“WHITES ONLY”—“COLORED ONLY”—“NEGROES NEED NOT APPLY”: This signage was a part of Florence Price’s world everywhere she went, whether Arkansas or Boston or Chicago, to the end of her days. It was not just about restrooms, water fountains, education, and jobs. It was also about the White-dominated world of classical music— especially orchestral music. To the end of her life, most White halls barred Black audience members. To the end of her life, most White stages barred Black performers. And to the end of her life, there were no Black performers in White orchestras.
So wrote John Michael Cooper in a program note to a previous Philadelphia Orchestra concert that featured works by Florence Price (1887 – 1953).
Plus she was a woman and the world of classical music was still basically a man’s world.
And yet still she managed to compose a substantial body of original music. If her music was performed at all in her lifetime it was generally given but a single performance and then forgotten.
When she died, most of her works had never even been published, and there was no one to preserve her legacy.
Fast forward to 2009 as Alex Ross continues the story:
Vicki and Darrell Gatwood, of St. Anne, Illinois, were preparing to renovate an abandoned house on the outskirts of town. The structure was in poor condition: vandals had ransacked it, and a fallen tree had torn a hole in the roof. In a part of the house that had remained dry, the Gatwoods made a curious discovery: piles of musical manuscripts, books, personal papers, and other documents. The name that kept appearing in the materials was that of Florence Price. The Gatwoods looked her up on the Internet, and found that she was a moderately well-known composer, based in Chicago, who had died in 1953. The dilapidated house had once been her summer home. The couple got in touch with librarians at the University of Arkansas, which already had some of Price’s papers. Archivists realized, with excitement, that the collection contained dozens of Price scores that had been thought lost.
Since then various performers and ensembles have been studying and performing her works and audiences have been delighted to discover another original American composer. Yannick Nézet-Séguin is only one of several who have been making a case for Florence Price, but to his credit, he has been performing her works all over Europe and recording them (the Philadelphia Orchestra finally won a Grammy for its recording of her symphonies), as well as presenting them in multiple concerts here at home.
I could list all the composers that I thought might have influenced it such as Dvořák (his New World Symphony), Gershwin, Bernstein, Copland, etc., and maybe they were influences. Or maybe the common influence on all of them was the music of Black people: from spirituals to jazz. What I can say for certain is that I loved the music from beginning to end. The slow second movement, clearly descended from spirituals (and maybe a little Debussy as well?) was quite beautiful, and the third movement (a Juba dance) would have had the whole audience on its feet dancing in any other venue. It kept the percussion section busy. The final movement ended in a brilliant cacophony of sound. Which led me to wonder: if she so seldom got to hear her music performed, where did she learn to orchestrate so brilliantly? Most composers learn to orchestrate by a process of trial and error; think of Mahler constantly revising his orchestration after performing it.
Anyway, the audience clearly loved it as much as I did. The roar from the crowd was tremendous.
(Note that the Apple Music link below is to the whole album including both the First and Third Symphonies.)
And there was more music to come.
The second half featured Beatrice Rana playing Clara Wieck’s Piano Concerto. Clara, of course, is better known by her married name, Schumann, but she wrote this concerto when she was a teenager. And what a wonderful piece of music it is.
Mozart, of course, was writing during his teenage years, but the works that are part of the standard repertoire are those that he wrote when he was older, like in his 20s. Mendelssohn wrote a wonderful String Octet when he was 16, but he didn’t tackle an orchestral work until his 17th year. Clara Wieck wrote this amazing concerto between the ages to 14 and 16.
And why it hasn’t become a standard before now, I have no idea. Hopefully, that will change.
(By the way, when Yannick walked on the stage to conduct the first work, he was wearing a Phillies shirt; for the second piece he had a Sixers shirt; for the concerto he had one of his regular black tunics, and for the final piece he had some other sports type shirt that I couldn’t identify. Perhaps a team from his native Montreal? Who says attending classical music concerts isn’t fun?)
These two wonderful works by women composers were flanked by two pieces by Ravel, that wonderful French master of the orchestra. The concert opened with his homage to colleagues fallen during the Great War, Le Tombeau de Couperin and closed with the audience favorite Bolero.
The fellow sitting next to me at the concert was from LA and it was his first time in Verizon Hall (how I hate that name). He had been gushing over the Price symphony and the Wieck concerto, and he was bowled over by the acoustics of the hall. So just before Yannick launched into the final piece, I said to him, “Now we’re going to hear 15 minutes of orchestration with no music.” When he laughed, I continued, “That’s how Ravel himself described Bolero.”
And Yannick played it for all it was worth, starting as quietly as possible with the snare drum tapping out the beat (I felt sorry of that drummer having to maintain that steady beat for 15 minutes!). It could almost be called a concerto for orchestra because each instrument gets its moment in the spotlight. With the tempo remaining steady throughout, Yannick led the orchestra through a gradual crescendo that finally reached nearly deafening volume when the entire orchestra and all the percussion reached the thumping conclusion.
Following the ovation, the fellow from LA said, “That was one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended!”
“It certainly ended with a bang!” I replied.
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