Bright, Dark Herald: Concerto in One Movement, and Symphony in E Minor by Florence Beatrice Price, performed by the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble

By Daniel Garrett

Florence B. Price, Concerto in One Movement/Symphony in E Minor
New Black Music Repertory Ensemble
Leslie B. Dunner, Conductor
Karen Walwyn, Piano
Albany Records, 2011

There is genuine elegance and perceptible ethereality in Florence Beatrice (Smith) Price’s Concerto in One Movement, but there is also something about the music—the instrumentation, or the musical figures—that seems of a time that is past. Of course, that is not a strange thing to say about classical music: the very category indicates not merely excellence and rigor but also posterity, the approving evaluation of generations. I suppose that I was surprised by that antique quality—a particular sweetness, a setting of the strings—as Florence Beatrice Price is an African-American artist, and I often associate that with immediacy, modernity. In fact, I can hear in her concerto a melody that sounds familiar, possibly bearing some relation to what one might hear in the American songbook of the twentieth-century’s first half: something beautiful and firm but perhaps too accessible, too slight. Florence Price’s Symphony in E Minor is of sufficient length and structure to allow contemplation and the introduction of variety (little heralds, and something pastoral, something wistful); and yet the listener feels compelled to ask, What are the music’s limitations? Is there a lack of heroic voice? The ability to evoke drama but not tragedy? The music does not spill into excess—it is pretty; and it is tasteful. Those are not really strange apprehensions or unusual questions—they are the kinds of concerns that one brings to a composer and music with which the listener is not familiar.

The pianist and composer Florence Beatrice Price, the daughter of the Negro bourgeoisie, with a dentist father and a real-estate selling, pianist mother, was a child prodigy, playing in a piano recital at four in Little Rock. In the early twentieth-century, Florence B. Price (April 9, 1887-June 3, 1953) entered the New England Conservatory, and studied music theory, with an emphasis on piano performance, and began to imagine herself a composer as well as a performer. Following her studies, Florence Price lived and taught in Little Rock, but after the town’s atmosphere became hostile to blacks Price with her attorney husband and two daughters moved to Chicago in 1927; and in 1929 Price wrote a work blending European classical form with Negro melodies and rhythms, her piano composition “Fantasie Negre.” Her aesthetic, a joining of cultures, is the kind of thing that could be thought a bastard form, an imperfect thing from conception to execution, in an unsympathetic context—but it is model of reconciliation that many of us today revere, an ideal. Florence Price received four Wanamaker prices in 1932, including one for her Symphony in E Minor, a composition performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and one of two Price works performed by the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble in a recording devoted to Price’s classical creativity: the other recorded piece being Concerto in One Movement. (A peer of William Levi Dawson and William Grant Still, Florence B. Price, whose work was performed by the U.S. Marine Band and the Illinois Federation of Music Clubs, among other groups, is considered the first African-American woman to receive national attention.) Florence Price did graduate work at the American Conservatory and the Chicago Music College; worked as a music teacher and musician; and wrote more than three-hundred musical works.

Florence B. Price’s Concerto in One Movement is very pretty orchestral music, but it does develop strength and rhythm, and mystery and drama, without losing charm. Her Symphony in E Minor begins with intensity, but there quickly follows an interlude of relative quiet; and a romantic aura is created with the momentum of the strings, their rising lilt. Something sad in it reminds me of the American south. The symphony’s second movement has a sad, slow melody, but the horns gather force without being shrill, and there is a consistent delicacy. The third movement is very fast, and its whimsical quality seems quirky, very American; and the fourth movement is also one of speed until its end.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.