15Professional Recognition: Reconciling Gender, Class, and Race
16The WPA Years
17The Chicago Renaissance
18The Symphony No. 3
19Final Years: The Heart of a Woman
Afterword by Carlene J. Brown
For Further Reading
Florence Price, Rae Linda Brown, and the Art of a Woman
GUTHRIE P. RAMSEY JR.
The year was 1979. Rae Linda Brown didn’t know it at the time, but fate was putting her on a course to tell another black woman musician’s life story. Brown was working on a graduate degree in African American Studies at Yale University. She was doing the yeoman’s work of cataloguing all the music in the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters when she happened on an anomaly—a manuscript score written by a composer she’d never heard of and one that would change her life. The score was a symphony—Symphony No. 3 in C minor—and it was composed by a Florence Beatrice Price.
Although she was intrigued by this woman and her music, Brown continued to work dutifully in the archive. The results of her efforts became her MA thesis, which she completed in 1980. It was published in 1982 and seen immediately as an important contribution to the field. She chose this kind of reference work, perhaps, as much for practical reasons as for her own scholarly curiosities. It was a finite collection, and thus, as a cataloguing project, it had a clear endpoint. In other words, it perfectly suited an ambitious MA student with designs to move on to the PhD. The idea that she would have under her belt published research work before receiving her doctorate is telling.
At the time that Brown was embarking on her topic, the new field of African American Studies was gaining ground as a legitimate and dynamic discipline. Born of student protests in the 1960s, by the 1980s it was maturing into a bulwark of American arts and letters. Brown apparently understood that cataloging collections like the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection would certainly assist future researchers. More important, however, is that a thesis based on music would make a strong argument for the utility of music studies—and by extension, the expressive arts—within African American Studies. For all her administrative and organizational inclinations (those would bloom brilliantly later in her career), Brown could not have known that her serendipitous discovery of Price’s third symphony would turn into a decade’s long diligent pursuit to learn everything she could about Price and document it.
A gifted pianist, composer, and pedagogue, Florence Price was born in 1887, directly following the Reconstruction period; she died as the Civil Rights Movement was taking shape. She passed away in 1953, the year her most committed scholarly inquisitor, Rae Linda Brown, was born. Brown’s research career took shape during a time in which Black Studies was gaining ground on campuses around the country. Nearly a decade after the intense activism that produced the field began, a wave of “multiculturalism” swept through and reshaped traditional Eurocentric disciplines into more expansive profiles that included black subjects. An explosion of literature energized the field, particularly in the realm of literary criticism buoyed by poststructuralist theoretical tools.
Black music studies made a slower march toward the theoretical excess of 1980s black literary studies that made black cultural study an avant-garde profession in the academy. Black music research’s concerns, however, were more compensatory. And they were precisely what Rae Linda Brown’s work became: the discovery of hidden figures and the providing of supporting materials that also provided context. This shared goal was pursued by an interdisciplinary phalanx of musicians, scholars, composers, and educators who combined forces to discover and document the music that had been, for the most part, ignored by the larger musicological establishment. Rae Linda pursued her quest to write Price’s story within a focused scholarly and musical community with support to give. In many ways, she was the first fruit of the professionalization of black music research.
The black music studies ecology of the post–Civil Rights period into which Brown made her first forays into scholarship was filled with powerhouses. The musicologist Eileen Southern, who was also the first black woman to earn tenure at Harvard University, had written the monumental compendium The Music of Black Americans: A History in 1971. Widely understood as field-defining, the book’s second edition would appear in 1983, a year after Brown’s MA thesis was published. Librarian Dena Epstein’s game-changing book, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, appeared in 1977. Its research took the author nearly two decades to complete. The young folklorist and ethnomusicologist Portia Maultsby challenged her subfield to take black music research seriously—not to give only lip service and “rap sessions” but to give it deliberate, sustained scholarship that was the result of rigorous training. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Maultsby produced a series of publications that ordered her field’s approach to past and present black music making. Academic journals dedicated to black music research appeared during this period as well. Eileen Southern’s The Black Perspective in Music began in 1973. Samuel A. Floyd Jr., founded Black Music Research Journal in 1980. This was all an exciting context for Brown to begin working on a figure like Price. Evidence abounded that there was, indeed, a scholarly audience for work on this musician in that moment.
Rae Linda’s notable mentors and interlocutors also included performers like Willis Patterson, an operatic singer, voice teacher, and professor of music at the University of Michigan. In 1985, Patterson convened the Black American Music Symposium, which was at the time the most ambitious and significant gathering of musicians, scholars, educators, and composers to be assembled to acknowledge African American music’s contributions to America. More than 600 participants (not including the 16,000 audience members) performed and spoke about a variety of topics over six days. Rae Linda Brown, who was listed as a PhD candidate in the program, served on a panel devoted to black women musicians. No doubt, she read from her dissertation-in-progress on Florence Price. Judging from her visibility at the symposium and the trajectory of her career, she was by now recognized as an important emerging voice in the field. Indeed, black music research and the larger discipline of African American Studies (both of which she claimed) were on the move, and Brown was certainly in the forefront of the mix.
From those beginnings, Rae Linda Brown completed her PhD in 1987 (coincidentally the centennial year of Price’s birth) having taken a position at the University of Michigan a year prior. She joined good company there. The pioneering musicologist Richard Crawford had been working to put the study of American music of all kinds into the mainstream of musicological discourse. With both Willis Patterson and Crawford at the institution, she was spared the need to validate the importance of Price as a research topic. From this important bully pulpit—the epic center of American music study—she was clearly participating in the transformation of music studies in the United States.
Brown’s treatment of Price’s life and works reflected many of the personal and professional tributaries that had made her into the scholar she had become. As a musicologist trained at Yale University by Claude Palisca, a luminary in the field from whom she received support and the tools to hear through the silences of history, she told Price’s compelling story. Although her chosen topic may have been “nonstandard” at that time, Brown learned that she could apply the same rigorous standards to Price that Palisca had to his own groundbreaking studies on early music. I got a bird’s-eye view of Brown’s exacting scholarly standards when, as her research assistant, I was instructed to find every reference to Price in The Chicago Defender over a thirty-year period. She wanted no stone left unturned.
As an accomplished organist, Brown’s instincts were inherently, and perhaps primarily, musical. One gets the sense from The Heart of a Woman that she believed Price’s own dedication to music against all odds was the sole reason for telling this story. Indeed, Rae Linda’s impeccable musicianship provided her the necessary skills to prepare Price’s music to be heard by contemporary ears. She worked tirelessly to edit Price’s manuscripts for numerous ensembles through the years. These include the American Symphony Orchestra, the Women’s Philharmonic, the Chicago String Ensemble, the Orchestra of the Plymouth Music Series, the Savannah Symphony, the Albany Symphony, the Springfield Symphony, and the Camellia Symphony. From these editions, musicians have also been able to record Price’s music for posterity. With the zeal of an activist, Brown prepared these editions as if she had taken it upon herself to assure Price’s string of successes would continue well into the future. In The Heart of a Woman, Brown’s artistic empathy can be keenly felt in the ways that she framed Price’s achievements, great and small. Because of her treatment, readers will want to cheer for every musical victory that Price wins, particularly when she became the first black woman composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra.
Clearly, Rae Linda saw this book as a statement of African American Studies and black feminism as much as it is a music studies one. Throughout it she uses intersectional frameworks—though they aren’t named as such—to explain Price’s family history, migrations, and class status, as well as the politics of skin color within African American communities. The arch of the story reaches from slavery through Reconstruction, the Harlem and Chicago Renaissances, the Depression, and up to the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. We follow Price from the Deep South to New England and Chicago. Each environment carried different forms of discrimination. We learn how she navigated an abusive marriage and found the fortitude to provide for her children as a black single mother. We see how she strategically built networks of support among women (both black and white), in much the same way that Brown did in her career. And we witness the challenges faced by an African American woman who dared to view herself as a creator of art music even as she tackled various forms of structural inequalities in that art world. Price fought her entire life to be heard and seen.
Throughout her career, Rae Linda also fought in her quiet, determined way to expand opportunities and expectations for black women in the field. When she left her first faculty position at the University of Michigan for the University of California, Irvine, in 1989, she continued to show the wide scope of her abilities. As the first faculty member to hold the department’s endowed chair at Irvine, she created a new jazz studies program and was ultimately awarded a prestigious teaching award for her efforts. Brown loved jazz; she dedicated her career to teaching its history and spoke often of musicians she found moving and what new music had made an impact on her. Just as she championed the Western art music of African American composers like Florence Price, she was also a strong promoter of jazz musicians in her circle. Although her scholarship was focused on concert music composers, there’s no evidence that Rae Linda believed that it was somehow “better” than jazz. She, like most in the community of scholars in which she cut her teeth, rejected the hierarchies that dominated musicological discourse for decades.
While teaching at Irvine, Brown grew interested in administration, becoming chair of the Department of Music and eventually moving into upper administration as faculty assistant to the executive vice chancellor and provost and serving as dean of several interdisciplinary programs. During that time, she was elected president of the Society for American Music (1999–2001), the first African American to hold that key position. In 2008, her gifts for administration led her to become associate provost for Undergraduate Education at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. When I visited campus once, I was stunned to hear her play organ for the convocation. Indeed, like Price, Rae Linda seemed to keep in touch with her performance side: she never stopped playing for a church throughout her career. I’m sure playing brought her joy, satisfaction, and balance. Her last and most impressive professional accomplishment was becoming Provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Pacific Lutheran University in 2016.
Clearly, Brown tried to satisfy her numerous professional ambitions while balancing them against the demands of single motherhood. Thus, she was in a fine position to thoroughly contextualize Price’s life and career, particularly with respect to being a black woman in a music field. Over the course of our friendship and professional camaraderie, Rae Linda shared with me some of the difficult instances of racism and sexism she’d encountered throughout her career. She aptly demonstrates in The Heart of a Woman that Price had obviously dealt with similar issues. As she traces Price’s family background, childhood, training, and professional ascendance, Brown’s subtle yet unflinching accounts are laced with intermittent commentary that allows readers to identify some of the insidious structural inequities the composer faced as she sought to be heard.
Although the end of Price’s life was marked by heartbreaking disappointments, in Brown’s telling, the entirety of Price’s musical journey can only be considered a success in the history of American concert music. Brown’s analysis of the Symphony No. 3, the piece she discovered in the archive as a graduate student, brings the story of these two musical women’s work full circle. In Brown’s estimation, the work was a remarkable achievement of Afro-modernism in music. Such an assessment—with all its social and musical implications—is made possible by Price’s mature, searching musicianship but also by Brown’s lucid sonic analysis, which shows the evolution of the composer’s voice throughout the book.
In the acknowledgments, Rae Linda states that her mentors Claude Palisca and Eileen Southern advised her to “keep digging” for information about Price at a time when her music had faded from public attention. She did. In 1999, the year she became president of the Society for American Music (then the Sonneck Society), Rae Linda received responses from three scholars (I was one) to what was the first full draft of this book. The present version is taken from a 2006 version, which apparently incorporated suggestions from the 1999 reports. Rae Linda continued to work toward improving her manuscript: it was marked up with handwritten notes that were obviously never intended for others’ eyes. Clearly, she was still digging—scrambling to keep up with developments in Price’s legacy and with the many demands of her fast-track career in college administration. Rae Linda stated near the end of her life that this book was completed and directed her sister, the music scholar Carlene Brown, to see it that it was published. This important book and the numerous performances that Rae Linda tirelessly facilitated for ensembles through the years are testaments to her devotion to Price’s life and legacy.
Price’s music is in vogue again and enjoying a new level of visibility because of Rae Linda’s foundational and decades-long dedication. And now a new generation of scholars, musicians, and institutions are unearthing lost scores, adding new insights and the programming and recording of her compositions.1 There’s even a Facebook page providing updates about Price’s work and a documentary of her life that appeared in 2015. Indeed, these are some of the compelling reasons for The Heart of a Woman to have its moment now—years after it was first conceived.
But there’s another reason for this book’s necessity today. With the rise of women as both powerful subjects of and authors of new scholarship, it’s important to see Rae Linda’s final scholarly statement as another example of what women can achieve both musically and intellectually despite all the obstacles placed before them. In this way, The Heart of a Woman can be considered a contemporary statement of black feminist thought. Indeed, this book stands as a profound testament to how far the hearts of two women—the composer and the determined scholarly devotee—could push their craft. As the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson wrote in the poem that gave this book and a Price song its title, “[t]he heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn … even as it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.”
Just as Florence Price died as she was about to embark on her first European trip that would prove her international acclaim, Rae Linda Brown passed away before she could see this manuscript in book form. It will nonetheless always stand as testament to my friend, mentor, and sister’s significance to the field of American music studies. Her musicianship, scholarly standards, drive, and devotion can be experienced on every page of this moving book.
My biography of Florence B. Price is very long in coming. My interest in Florence Price began while completing my master’s degree at Yale University. In 1979–1980, I catalogued the music in the James Weldon Johnson Collection of Negro Arts and Letters in the Beinecke Rare Book Library.1 It was there that I found some of Price’s music, including the unpublished manuscript of the Symphony in C Minor (1940). Many years later while considering dissertation topics, I talked with the late Professor Eileen Southern who encouraged me to consider a topic in African American music. That conversation, at the annual AMS meeting in Boston in 1981, was the first of many we had over the years. How glad I am that I took her advice. My interest in and dedication to research, writing, and teaching about African American music has remained steady since.
Equally supportive very early on in my investigation of Florence Price’s music was Claude Palisca, my dissertation advisor at Yale University. At a time when American music dissertations were still a novelty at some universities, Professor Palisca enthusiastically championed my topic. To the late Professor Eileen Southern and late Professor Claude Palisca, I owe my heartfelt gratitude. Their passion for research and the high standards that they set for our field have served for me all of these years as inspiration. They taught me to “keep digging” until I found what I was looking for and to never accept “it can’t be found” as an excuse to give up on an important lead. Mostly, they taught me how important it is to love what you do.
During the earlier years of my research, there were numerous librarians, musicologists, and historians who helped me to gather information about Florence Price. These include Deborra Richardson (Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University), Sharon Scott, Dorothy Lyles, and Edward Manney (Vivian Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Carter G. Woodson Regional Library of the Chicago Public Library), Tom Dillard (Torreyson Library, University of Central Arkansas), Jeanne Morrow (New England Conservatory of Music Library), Marguerite L. Daly (New England Conservatory of Music), Jeanne Salathiel (Detroit Public Library), Willard B. Gatewood (University of Arkansas), Chester W. Williams (former dean, New England Conservatory of Music), and Robert Brubaker (Chicago Historical Society). I also wish to thank the reference librarians and staffs of the Detroit Public Library (which conserves the papers of the Michigan W.P.A. Symphony Orchestra); E. Azalia Hackley Memorial Collection of Negro Music, Drama, and Dance (Detroit Public Library); Chicago Public Library Music Division, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University; Mullins Library Special Collections at the University of Arkansas; and the Music Division of the Library of Congress. I especially want to thank Suzanne Flandreau of the Center for Black Music Research, who found material even when I was not looking for it, and Wayne Shirley for his many years of expert advice and dedication to this project.
I am especially grateful to the many colleagues, friends, and students of Florence Price and their sons and daughters who shared with me her musical scores, photographs, letters, scrapbooks, and memorabilia. It is her friends who have given life to this book by sharing their memories and mementos of her with me. These include Eleanor Price (no relation), Vera Flandorf, Orrin Clayton Suthern, II, Dr. Ruth Fouché, Verna Arvey (wife of William Grant Still), Mildred Hall (wife of Dr. Frederick Hall), Bernice Hall (daughter-in-law of Dr. Frederick Hall), and Valter Poole (conductor of the Michigan W.P.A. Orchestra).2 Special thanks go to Dr. Florence Stith, Eugenia Anderson, Bernice Skooglund, and William Duncan Allen, who gave me musical manuscripts and shared their memories of Florence Price. I am particularly indebted to Judith Anne Still (daughter of William Grant Still), Josephine Harreld Love, Helen White, and Marion Ross, all of whom spent days and days with me helping to establish a framework for Florence Price’s life and career. I thank them for their time and hospitality (in Flagstaff, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and Little Rock). From them, I learned about Florence Price, the mother, wife, and friend. They gave me the photographs that appear in this book, many never before seen.
Thanks also go to Theodore Chadwick (great-grandson of George Whitefield Chadwick, director of the New England Conservatory of Music, 1897–1930), who gave me permission to use materials from Chadwick’s memoirs. Special appreciation goes to Lawrence Robinson, Florence Price’s grandson, who shared with me wonderful stories of his grandmother. I also wish to thank Vicki J. Taylor Hammond and Timothy J. Taylor (Florence Price’s grandchildren) for their permission to publish the musical scores, letters, and other materials in this book. Without them, this book would never have come to fruition.
Over these many years, there have been numerous friends and colleagues who have helped me along the way—with suggested leads on information, thoughts about how to organize material, and general words of wisdom. Thanks go to Mildred Denby Green, Calvert Johnson, Steven Ledbetter, Doris McGinty, Josephine Wright, Maurice Wheeler, Judith Tick, Adrienne Fried Block, Marsha Heizer, Rick Powell, and Rich Crawford. A special thank you to Barbara Garvey Jackson who shared with me her initial work on Florence B. Price and was a gracious host during my visit to Arkansas.
To Leonard Brown, Dwight Andrews, Bill Banfield, Samuel A. Floyd Jr., the late Bill Brown, Olly Wilson, T. J. Anderson, Anthony Brown, Willis Patterson, Carol Oja, Vivian Perlis, Hale Smith, Althea Waites, Kei Akagi, Catherine Parsons Smith, R. Drew Smith, Angelique Walker-Smith, and my brother Guthrie Ramsey—oh, my goodness! I give you my deepest gratitude. Your encouragement (phone calls, emails, letters, visits—my house, yours, and at conference convocations), professionalism (talking about, reading, and critiquing my work), and love kept me going when I needed it most. And you always knew.
This book was supported by several fellowships and grants that I received, including a Dorothy Danforth Fellowship (Yale University), Rackham Faculty Research Grant (The University of Michigan), Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, the Institute of American Cultures Research Grant (University of California, Los Angeles), the University of California President’s Fellowship, and a University of California, Irvine Research Grant. Thank you to Jim Simmons, who transcribed all of the musical examples for the book and for never complaining about it. And thank you, Judith McCulloh, for championing this book at the University of Illinois Press from the beginning and for being a wonderful editor and friend.
Last, and most importantly, I am blessed to have a wonderful family—my sisters Carlene Brown and Helaine Teale and their families (Elvis, Ryanna, Nyah, Charles, Ileah, and Jason) who have encouraged me from graduate school to the present; my mother, Doris Brown, upon whose shoulders we all still stand; and my son William of whom I am very proud. Thank you for your love and support.
The necessary evidence required to write a detailed biography of Florence Price is surprisingly scant. She was a very private woman who preferred to reveal herself through her music rather than through correspondence and memorabilia. Since Price was a devoted single mother who also had a commanding career, she probably had precious little time to sort through and organize her scores, file press clippings, and the like. That we have any documentation of Price’s career at all, outside of newspaper accounts, is due, in large part, to her daughter, Florence Price Robinson, who began to help promote her mother’s career in the 1940s.
Some facts about Price’s family history are revealed in archival sources. Census records from the 1840s to 1900 were used to gather information on Price’s maternal grandparents (no information could be found on her paternal grandparents). This source was also used to glean information about Dr. and Mrs. Smith and the Smith household. Birth certificates (while not always accurate), marriage and death certificates, wills, property deeds, mortgages, city directories, and probate records were also useful in ascertaining information about the Smiths in Little Rock. The reader should be mindful that recorded vital statistics do not exist for all of Price’s family, including her own birth certificate; Arkansas law did not require these records for blacks until the 1920s.
Shortly after Price moved to Chicago she became very active in the two Chicago branches of the National Association of Negro Musicians. The activities of this organization, on both the local and national levels, were recorded regularly in the black-owned newspaper, the Chicago Defender. This source proved indispensable in documenting many of Price’s compositions and performances of her music, those that she and others played.
It appears that Price was very generous in sharing her scores, giving copies of her manuscripts to anyone whom she thought would seriously be interested in performing them. After her death, numerous compositions, music manuscripts, and printed scores were distributed to individuals around Chicago and in other places, including library repositories. Unfortunately, many of the manuscripts were given as memorabilia, some even as single sheets. This presents a particular problem in trying to ascertain an accurate list of Price’s oeuvre since no inventory of her scores was kept. Many of these manuscripts represent the only surviving copies of a work. My research has uncovered about 300 scores or portions of scores; undoubtedly, many other compositions are now lost.
The largest single source of Price’s music is located at the University of Arkansas. Established by Florence Price Robinson shortly before her death in 1975, the Florence Beatrice Smith Price Materials (Manuscript Collection 988, Mullins Library Special Collections) contains 164 items dated 1906–1953 and includes correspondence, photographs, musical programs, and miscellaneous materials.
One of the most revealing items in the Price Archive is the few extant pages from her diary. In it she wrote the most intimate thoughts about her work; melodies as they occurred to her, transcriptions of birdsongs, her career aspirations, and such mundane musings as the weather temperature. Price’s diary was a way of telling her story—her solace revealing her inner self. Apparently, this diary was very detailed because she recorded conversations that she had with people regarding her compositions. Unfortunately, the complete diary does not survive. After her death, pages of it were given away as mementos to her friends.
Price and her daughter took care to make sure that Price’s music was represented in the major repositories of African American history and culture. These include the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters at Yale University, which conserves a “presentation copy” of the unpublished Symphony No. 3 in C Minor; the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, which was gifted one page of the Symphony No. 2 in G Minor; the E. Azalia Hackley Memorial Collection of Negro Music, Drama, and Dance (Detroit Public Library); the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of Afro-American History and Literature (Chicago Public Library); and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.
The Marian Anderson Collection, established at the University of Pennsylvania in 1977, conserves the largest collection of Price’s art songs. The fifty-three songs, two spiritual arrangements, and one piano piece comprise the largest portion of music in the collection—a measure of the high esteem in which Miss Anderson held Price’s music. Indeed, Marian Anderson premiered many of Price’s songs written for and dedicated to the diva.
Persistence and imagination was required in finding Price’s scores located among the private collections of her friends and professional colleagues. This rich source for the investigation of Price’s music, of which oral history is an integral factor, had been virtually untapped. Price’s colleagues, living throughout the country, shared with me music manuscripts, correspondence, programs, and their memories of Price and her notable performances. I am grateful to concert pianist William Duncan Allen, who gave me the first known surviving copies of Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement. Chicago organist Eugenia Anderson had several of the missing orchestral parts for the concerto (although we still do not have a full set of orchestral parts or the full score). Organists Bernice Skooglund and Florence Stith had organ and piano manuscripts not available elsewhere. Concert singers Helen White and Mildred Hall, the widow of composer Frederick Hall, had songs and piano music.
Given the paucity of primary source material on Price herself (for example, a complete diary, letters, and the like), much of this story is told through major events in her life (for example, the first performance of her Symphony in E Minor with the Chicago Symphony). Her life is also revealed by focusing on the major institutions with which she was affiliated (the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, the National Association of Negro Musicians, and the WPA ensembles). This approach to writing her biography accomplishes two goals: first, it sheds light on Price’s aspirations, both personal and professional; and second, it allows, for the first time, these historically important institutions to be the focal point around which her creative life unfolds. To this end, the reader may miss the details of Price’s personal relationships. Whenever materials were available, I have used them to glean insight into her persona.
This book documents the life and work of Florence Beatrice Smith Price (1887–1953), America’s first significant African American woman composer. It is intended to fill the lacunae of biographical sources of those pioneering African American composers who have contributed significantly to the rich and diversified musical heritage of black Americans. In order to place the music of Florence Price in the proper musical and historical perspective, careful consideration is given to the social, economic, and political forces that shaped American history from the mid–nineteenth century to the mid–twentieth century and had an impact on the creative endeavors of the African American.
Florence Price was the most widely known African American woman composer from the 1930s to her death in 1953. She achieved national recognition when her Symphony in E Minor was premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1933 under the direction of Frederick Stock. The concert marked the first performance of a large-scale work by a black woman to be performed by a major American orchestra.
This book is the story of over a century and a half of African American cultural history told through the lives of one family in dramatic situations: in the deep South during the days of slavery, in the urban South during Reconstruction, in New England at the turn of the century, and in the Midwest from the 1930s. It traces Florence Price and her family from the birth of her maternal grandparents, free blacks in a slave state, to her death in Chicago in 1953. Several themes run through this book. The role of education in African American culture is a pervasive topic during Price’s lifetime. Only through education could self-help be promoted and racial uplift be achieved. Issues of American musical nationalism and the relationship between cultural identity and musical creation are also prominent. For some African American composers of the 1920s and 1930s, advancement of the race and cultural identity in musical composition were almost synonymous. Central to this book are the interrelated and often conflicting issues for Price about gender, race, and class. At least two issues unfold here—the impact of marriage and motherhood on a woman’s career aspirations and the idea of difference and tension within the African American community.
I hope that through the exploration of these themes a broader and more representative view of African American culture will evolve. In many ways, this discourse may contradict stereotypical views currently in circulation, particularly of African American women. But, hopefully, the unfolding narrative will help the reader understand the “politics of respectability” in early-twentieth-century African American culture.
Price’s exploration of self comes about over a long period of time and is ultimately realized through her music—as a teacher, as a performer, and through the development of her musical compositions. Marginalized in her occupation, by her gender, and by her race, Price’s story is not one of defeat but one of triumph specific to African American women. As bell hooks has pointed out in Feminist Theory:From Margin to Center, “Black women with no institutionalized ‘other’ that we may discriminate against, exploit, or oppress often have a lived experience that directly challenges the prevailing classist, sexist, racist social structure and its concomitant ideology. This lived experience may shape our consciousness in such a way that our world view differs from those who have a degree of privilege (however relative within the existing system). … I am suggesting that we have a central role to play in the making of feminist theory and a contribution to offer that is unique and valuable.”1
In documenting Price’s life, I have tried to render visibility to this Invisible Woman by offering a peek into the private sphere of African American culture, a cultural space that receives little attention in scholarship and popular discourse. My book, while not entering aggressively into theoretical explanations of the relationship between identity, cultural politics, and musical expression, provides a necessary first step into such activity. My work will, hopefully, inspire future studies that examine the signifyin(g) value of the work of black female composers. Such studies need first to know about these women and, second, to understand something of the prevailing ideologies and social contexts in which they created. Only then can we move into the type of feminist criticism that has made such an impact on the field of musicology and cultural studies in recent years.
* * *
Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887 during post–Reconstruction. Known as the “Negro Paradise,” Little Rock was the pride of the South. Florence Beatrice and her family belonged to the small, but significant, black upper class. Her father, Dr. James H. Smith, became the city’s first black dentist when he moved there in 1886. Florence Irene Gulliver Smith, Price’s mother, was a businesswoman and a well-trained singer and pianist.
During the Reconstruction years (1865–1877), a well-defined social structure of three distinct social classes developed within the black community. The hierarchy that emerged was comprised of a complex web of interrelated characteristics that found unique expression in the African American experience. In other words, as Willard Gatewood explains, “Much of what accounted for status and prestige in the black community had no counterpart in white society, because status and prestige among blacks were in large part bound up with their experience with slavery—their particular place in the slave system, their role in opposing it, and the extent to which their families had been free from it.”2
The majority of Little Rock’s blacks, at the base of the system, lived in poverty; they had little education and few advanced skills. Emanating from the growing number of small businesses, the black middle class formed. The upper class, the smallest in number, was an amalgam of two groups. The “old families” were all former slaves born in or around the city. They included, for example, Rev. William Wallace Andrews, taught to read and write by his master, who founded Little Rock’s first black public school.
The other group within the black aristocracy, the “new families,” was comprised of skilled, and often well-educated blacks, who relocated to Little Rock. Dr. Smith is counted among this group as well as Mifflin W. Gibbs, who became the first black municipal judge in the United States. The “old families,” and the handful of very successful blacks who settled in Little Rock after the Civil War, combined to form the small, but powerful, black elite. Their behavior and attitudes “bore all the earmarks of gentility, super-respectability, and refinement.”3
Common among the black elite was the importance they placed on literacy or advanced education. Many of their offspring were educated at the best black colleges in the north, as well as Harvard and Yale. They returned to Little Rock to teach the masses of black illiterate children in the public schools or in one of the city’s four black colleges. Florence Beatrice’s teacher, Charlotte Andrews Stephens, Rev. Andrews’s daughter, was educated at Oberlin, and upon her return to Little Rock she became the first black teacher in the newly organized public school system for black children. Both Florence Beatrice and William Grant Still were taught by Mrs. Stephens in elementary school. Because of this dedicated teacher’s profound sense of self and her fine education in the humanities and in music at Oberlin, she would be a tremendous influence on both of these gifted children.
For all of the social proscriptions associated with the black aristocracy, a central mission was individual and collective advancement of the race. They actively built schools, churches, and social institutions. Dr. Smith, who taught in rural Arkansas, was among many in his class who understood that only through education could the race be uplifted. These socially conscious people also built healthcare facilities where they could take care of the elderly and sick. Some doctors, like Dr. Smith, often rendered their services in-kind, receiving little or no monetary remuneration.
Within the black social structure, there existed a complex and stratified caste system. Wealth, occupation, and formal education were but part of the criteria that defined one’s place within the community. In Willard Gatewood’s seminal study, Aristocrats of Color, the author points out that the majority of the members of the upper class were light-skinned blacks or mulattos (blacks with white ancestry). Historical proscriptions as well as attitudes of superiority contributed to the association of fair complexions with the upper class. The lighter one’s skin, the more likely one would be embraced by the black elite.
Light-skinned blacks were considered privileged in many ways. Considered acceptable by whites because of their Caucasian features, they were perceived to be more intelligent than blacks with darker skin. This perception often opened doors, particularly in securing employment, that were unavailable to others in the black community. This combination of artificial factors contributed to the disproportionate statistic of light-skinned blacks equated with high achievement—W. E. B. Du Bois’s Talented Tenth.4 Most blacks were more astute, however, realizing that skin color was but one factor in achieving social status.5
From the beginning, the Smiths were included among the upper echelon in this socially conscious city. Like most of the “aristocrats of color,” the Smiths were mulattos, that is, they were of mixed racial heritage with very fair complexions and Caucasian features. Their refined manners, cultural sophistication, and appealing (from a white person’s viewpoint) outward appearance all contributed to their inclusion among the black elite and their acceptance by whites.
For the Smith family, being light-skinned blacks had brought with it certain privileges before de facto segregation. There had been a certain amount of freedom to move about Little Rock unrestricted and opportunities to advance economically. When the “Jim Crow” laws were instituted, all blacks, regardless of their social status, became second-class citizens through arbitrary laws that stripped them of their basic human rights. By the time Florence Beatrice left for college in 1903, Little Rock was no more the “Negro Paradise” it once had been.
The New England Conservatory of Music, which Price attended after high school, was considered the proper finishing school for someone of her social background. It was here, while Price was writing her first symphony, that she began to explore her interest in the use of Negro folk materials in large-scale compositions.
If she had any serious career aspirations as a performer or as a composer, Price laid them aside after graduating from the Conservatory. Returning home to teach was little questioned by her. A sense of mission and service was deeply embedded in her, not only through her father’s example of active involvement in black social causes, but by many members of the black community. Further, the ties of family and tradition were too strong. Her expectation and that of her parents after college was to marry and to have a family. It would be many years before Price set pen to paper again to pursue her innate gifts as a composer.
Between 1906 and 1912, Florence Beatrice taught music at several black colleges (then an amalgam of elementary, high school, and college) in and near Little Rock and in Atlanta. She was a formidable teacher and a beacon of light for all of her students and for the college communities. The model of the elite black woman, she was well-educated, articulate, and elegant but also shy, modest, and always reserved.
In 1912, Florence Beatrice married Thomas J. Price, a very successful attorney who had practiced first in Washington, D.C. Soon after, they started a family. When time permitted, Price took up composing again. Still not seeing herself as a serious composer, she concentrated on writing teaching pieces for piano and for violin with piano accompaniment. For a long time, Price tried to suppress her creative impulse but it was still there, still needing to find expression. There had been a significant gap, almost twenty years, between writing the symphony at the conservatory and now. Even in writing the children’s pieces, she could no longer deny her passion for composing; it would soon become a way of life.
In 1927, Price and her family moved to Chicago to escape the oppressive legalized social proscriptions of the South. While she lived in Little Rock, her way of life as a Negro woman, to some extent, had been determined for her. The “Jim Crow” laws forced her to abdicate her rights, but she soon realized that no one could take away her self-esteem. The pride that was instilled in her as a black woman would be there for life.
It was in Chicago that Price’s artistic impulse was liberated. She discovered a city full of vitality and an environment that was conducive to her creative energy. She had many opportunities, both in social and professional situations, to interact with other artists, among them visual artists, dancers, writers, and actors. These quite stimulating convocations hearkened back to Price’s childhood, the Little Rock of old, which had been an intellectually and culturally rich one for her.
By the early 1930s, Price had developed into a serious composer whose skills were no doubt strengthened and accelerated by the many opportunities she had to hear her music performed. She wrote in all genres except opera, producing works for piano, organ, voice, chamber ensembles, orchestra, and chorus, and she arranged spirituals for voice and instrumental combinations. Her music was regularly performed by a professional coterie of friends and colleagues in Chicago as well as by some of the leading concert singers of the day, including Marian Anderson, Blanche Thebom, Roland Hayes, Abbie Mitchell, and Harry Burleigh. An accomplished pianist and organist, Price premiered many of her own piano and organ works. Her large-scale works were also being performed by the major ensembles of the Chicago area.
Price was successful professionally for many reasons, not the least of which was due to the supportive network she established shortly after her arrival in Chicago. The importance of women’s musical groups in the 1930s and 1940s figured prominently. As far as can be determined Price did not belong to any black women’s clubs but she retained membership in two musical organizations led by white women—the Chicago Club of Women Organists and the Musicians Club of Women. These clubs supported women as they struggled to gain hard-earned recognition in the professional fields, including that of composer.
The exclusion of women in professional organizations by men was very real. Women’s support networks remained outside the purview of male-dominated organizations, and they had little or no effect on them. The Chicago Club of Women Organists, for example, who functioned independently of the national American Guild of Organists, provided opportunities for women organists to perform and for composers to have their organ, choral, and solo vocal music heard. Price greatly benefited from the exposure she received through them.
As supportive as the women’s organizations were, there were disadvantages as well. Gloria T. Hull points out in Color, Sex and Poetry “because of women’s less-advantaged status, these networks could often only amount to consolation circles for the disfranchised.”6 For many white women, these organizations served more as a much-needed social outlet than as a professional one. White women’s clubs were formed because women were excluded from occupations and other activities for which their education prepared them. Their interests, however, were not with women whose lives depended upon work and making professional contacts. For many of them their associations were more of a “want” than a “need.” For Price, on the other hand, these professional contacts were her lifeline.
There is little doubt that Price’s light-skinned complexion was also a factor that permitted her entry and acceptance into professional circles where her darker-skinned sisters were implicitly not welcome. Of the groups who were most active in promoting her music, she was the first African American composer to be represented through the Illinois Federation of Music Clubs and the first black member of both the Chicago Club of Women Organists and the Musicians Club of Women. The fact that Price was fair enough to pass for white in no way lessens the significance of her achievements, but it attests to the key role that skin color played for Americans in attaining one’s career goals. Some black musicians, like Price, were at least able to get their foot in the front door of professional opportunity; many blacks in classical music, other than singers who went abroad, weren’t even getting into the back door.
Issues of gender, class, and race were ever-present for black women in the first half of the century, and the inherent conflicts that were prevalent for professional women were difficult to reconcile. For this reason, Price maintained an active involvement in the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM). It was NANM and, by extension, the Chicago Defender, which covered the activities of the black community, both locally and nationally that kept Price’s name before the public for the twenty-five years she resided in Chicago.
NANM boasted of equal participation by men and women. In fact, the R. Nathaniel Dett Club, the younger of Chicago’s two branches, was suggested and organized by a small group of women, although already by the second meeting, men were included. Both at the local and national levels, women held the office of president and other board positions. Black people, men and women, could not negate the pivotal role that race played in American society. On some levels, black men and women had to work together. Locked out of many professional opportunities, there was an astute awareness of race among NANM members, many of whom were among the most talented/gifted African American musicians in the country. The attitude of the members of the Dett Club was typical. In a summary of the Club’s activities in 1926, the writer notes, “There was a sense of urgency in the Club’s attitude as it faced the problem of segregation in the concert halls of America.” Exerting political and economic pressure where it could, “the members urged that Roland Hayes [one of the most highly paid singers in America] not appear in concert halls where Negroes were not permitted to attend.”7 Because Price was a well-respected musician, her career was certainly advanced because she was accepted by white as well as black social and professional circles.
* * *
I have told Florence Price’s story in the fullest context of her life as an African American woman in the vibrant cities in which she lived—Little Rock, Boston, Atlanta, and Chicago. Only through an understanding of the social, political, and economic milieu of her time can the reader more fully appreciate Price’s music and the context in which it was written.
Particular attention is given to the black classical musical tradition in these cities, which is often overshadowed by the proliferation of jazz, blues, and gospel music. This is particularly true of Chicago, which had a very active classical music scene from about 1910. The music of black composers and performers, as well as nationally known artists, regularly appeared in the city’s black churches and in special concerts that took place in larger venues, including Orchestra Hall. The Chicago Defender, owned and edited by Robert Abbot, was an important vehicle through which information about classical music was disseminated. Because the Defender had both local and national editions, readers from throughout the nation could be kept apprised of the accomplishments of black classical musicians.
Shortly after Price arrived in Chicago, her life changed significantly. For the first time, she began to concentrate on her career. From 1931–1940, her whole life virtually revolved around the composition, promotion, performance, and critical reception of three major works: the Symphony in E Minor (1932), the Piano Concerto in One Movement (1934), and the Symphony in C Minor (1940). Although Price continued to write small-scale pieces, these works are pivotal in her oeuvre and thus I have devoted a significant portion of this book to them. Tracing the history of these three pieces reveals much about Price’s development as a composer and a person.
The Symphony in E Minor is squarely in the nationalist tradition and it may be more fully considered in the context of the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Movement of the 1920s and 1930s. The spirit of African American folk music provides the contextual foundation for this work and other compositions written during this time period. Its formal structure is rather conservative: a sonata-allegro movement and two rondos. Only in the second movement, a chorale, does the symphony deviate somewhat from the norm.
By the time Price wrote the Piano Concerto in One Movement, however, it is clear that she was seeking her own voice in large-scale composition. She moved away from traditional structures in search of a musical language that was more fully expressive of herself as an individual. African American musical references become the guidepost for the unfolding of the work in both its musical content and its structure. In writing about the Concerto, traditional terminology proved to be inadequate so I have used a new term—Afro-Romantic—which better reflects the work’s musical substance.8 The approach Price uses as a composer is one in which the content of the work suggests its own form. The unfolding of a spiritual-like melody in the first section and call-and-response procedures in the second section, for example, are the essence from which the structure of the concerto emanates. Much of the concerto is free from European traditions; simultaneously, however, it still embraces the harmonic language of the past.
Price’s Symphony in C Minor reveals a mature composer, completely confident in large-scale idioms. With the ideas of the nationalist movement and of the Harlem Renaissance now passé, she, as did other black artists, looked to realistic subject matter—the Great Migration, the Depression, and the adjustment to urban life—for inspiration. It is in this context of the second flowering of black artistic expression, called the Chicago Renaissance (1935–1950), that this symphony was conceived. African American musical scores are referenced more subtly and the score, overall, shows an assured grasp of contemporary musical developments.
By no means do all of Price’s scores reflect her African American heritage, but its presence is celebrated in all of the large-scale works that survive. It is also in these works that her growth as a composer is so vividly revealed.
In an often-quoted essay from his 1903 classic book, The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois poignantly examines what he perceives as the duality of black culture—a duality which has been discussed in writings about African American literature throughout the century.
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.
Historically, writers have explicated musically Du Bois’s “double-consciousness” by articulating the essence of the two primary traditions within African American music—one oral and one literate. These two traditions are seemingly a dichotomy. As Olly Wilson has pointed out in articles, black music in Du Bois’s second tradition, the literate tradition, is, in fact, reconciled within the “veil.” It is not simply the American ideal as white America envision it. It is, rather a reinterpretation of that American ideal as viewed through the prism of black American experience; it involves a unique reinterpretation of the broader American experience from a black vantage point.9 In essence, the musical forms associated with the literate musical tradition emanate from preexistent European forms. But a transformation of these forms takes place when the dominant elements in a composition transcend European influence and can be isolated as constituents of African American tradition in American culture.
Price’s compositions fuse Euro-American structures with elements from her own American cultural heritage, which creates an art music that, while utilizing European forms, affirms its integrity as an African American mode of expression. The musical synthesis she creates demonstrates how the African American composer could transcend received musical forms in articulating a unique American artistic and cultural self.
But on a deeper level, Price’s life and work challenge Du Bois’s famous text and, in fact, explode it, revealing their limitation in capturing the essence, complexities, and processes that are of African American culture. My study shows that there are many competing voices behind the veil. Price’s life offers but one example of their multiple selves and multiple consciousness—not just double. Hers is the life story of an African American woman who worked not to achieve Du Bois’s “self-conscious manhood” but who sought to quietly articulate the undeniable role that black women have played in private and public African American life and culture.
11The Symphony in E Minor
First and second generation African American composers closely identified with African American folk material and they eagerly appropriated it in small- and large-scale forms. Indigenous dance and other folk music, both sacred and secular, provided the foundation for the music of most of the black composers born before 1900. These composers, almost all nationalists, consciously turned to the folk music of African Americans as a basis for composition. Their mission was to prove to the world the inherent worth and musical richness of this material. These composers were willingly tied to their historical past through the use of folk music while simultaneously expressing themselves as individuals. In the 1930s, much of this music was considered conservative, but to these composers cultural expression outweighed any alliance with modern techniques. As these composers discovered, nationalism and modernism do not always readily coexist. In a poignant essay, “African-American Music: The Hidden Tradition,” composer Hale Smith explains, “The telling of one’s own story has long been a tradition of African American life. It is a tradition that extends centuries back into our collective histories. By telling our own story we speak, ideally, to and for us all. By being individuals, we have a chance of becoming universal. The true jazz musician recognizes this by preferring individuality to virtuosity, and it is a point understood by all genuine artists. The black composer of formal music also has considered technique as being subordinate to expression and has nearly always written with a live audience in mind.”1
Harry T. Burleigh was the first black composer to gain national recognition. Of his more than 300 compositions, best known are the Six Plantation Melodies for Violin and Piano (1901), From the Southland for piano (1914), and Southland Sketches for violin and piano (1916). Burleigh’s greatest legacy are his solo arrangements of spirituals for voice and piano, which have now become part of the standard repertoire in American song. Other composers, including John Rosamond with his brother James Weldon Johnson, Clarence Cameron White, R. Nathaniel Dett, and John Wesley Work II, all published collections of spirituals or used spiritual melodies in their concert works during the first decades of the twentieth century.
The first symphonies by African Americans to be performed by major American orchestras—William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony (1931), Florence Price’s Symphony in E Minor (1933), and William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony (1934)—fall within the context of American musical nationalism.2 Still’s Afro-American Symphony, composed in 1930, was written as part of a symphonic trilogy based on a composite musical portrait of the African American. When the work was completed, the composer added program notes and appended descriptive verses from poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar to each movement. The themes in Still’s celebrated and often performed work are original, but the melodic contour and flavor are wholly African American. The primary theme of the sonata form first movement, for example, is a twelve-bar blues, and the secondary theme of that movement is in the style of a spiritual. The third movement, a syncopated dance, is notable for its inclusion of the tenor banjo, the first known use of this instrument in an orchestral work. Dawson’s three-movement symphony differs from Still’s work in that it is highly programmatic; the understanding of the symphony depends, in part, upon the recognition of the spirituals that form the basis of the work. Dawson scored his symphony for a romantic-era orchestra, but it includes an African clave and Adawura.
These compositions also represent the musical culmination of a black cultural awakening, referred to as the Harlem Renaissance or New Negro Movement, which emerged in metropolitan cities throughout the country in the 1920s and continued to the early 1930s. Nationalism was the backdrop from which the New Negro adapted old artistic forms into self-consciously racial idioms. This race consciousness united black intellectuals with common attitudes, ideals, and a sense of purpose.
The Negro Renaissance spawned a surge of literary, artistic, and musical creativity by America’s African American artists. The affirmation of the values of the black cultural heritage had a decisive impact on William Grant Still, Florence Price, and William Dawson, who had as their primary goal the elevation of the Negro folk idiom, that is, spirituals, blues, and characteristic dance music, to symphonic form. This goal was accomplished through the fusion of elements from the neo-Romantic nationalist movement in the United States with elements from their own African American cultural heritage. In Still’s Afro-American Symphony Price’s Symphony in E Minor, and Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, the Afro-American nationalist elements are integral to the style. The deceptively simple musical structure of these symphonies is inherently bound to the folk tradition in which they are rooted.
Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 and the spiritual inspiration of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor had a most decisive impact on Price. Although her score is relatively unknown, Price’s work contributes significantly to the American nationalist movement and to the musical legacy of the Harlem Renaissance.3 Price had become familiar with the use of vernacular elements in serious composition through her studies with George Chadwick at the New England Conservatory, but an examination of Price’s symphony reveals that she thoroughly studied Dvořák’s score. In its overall content, formal organization, orchestration, and spirit, she seems to have taken the Bohemian composer’s directive quite personally.
Both Dvořák’s and Price’s symphonies are in the key of E Minor and both works have subtitles that suggest the inspiration for their primary source material. Originally subtitled the “Negro Symphony,” Price’s work assimilates characteristic Afro-American folk idioms into classical structures. Price abandoned a title that would have suggested a programmatic work and, perhaps, would have limited the perception of the symphony’s scope. The subtitle has been almost obliterated from the score. Price apparently changed her mind prior to the first performance; none of the reviews refer to its programmatic name.
Price’s score specifies a standard romantic-era orchestra, but she has augmented the percussion section to include several “special effects” instruments: cathedral chimes, small and large African drums, wind whistle, and orchestral bells.4
The first movement of the Symphony in E Minor is structured in sonata form. It begins with a six-measure introduction in E minor with the bassoons carrying a simple melody accompanied by strings. The bassoon melody then becomes a countersubject to the principal theme of the exposition, announced by solo oboe and clarinet. Significantly, the principal theme and its countermelody are built on a pentatonic scale, the most frequently used scale in Afro-American folk songs. The simple harmonization of the theme—i, iv, v, i—grows out of the suggested harmony of the theme itself. Note that the harmonization is entirely in the minor mode (see example 12).
The secondary theme, in G major, is played first by a solo French horn accompanied by sustained strings (see example 13). The treatment of the theme is markedly Dvořákian in its flavor and even resembles the melodic contour and orchestration of its counterpart. Written in the same key, Dvořák’s melody is played by a solo flute and accompanied by strings.
In the development section, harmonic and motivic alteration of the themes is explored, but, in contrast to the exposition, the texture is primarily contrapuntal. At times, the themes are restated simultaneously. Also included in the development are inversions of the secondary theme and the primary theme. A modified recapitulation follows the development.
The second movement of the symphony also emulates Dvořák. Dvořák’s famous Largo melody is framed by an introduction played by clarinets, bassoons, and brass. The composer has based his melody on a pentatonic scale on A-flat—A-flat, B-flat, C, E-flat, F (the second part of the melody introduces the lowered 7th in A-flat major—G-flat). The overall structure of Dvořák’s Largo melody is ABA.
Example 12. Symphony in E minor, movement 1, primary theme, mm. 7–10
Example 13. Symphony in E minor, movement 1, secondary theme, mm. 71–75
The second movement of Price’s symphony is a hymn in E major. One is struck immediately by the similarity to Dvořák’s interesting orchestration. Price’s twenty-eight-measure hymn is played first by a brass choir (four horns in F, two trumpets in A, three trombones, and tuba). Price’s interest in church music and the idiosyncrasies of organ sound probably also inspired this instrumentation. Organists often will draw a brass chorus on the organ as an alternative to foundation stops in hymn playing. The use of 16′, 8′, and 4′ reeds produce a colorful and powerful, but not necessarily overbearing, sound.
In ABA form, the melody (played by the first trumpet) is built on a pentatonic scale on E (E, F#, G#, B, C#) (see example 14). Harmonically, the complexity of the hymn is a marked departure from folk music. One can observe that this arrangement, while melodically inspired by the spiritual, is solidly rooted in instrumental writing. The four-part chorus features rich sonorities which make use of raised sevenths, ninths, and appoggiaturas. The flutes and clarinets provide short interjections between phrases (these interludes provide a call-and-response format with the hymn melody), while African drums and timpani provide a continual underlying pulse. This parallels the verse-and-refrain form common in many Afro-American spirituals and other sacred music.
Of further interest in comparing the two movements is the way in which solo instruments are featured in both Dvořák’s and Price’s scores. For the famous Largo melody, Dvořák uses an English horn solo over a homophonic string accompaniment. Price’s movement includes clarinet and English horn solos in fragments of the hymn melody over sustained strings.
Always committed to African American musical principals, Price turns directly to her roots for the third movement, thus departing significantly from Dvořák’s European-derived scherzo. Entitled “Juba Dance,” this movement is based on the syncopated rhythms of the antebellum folk dance, “pattin’ juba.” The dance involves a pattern of foot-tapping, hand-clapping, and thigh-slapping in intricate rhythmic patterns. Typically, slave fiddlers and banjo players would accompany the dancers’ percussive body movements. There were several variations to the dance. According to the narrative of Lewis Paine in Six Years in a Georgia Prison, “This is done by placing one foot a little in advance of the other, raising the ball of the foot from the ground, and striking it in regular time, while, in connection, the hands are struck slightly together, and then upon the thighs. In this way they make the most curious noise, yet in such perfect order, it furnishes music to dance by.”5 Solomon Northup in his autobiography Twelve Years a Slave published in 1853, describes another variation of the dance: “[It was] accompanied with one of those unmeaning songs, composed rather for its adaptation to certain tune or measure, than for the purpose of expressing any distinct idea. The patting is performed by striking the hands on the knees, then striking the hands together, then striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other—all the while keeping time with the feet and singing.”6
Example 14. Symphony in E minor, movement 2, mm. 1–5
For Price, the rhythmic element in Afro-American music was eminently important. Referring to her Symphony No. 3, which also uses the juba as the basis for a movement, she wrote, “In all of my works which have been done in the sonata form with Negroid idiom, I have incorporated a juba as one of the several movements because it seems to me to be no more impossible to conceive of Negroid music devoid of the spiritualistic theme on the one hand than strongly syncopated rhythms of the juba on the other.”7
Price was the first composer to base a movement of a symphonic work on the rhythms of the juba, although the most famous and popular instrumental version of the juba is the fifth movement of R. Nathaniel Dett’s In the Bottoms piano suite published in 1913, which Price surely would have known.8 In addition to its use in the first and third symphonies, the syncopated rhythms of this dance are also used in the third movement of the Piano Concerto in One Movement (1934) and the third dance from the Suite of Dances (1939) (see example 15). Several works for piano, including “Ticklin’ Toes” from the third dance from Three Little Negro Dances (1933) and “Silk Hat and Walking Cane” from Dances in the Canebrakes (1953), are also based on the antebellum folk dance.
Through minstrelsy the juba dance, or rather its later manifestation, the cakewalk, became popular in Europe in the 1880s and 1890s. It was not long before European art music composers were writing music based on the same rhythms. Claude Debussy was one of the first composers to make use of this new music that developed into ragtime. Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” from the Children’s Corner piano suite (1905) foreshadowed the fascination of European composers with America’s syncopated music of black folk origin.
Example 15. Dance No. 3 from Suite of Dances, mm. 1–8
Price sets the juba dance movement of the E-minor symphony in rondo form. In the A section, the violins present a sprightly, syncopated eight-measure rhythmic motive, simulating an antebellum fiddler. Against it, an “um-pah” bass is provided by a tonic-dominant pizzicato ostinato in the remaining strings and percussion (see example 16). The figures that form the basis of the dance are African-derived, entering the juba dance by way of black banjo and fiddle music with its percussive accompaniment of hand-clapping and foot-tapping.
Example 16. Symphony in E minor, movement 3, Juba Dance, mm. 1–5
The last movement of the symphony, marked “Finale,” is the most straightforward. A Presto movement in E minor, in duple meter, its melodic and harmonic content is based on a four-measure triplet figure that ascends and descends around an E natural-minor scale (see example 17). Flutes, oboes, and violins render the unison line, and the remainder of the orchestra accompanies with sparse chords. The general form of the fourth movement loosely resembles a rondo.
In writing about the Still, Price, and Dawson symphonies of the early 1930s in an article discussing Dvořák’s influence on American composers, the prominent literary critic Alain Locke, an ardent spokesman of the Harlem Renaissance, noted, “But with the successful presentation of symphonies based on folk themes from each of these young composers [Still and Dawson] in the last year, the hope for symphonic music in Negro idiom has risen notably. In 1935, ten years after his enthusiastic championing of the serious possibilities of jazz, Leopold Stokowski was able to present with his great Philadelphia Orchestra William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony; certainly one of America’s major contributions thus far to symphonic literature.”9 For Locke, the symphonies of Still and Dawson, based on recognizable folk themes and idioms, no doubt seemed the proper model for works by black composers.
The absence of overt identifiable ethnic characteristics in Florence Price’s Symphony in E minor, such as quotations of black folk themes or the use of a blues progression, caused Locke to criticize her symphony in the essay cited earlier. He treated the discussion of her symphony as though it had no racial references, asserting, “In the straight classical idiom and form, Mrs. Price’s work vindicates the Negro composer’s right, at choice, to go up Parnassus by the broad high road of classicism rather than the narrower, more hazardous, but often more rewarding path of racialism. At the pinnacle, the paths converge, and the attainment becomes, in the last analysis, neither racial nor national, but universal music.”10
Example 17. Symphony in E minor, movement 4, mm. 1–7
Before examining Locke’s criticism of Price’s work, one must be clear about those particular characteristics of Afro-American music that distinguish it from other types of music. Call-and-response organizational procedures, dominance of a percussive approach to music, and offbeat phrasing of melodic accents have been documented as typical musical characteristics in African American music. A predilection for a percussive polyrhythmic manner of playing and the inclusion of environmental factors as integral parts of the music event, such as hand-clapping and foot-patting, are also common characteristics.
Alain Locke’s approach to black music was based on the degree to which certain black musical characteristics were present in a given composition. While this approach is valuable, it limits the scope of the black music tradition. If one examines Price’s symphony from the qualitative perspective, rather than from Locke’s quantitative approach, it becomes evident that Price’s music is reflective of her cultural heritage.
As a close examination of Price’s Symphony in E Minor has revealed, by no means did she exclude racial elements. Price’s symphony, like Still’s, does not depend upon the quotation of folk songs for its distinctive ethnicity. R. Nathaniel Dett has explained: “As it is quite possible to describe the traits, habits, and customs of a people without using the vernacular, so it is similarly possible to musically portray racial peculiarities without the use of national tunes or folk-songs.”11
An analysis of Price’s Symphony in E Minor reveals the presence, to a significant degree, of many of these and other underlying conceptual approaches to Afro-American music. For example, Price demonstrably transforms the polyrhythmic manner of approaching rhythm and the inclusion of environmental factors into musical entities in the juba-dance third movement. The steady accompaniment of the melody is a direct manifestation of physical body-movements that were the essence of “patting juba.”
In recent articles, Olly Wilson has pointed out that the sound ideal in African American music is a heterogenous one. A tendency to maintain an independence of voices by means of timbral differentiation, or stratification, is common. Nowhere in Price’s symphony is this clearer than in the second movement where the tonal colors of the brass choir and woodwind ensemble are juxtaposed with large and small African drums, cathedral chimes, and orchestral bells. Call-and-response patterns, also exhibited in this movement, between the brass choir and the woodwind ensemble, are another example of stratification.
Cultural characteristics are also borne out implicitly in the themes of the first movement. The first melody is based on a pentatonic scale, one of the most frequently used scales in Afro-American music. The preference for duple meter with syncopated rhythms and altered tones (lowered third and seventh, the so-called “blue notes”) are also specific features of Afro-American music that characterize the melodies of this movement.
These traits in themselves may not be exclusive to black music, but in combination they are fundamental to the African American music tradition. Price’s approach to composition derives essentially from African American music, and the predominance of these core characteristics is the best evidence for this.
Locke’s criticism of Price’s symphony must be examined also from another perspective. Despite the appearance of equal participation of women in the Harlem Renaissance, in music, literature, the plastic and visual arts, patterns of exclusion were notable, especially by men in influential positions.
Although Locke’s role in the Harlem Renaissance was controversial, he was an ardent spokesperson whose ideas gave “definitive shape” to the New Negro movement. Locke, however, personally and professionally favored men. His contempt for women in the classroom and disparagement of their intellect, which were carried over into his arts critiques, are well documented.12 Although Price had a supportive professional environment in Chicago that included both men and women, one must wonder if Locke’s widely read, perhaps deliberate misrepresentation of her symphony impressed her. Price never defended her work against Locke’s criticisms. Perhaps she felt vindicated by all of the critical acclaim she received.
An impartial examination of Price’s symphony reveals that she does not abandon her African American heritage. Rather, the symphony inherently incorporates many aspects of the black music tradition within a Euro-American medium—orchestral music. In a more subtle way than either Still’s Afro-American Symphony or Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, Price’s compositional approach does make manifest the Afro-American heritage in music. As Samuel Floyd has stated, “When it [the music of black American composers] successively communicates essentials of the Afro-American experience, in spite of its European basis, it becomes something more than either European or Afro-American. It becomes, to some extent, at least, black music.”13 Following the first performance of the symphony, Edward Moore of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Mrs. Price … displayed high talent both in what she did and what she omitted, each one of which is a test for a composer. She has based her work on racial folk song idioms, choosing some first-rate melodies and harmonizing them fully and yet with the essential simplicity that they demand. She would seem to be well acquainted with the use of orchestral instrumental color. With these merits she has another and perhaps greater one. She knows how to be concise, how to avoid overloading and elaboration. The performance made a well-deserved success.”14
Racial pride was quintessential to the Harlem Renaissance and the black nationalist movement in music. It was this attitude of black pride and consciousness that permeated much of Florence Price’s music of the 1930s and the Harlem Renaissance, and the New Negro Movement was the background against which she developed as a composer.
The New Negro Movement understood the potential of Afro-Americans and strove to reinforce their dignity. Rooted in the hope for the future of black people, African Americans no longer apologized for their musical heritage but rather celebrated their cultural uniqueness. For Price, the Negro idiom in music became a source of inspiration in serious composition. One hears this music not as propaganda but as an important legacy of the New Negro’s contribution to America’s writings.
The Old State House, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Florence Beatrice Smith, n.d. Photo believed to have been taken around 1906. It was given to Kemper Harreld (1885–1971), who was head of the music department at Atlanta Baptist College (presently Morehouse College) from 1911–1953. Harreld founded the Morehouse College Glee Club and was its first director.
Thomas J. Price, n.d.
Florence Price’s daughters: Florence Louise (in plaid) and Edith Cassandra.
Riverwood home, n.d.
Several of the composers involved in the August 25, 1934, “O Sing a New Song” Negro Pageant at the Century of Progress Exhibition. Front row, left to right: William Grant Still, H. Lawrence Freeman, W. C. Handy, J. Rosamond Johnson, Will Vodery. Back row, third from left: Charles Cooke. Back row, fifth from left: Noble Sissle. Image of William Grant Still used by permission, all rights reserved to William Grant Still Music.
Margaret Bonds as guest soloist with the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago, 1934. Ebba Sundsstrom, conducting. Performance of Florence Price’s Concerto in One Movement.
Florence Louise, 1940.
Edith Cassandra, n.d.
Florence Louise (left), Marion Quinney Ross (middle), unidentified person (right), 1946. Ms. Ross is the daughter of Florence Price’s close friend Perry Quinney.
Edith Cassandra, n.d.
Florence Louise [Robinson], n.d.
Florence Beatrice Smith, Delayed Birth Certificate, April 20, 1953.
Lawrence Robinson, Florence Louise’s son, 1965.
Vicky [Taylor Hammond], Edith’s daughter, 1956, age 12.
Lawrence and Timothy Robinson in front of the Florence B. Price Elementary School, Chicago, 1964.