Classical Album of the Week: The Groundbreaking Symphonies of Black Composer Florence Price

Feb 10, 2020

February 10, 2020. Continuing our celebration of Black History Month, WRTI’s Classical Album of the Week is devoted to the neglected symphonies of Florence Price, who was the first African-American woman to have a large-scale symphonic work performed by a major orchestra.

This is Florence Price's Symphony No.1, Movement 3, "Juba Dance"

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Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, Florence studied classical music with her mother, after white teachers refused to take her as a student. She later completed a bachelor’s degree at the New England Conservatory of Music and returned to Arkansas to teach. A lynching of a black man and a lack of opportunities caused Price and her husband to relocate to Chicago, where she began a flourishing career as a teacher and took advantage of the rich black cultural community there.

In 1932, Florence Price won first prize in a competition sponsored by the National Association of Negro Musicians with her Symphony No. 1 in E minor. The music director of the Chicago Symphony, Frederick Stock, gave the premiere of her symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the following year in 1933.

Our Classical Album of the Week features the Fort Smith Symphony (based in Fort Smith, Arkansas) performing two symphonies of Price under the direction of its music director John Jeter: the prize-winning Symphony No. 1 in E minor, and her Symphony No. 4 in D minor.

Reminiscent of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,”  Price’s Symphony No. 1 possesses sweep, fine melodic writing, and rich, lush sound.

Her imaginative skill in orchestration is evident especially in the second movement Largo maestoso with noble brass writing, and use of a tom-tom. The third movement “Juba Dance” and fourth movement Finale let loose with joyful rhythms and  inventive modulations that show clear jazz influences within the classical framework.

Price’s Symphony No. 4 also demonstrates a mastery of compositional structure, melodic gift, and effective orchestration. The drama of the first movement derives from direct musical quotations of the African-American spiritual “Wade in the Water.” The second movement is plaintive and richly textured, reminiscent of the feel of a spiritual. The third movement, another Juba Dance, evokes Native American melodies and rhythms. The symphony concludes with a high-spirited, powerful Scherzo.

Under conductor John Jeter, The Fort Smith Symphony gives an impressive performance of both symphonies, with focused ensemble playing, fine balance among the sections, excellent intonation, and memorable solos.

This album, released in 2019 by Naxos Records, brings much-needed attention to major orchestral works that deserve to be performed more often. Perhaps with the release of this album, we will see Florence Price’s symphonies appear on orchestral programs around the world.