On the banks of the Mississippi River – on African American classical composers (2/3)

It is quite revealing that when the British classical music magazine Gramophone asked American conductor Gerald Schwarz to write an essay on « forgotten symphonies: the hidden giants of American music », all the composers selected were white American men. Not one woman was chosen, and not one African American either, and I can’t think of ever seeing a Black composer of any nationality on the cover of a classical music magazine. The history of Black composers, whether American, British or French, is one of exclusion and marginalization, that is to say of invisibilization. As the composer T.J. Anderson explained in 2014 to the New York Times about the situation of African American composers, « We’ve been invisible », and he added that “like Ralph Ellison said, you know: We’re invisible, and any chance we get for exposure is very important.” That’s why one of the main issue about race relations in the arts is to make visible what has been made invisible by centuries of discriminations and racism.

One composer whose work was the victim of institutionalised racism and also sexism was Florence Price who once wrote to conductor Serge Koussevitkzy, at the time when he was the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra: « Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility. […] Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position. » It was the second letter she wrote to the famous Russian conduction, and there is no trace of his replying to her. Despite what she called her handicaps of being a woman and African American, Price courageously « defied the odds » to become the first American American woman composer to achieve recognition:

« In addition to the harvest of death, disenfranchisement, pain and suffering inflicted by societies locked into institutionalised racism, there is also the incalculable loss of unrealised potential. Combine pervasive racism with centuries of undervaluing the contributions of women and the odds against success become all but overwhelming. This new Naxos release of the First and Fourth Symphonies by Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953) is part of the rediscovery now under way of an African American woman who defied those odds. » (Patrick Ruger, in the review published in the April 2019 issue of Gramophone Magazine)

Florence Price (1887-1953) was born Florence Smith in Arkansas, a segregated state. Her parents belonged to the middle class. Her father, a dentist, and her mother, a music teacher, were both well-established in Little Rock. From an early age, Price displayed exceptional musical talents, giving her first piano performance at the age of 4 and publishing a composition for the first time at the age of 11. After graduating at the age of 14, she entered the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, the oldest independent music school in the United States, but she enrolled as a Mexican as her mother felt it was safer to hide her race. There she studied composition and counterpoint with composers George Chadwick and Frederick Converse, and in 1906 at the age of 19 she graduated with honors. She then worked as a teacher in Arkansas, before becoming the head of the music department of a historically black college, now Clark Atlanta University, then married a lawyer from Little Rock, Thomas J. Price, and returned to her home town. But in the late 1920s, the Prices decided to move to the North, thus taking part in the Great Migration, a movement that eventually saw 6 million African Americans relocating from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest and West from 1916 to 1970. The Prices settled in Chicago in 1927, where Florence Price studied composition, orchestration, and organ as well as languages and liberal arts at different colleges. Four years later, she divorced from her abusive husband and in order to make ends meet with her two young daughters she worked as an organist for silent films and composed songs for radio commercials under the pen name Vee Jay. During this difficult period in her life she became friends with another composer, Margaret Bonds, and through her met influential African American artists, most notably poet Langston Hughes and singer Marian Anderson, who both helped her achieve success and recognition as a composer.

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, n° 35 : They left the South in great numbers. They arrived in the North in great numbers. (1940-41)

In 1932, Florence Price and Margaret Bonds achieved national recognition after submitting composition for the prestigious Wanamaker Foundation Awards, Price winning first prize for her Symphony in E minor and third prize for her Piano Sonata, and Bongs wimming first prize for her song « Sea Ghost ». A year later Price became the first African American woman to have a composition performed by a major orchestra, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and German conductor Frederick Stock premiered the Symphony on June 15, 1933, two years after her friend William Grant Still’s Afro-American symphony was premiered by the Rochester Symphony Orchestra. Another important achievement for Price took place on April 9, 1939 when contralto Marian Anderson sang Price’s arrangement of the spiritual « My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord » in an open-air concert organized by First Lady Eleanor Rooselvelt in Washington D.C. Although Anderson was a star singer and was invited to perform in the great concert halls in Europe, South America and North America, she had been denied the permission to perform in the Constitution Hall or to an integrated audience in another hall in the capital, because she was black and because Washington was a segregated city at the time. As a consequence the presidential couple decided to arrange for the concert to be performed on federal ground, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The concert turned out to be a massive success as it was attended by 75, 000 people and is now remembered as a milestone in the history of the African Americans’ struggle for civil rights.

 Marian Anderson on Easter Sunday, 1939 – source : US Information Agency

Unfortunately even though Price achieved relative fame and success in her lifetime, after her death « she swiftly faded into the background of a canon dominated by white men, and much of her work was thought to be lost until a trove of manuscripts was discovered in 2009, in what had been her summer home outside of Chicago. » (Micaella Baranello, ‘Welcoming a Black Female Composer Into the Canon. Finally.’, The New York Times, February 9, 2018). The couple who discovered these lost manuscripts in an old, dilapidated house they intended to renovate had not idea of the identity of the former owner of this house, but as they kept seeing the name of Price appearing on documents, they looked 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. » (Alex Ross, « The Rediscovery of Florence Price », The New Yorker, January 29, 2018). As Alex Ross rightly pointed out in his insightful article on Florence Price, an article that made me encounter her name and her work for the first time, « not only did Price fail to enter the canon; a large quantity of her music came perilously close to obliteration. That run-down house in St. Anne is a potent symbol of how a country can forget its cultural history. »

Florence Price
Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries

Whether Florence Price, and more generally-speaking the work of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) composers as well as of women, should enter the canon of classical music is a question that needs to be addressed urgently. For centuries the canon in classical music has been formed exclusively by bourgeois white men, whose work was elected by other bourgeois white men, critics, musicologists and concert-goers, as worthy of cult-like admiration. As a consequence, « nineteenth-century music scholarship began to make distinctions between high and low art, what was in good taste and what was not, in addition to a growing sense that music from past eras had a lasting value. This had the effect of elevating certain pieces of music to the status of “better” or “greater” than others, and for which an appreciation was regarded as a sign of good taste, education and status (an attitude which prevails to this day in relation to classical music). » (Frances Wilson, « The Core Canon », The Interlude) The problem is that this canon does not only reflect the intrisic value of these composers’s work, which I would be the last person to deny, as most of my favorite composers belong to the canon, but also greatly reflects the social, economic and political hierarchies that have prevailed for centuries, and this bias is no longer possible in our world as the #metoo and #BlackLivesMatter movements have demonstrated. Societies in Western countries are choking under the weight of sexism, racism and inequalities, and the classical music world must embrace these issues to allow for a fairer representation of people. Of course, the idea of transforming the canon to make it more inclusive will likely meet a lot of resistance, as Alex Ross himself recognized: « Having grown up with the notion of musical genius, I am reluctant to let it go entirely. What I value most as a listener is the sense of a singular creative personality coalescing from anonymous sounds. I wonder whether the profile of genius could simply evolve to include a broader range of personalities and faces. But there’s no doubt that the jargon of greatness has become musty, and more than a little toxic. » 

Now that Florence Price’s rediscovery has been launched thanks to the commitment of musicologists, music critics and some musicians like Er-Gene Kahng, the next step is to have her work widely performed in concert halls in the United-States and elsewhere, hopefully in France. Her work deserves to be heard by audiences because her music is beautiful, poetic and deeply moving. The tone poem Mississippi River Suite is a good exemple of her craft, combining techniques she learnt by studying the great masters of the past, especially Romantic and post-Romantic composers, with a deeply American lyricism rooted in spirituals and jazz:

« The Mississippi River Suite is a 30-minute tone poem that might be best understood through the model of Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau” from Má vlast. “The Moldau” followed the progression of the Moldau River through the Czech countryside and twisted and turned musically based on the scenes the river flowed past.

Similarly Price follows the Mississippi River in her suite as the water builds from a trickle to a torrent, passes through Native American lands and finally arrives in the lands of southern spirituals and New Orleans jazz. Solo instrument voices play quotations of “Get Down, Moses” or “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” that fade in and out of listening range as if on the banks of the shore. » (Ricky O’Bannon, « Listening Guide: Florence Price », from the website of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra)

Now find a comfortable place to take a break, close your eyes, and listen to the musical voice of Florence Price guiding you along the river Mississippi, discover the landscapes, birds and people of the Deep South by simply diving into the ebb and flow of the music.

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