‘Why have I never heard of this?’: Phila Orchestra revives America’s first Black woman composer

Florence Price had one of her pieces performed in 1933, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Since then, she has disappeared from the classical canon.

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Portrait of Florence Price (University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville 	
Florence Beatrice Smith Price Papers Addendum)

Portrait of Florence Price (University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville Florence Beatrice Smith Price Papers Addendum)

A largely forgotten Black woman composer — the first to have her work performed by a major American orchestra almost 90 years ago — is being revived by the Philadelphia Orchestra this weekend.

Florence Price had one of her pieces performed in 1933, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Since then, she has disappeared from the classical canon.

“She shouldn’t be an obscure composer. It’s sensational music that’s been overlooked,” said Orchestra CEO Matías Tarnopolsky. “It raises questions of how canons of music are made. Here we have this brilliantly creative compositional voice that has been largely unheard since her death in the middle of the 20th century.”

“In the musical world we have to ask: Why is this the case?” he added.

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Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas. She studied organ performance and composition at the New England Conservatory of Music, eventually settling in Chicago where she wrote symphonies, concertos, choral works, and pieces for solo voice and piano.

Price’s big break came when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played her Symphony in E Minor after it won a Wanamaker Foundation Award. She spent the rest of her life trying to leverage that success, writing personal letters to conductors of major orchestras imploring them to consider her work.

Steve Spinelli, assistant director of choral programs at Cornell University, says Price was never able to get a foothold in the higher echelons of classical music during her lifetime.

“The World War II aesthetic of music: The idea that modernist music and experimentation of a particular variety was held in higher esteem than her neo-Romantic lush harmony,” he said. “And, of course, let’s be honest, there was her own proclaimed — she called them ‘handicaps’ — of sex and race. She was very vocal about how challenging her career was because of those two factors.”

Spinelli is the cofounder of OneComposer, a new initiative to bring deserving but unsung composers to the attention of scholars, orchestras, and audiences.

OneComposer’s other co-founder, Tamara Acosta, is on the vocal faculty of Cornell University and studied at the same conservatory that Price did, decades later. While in school, she never heard Price’s name.

“I had gotten my master’s degree where she went to school and I had never once encountered her in my upper-level music history classes,” said Acosta. “This is not right, because it’s really incredible music.”

Spinelli and Acosta had planned a three-day conference at Cornell where scholars and musicians would have gathered to focus on the life and music of Price, but it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. When they saw that the Philadelphia Orchestra already had Price in its 2020-2021 season programming, they reached out to partner with the orchestra on a performance of Price’s original “Piano Concerto in One Movement,” a piece not played or heard in some 80 years.

“When the Philadelphia Orchestra plays something, a lot of people listen,” said Spinelli. “That’s really important to us.”

Price wrote the Piano Concerto in 1934, while living in Chicago, and it was picked up by the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago. Spinelli said that inspired other women’s orchestras to play it until the outbreak of WWII, when the war effort caused those orchestras to pause indefinitely or disband completely. Interest in Price’s concerto dried up.

The concerto was made into a two-piano reduction, meaning the full orchestra score was boiled down to something that could be performed more economically, with fewer instruments. The original orchestral score was lost.

Decades after Price’s death in 1953, the Center for Black Music Research commissioned composer Trevor Weston to re-create the full orchestral score based on fragments and notes written by Price, essentially reverse-engineering the full concerto from what was available at the time.

Since then, a trove of Price’s manuscripts have been discovered in 2009 in an abandoned country house where she used to retreat to write. News of that discovery prompted renewed interest in her work. The original score for “Concerto in One Movement” suddenly appeared at auction, where it was snapped up by the music publisher G. Schirmer, Inc. and prepared for performance.

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The Philadelphia Orchestra will be the first U.S. ensemble to play this original score since it was last heard in the 1930s.

“It’s absolutely exquisite,” said Acosta. “It’s shorter than the symphonies, about 18 minutes in length, but it really shows a beautiful arc of her compositional style.”

Michelle Cann (provided)

The concerto was performed with Michelle Cann, a Philadelphia-based concert pianist who was just named to the faculty of the Curtis Institute,  has been playing a lot of Price’s work since discovering the concerto in 2016 when it was given to her by the New York ensemble The Dream Unfinished, an activist orchestra oriented around racial justice.

“At first I was hesitant because I thought: I’ve never heard of this piece, I’ve hardly heard of her, it’s probably not that great a work,” said Cann. “When I got the music and was sight-reading it, I could not believe it. I was speechless. I couldn’t believe it. I’m like, ‘This piece is amazing! Why have I never heard of this?!’”

“Concerto in One Movement” is actually in three distinct parts. Cann says Price started with a somewhat unusual choice of putting a lush piano cadenza right up top.

“The second section is serene, soulful, and spiritual. It has just the oboe and piano for the whole opening of the second section, we’re just doing a duet together,” said Cann. “Then the third movement takes off into this awesome dance – the juba dance, a traditional African dance from way back. You want to tap your feet. In fact, I think I am tapping my feet while I’m playing it.”

The Orchestra recorded its performance with Cann and has released it as a ticketed, digital streaming concert until February 25, on a program that also includes works by Rossini and Schubert.

Just before the final run-through of the performance in Verizon Hall, Cann surprised everyone by standing up from the piano and directly addressing the musicians surrounding her, telling them about Price’s long-deferred dream to have her music performed at the highest level. Not even the sound engineer was prepared for her sudden, impromptu speech about how important that moment was for Cann, for Price, and for American music.

“It was very emotional for me,” said Cann. “I stood up and said how grateful I was that the musicians were taking it seriously, playing it so well. I feel I am bringing her dream to life. This is what we really want: to touch people and feel like we’re making a difference. I felt such honor, such pride, that I should be part of her legacy.”

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