansas Libraries, Special Collections)

Florence Price is not being rediscovered, argues musicologist A. Kori Hill. Instead, the network of musicians supporting her music is growing and will hopefully lead to the sustained programming of one of America’s most important voices.

By A. Kori Hill

As Vicki and Darrell Gatwood renovated Florence Price’s former summer home in 2009, they were initially unaware of the home’s previous owner. But they recognized her presence immediately. Her name was everywhere: on books, manuscripts, sheet music — these were not items to be tossed aside. Their decision to contact two University of Arkansas-Fayetteville archivists led to the reintegration of a segment of Price’s repertoire, including the Violin Concerto No. 2, that had gone unaccounted for decades.

Eleven years after the rediscovery of the concerto’s manuscript, the Seattle Symphony will give their debut performance of Price’s Second Violin Concerto on March 12 and 14, 2020.

Florence Price (1887–1953) was born to music teacher and real estate agent Florence Gulliver and dentist James Smith in Little Rock, Arkansas. She came of age during “the nadir of Reconstruction,” a period where the newly acquired rights of African Americans were being systemically dismantled through the passage of Jim Crow laws. Amid these encroaching limitations of their rights, her parents ensured that Price received the best education possible, which included support of her musical interests.

Price graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) in 1906. While pursuing degrees in organ performance and piano pedagogy, she studied composition with Frederick Converse and NEC’s music director, composer George Chadwick. Her career was multifaceted, spanning roles as composer, performer, teacher, administrator, wife and mother. Her relocation to Chicago in 1927 with her future ex-husband and two daughters put her in the midst of an active classical community in Chicago’s South Side.

She joined the Chicago branches of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), an organization founded in 1919 to support the professional needs of Black classical musicians. She also broke the color line of two Chicago music clubs: the Musicians Club of Women and the Chicago Club of Women Organists.

She forged connections with important individuals: Estella Bonds, a musician whose home was an intellectual center for local and visiting Black artists; her daughter, Margaret Bonds, a pianist and composer who studied and collaborated with Price on multiple occasions; and Marian Anderson, a world-renowned classical vocalist and collaborator who regularly programmed and recorded Price’s art songs and concert spirituals.

Price’s Symphony in E minor (1931), winner of the Wanamaker Competition’s symphony category, was programmed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933, the first time a major ensemble performed a symphony by a Black American woman. The next year, Price performed her Concerto in One Movement with the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago.

Price was part of a generation of Black composers who recognized the rich repository of Black folk music. Drawing from spirituals and juba dance, two traditions originating in the enslavement period, Price explored the structural potential of African American harmonies, rhythmic structures, and methods of quotation in Western classical genres.

Her art songs, concert spirituals, character pieces, concertos and symphonies reflected creative decisions that were individually driven and politically significant: an exploration of creative ideals, Black Americans’ past in visions of their present and the creation of the music she wanted to hear.

The Violin Concerto No. 2 (1952) has four sections that contain introductory, primary and secondary themes that appear in each section set to different textures. The repetition of each theme in new contexts reflects Price’s engagement with standard elements from the spiritual genre.

The primary theme features rhythmic and harmonic elements from juba dance, and the secondary theme showcases aspects of Price’s style: the orchestra as a duet partner for the soloist; the pairing of strings and brass instruments to create a warm, round timbre; and creative ways to bring familiar material in conversation with new polyphonic settings.

Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 was performed by its dedicatee, Minnie Jernberg, in 1955 and 1964. The 1964 performance was part of the opening celebration for the Florence B. Price Elementary School, a Chicago public school that closed in 2011. After the rediscovery of the manuscript, the concerto was recorded by Er-Gene Kahng and the Janáček Philharmonic for the first time in 2018.

For some, the current increase in programming by mainstream ensembles is a sign that Florence Price’s music is undergoing a renaissance. For others, she is once again receiving overdue attention. Musicians, scholars and organizations like NANM have been performing, studying and discussing her music since the 1930s. Florence Price is not being rediscovered. Rather, the network of musicians who know her repertoire is growing and will hopefully lead to sustained programming and enjoyment of her music for decades to come.

A. Kori Hill is pursuing a PhD in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her dissertation studies the concertos of Florence Price in the context of early 20th century Black modernist thought and expression. She is the Director of Social Media for the Harry T. Burleigh Society and enjoys reading, watching movies and Instagramming in her spare time.

Get tickets for Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with Elisa Barston and the Seattle Symphony on March 12 and 14, 2020.

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Posted on January 21, 2020

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