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Symphony No. 1 in E minor (1932)
Florence B. Price (1887-1953)

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence B. Price studied music with her mother from an early age. She earned an Artist’s Diploma in organ and a piano teacher’s diploma from the New England Conservatory. Upon returning to the South, she worked as a church organist and a college professor; she headed the music department of Clark College in Atlanta between 1910 and 1912. In 1927, the Price family moved to Chicago when racial oppression in the South exacerbated. In her new Midwest home, she began her composition career as studied further at the American Conservatory and Chicago Musical College. Between 1931 and 1932, Price composed her first symphonic work, Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, and entered it and her two other concert works into the Rodman Wanamaker Competition. The symphony in E minor won the first prize for a work of orchestral music. The prize brought her national recognition as well as the attention of Frederick Stock, the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Stock premiered the symphony in 1933 to critical acclaim, and with that, Price became the first African-American woman to have a symphony performed by a major U.S. orchestra. Price continued to compose and teach until her death in 1953, leaving nearly 300 works. Although almost all of her compositions were performed during her lifetime, most remain unpublished, except for a handful of songs and piano pieces.

Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor was created during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. She made a self-conscious effort to make her work a statement in the cultural awakening movement, calling the symphony the “Negro Symphony,” although the subtitle was later dropped. She incorporated African American folk idioms, such as spirituals, blues, and characteristic dance music, in a symphonic form, mixing elements of Afro-American cultural heritage and the neo-Romantic nationalist movement. In that regard, as well as in some melodic and instrumental conceptions, the influence of Dvořák’s famous Symphony No. 9, “From the New World” (1893), also in the key of E minor, is unmistakable. Dvořák, who famously stated, “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” captured so lucidly the emotional essence of black spirituals in the melody of the second movement of his E-minor symphony. Price does not quote preexisting spirituals but rather composes to evoke African folk music by employing a pentatonic scale, altered notes (or “blue notes”), call-and-response, spiritual-like melodies, syncopated rhythms, off-beat phrasing, juba dance, sounds that are similar to African drums, hand clapping and foot tapping, and even the slide whistle. The work is scored for a large orchestra, and the percussion section includes cathedral chimes, small and large African drums, bells, and a wind whistle, all coming together to create a colorful, ethnic sound.

The two themes of the sonata-form first movement are in the style of an African-American spiritual.

The slow second movement presents Price’s moving hymn tune, which undoubtedly looks to Dvořák’s well-known Largo melody of a similar quality. The movement ends in a strikingly calm and contemplative manner, with a fragment of the hymn's melody played by a solo cello and the string’s succinct, quiet answer, which provides a harmonic closure.

The humorous third movement, entitled “Juba Dance,” draws heavily on syncopated rhythm that is inherent to the old dance form. 

It is in the folklike final movement that her musical rootedness in African-American musical heritage is most strongly felt. The light string part first hints at fiddles, but the music soon grows extravagant, relentlessly plowing through the grand finale. Though the symphony’s structure and sound may seem simple, that simplicity may be a thoughtful reflection of the folk tradition that Price sought to recreate.

- Jung-Min Mina Lee, Duke University, Music Department