Originally appeared in the Fall 2019 Members’ Newsletter
Florence Price (1887–1953) was one of the first African-American women to be nationally recognized as a composer, and the first African-American woman to have her work performed by a major American orchestra; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in 1933.
Price is known to have expanded the American musical vernacular by elegantly combining the language of her classical training with modern references inspired by African-American spirituals and blues. She also drew inspiration from her personal connections with other prominent artists of the time, from poet Langston Hughes to singer Marian Anderson. (Anderson regularly performed Price’s haunting arrangement of My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord, including to close out her historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.)
Though Price composed hundreds of pieces and enjoyed some measure of success during her lifetime, after her death she swiftly faded into the background of a canon dominated by white men, and much of her work was thought to be lost until a trove of manuscripts were discovered in 2009, in what had been her summer home outside of Chicago. Since then, her works have been the subject of renewed interest; she was the highlight of a 2018 New Yorker article titled “The Rediscovery of Florence Price” and a New York Times article titled “Welcoming a Black Female Composer into the Canon. Finally.”
Caramoor audiences will have a chance to hear two of Price’s works on Sunday, November 17th when this year’s Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence, the Thalea String Quartet, performs them in the Music Room alongside Copland and Beethoven. The string quartet, Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, is rooted in the American spiritual tradition, reflecting Price’s cultural heritage in the Deep South. It features a handful of African-American spirituals played in contrapuntal textures: Calvary, Clementine, Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes, Shortnin’ Bread, and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
Price’s Piano Sextet began its life as the Concerto in One Movement, which premiered in Chicago in 1934 with Price herself as piano soloist. Like so much of her music, this work disappeared and was only rediscovered (and reconstructed) in this century. Pianist Michelle Cann has championed the Concerto for the past three years, bringing it to orchestras around the country. In 2018, she and the Thalea String Quartet decided to make it available to a wider public by commissioning a chamber version, which they will play on this concert.
I hope you’ll join me on Sunday, November 17th to discover Florence Price’s music!
VP of Artistic Programming, Executive Producer
Main photo by G. Nelidoff, courtesy of Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville