• John Michael Cooper

FLORENCE PRICE AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF AN AFRICAN AMERICAN CLASSICAL STYLE

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

One of the arts organizations that has miraculously but predictably managed to flourish and assert a leading role in the shut-down era of COVID-19 is The Boulanger Initiative. Named after the immensely influential and equally brilliant sisters Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) and Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), the Initiative strives “ to promote music composed by womxn through performance, education, and commissions” in order “to work toward greater inclusivity” and "to enrich our collective understanding of what music is, has been, and can be.”


This week the Boulanger Initiative is hosting a series of three pre-recorded performances/interviews featuring the music of Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953) featuring indefatigable Price champion Lara Downes – one the most extraordinary pianists of our time, and one who in the last two years has released no fewer than twenty world-premiere recordings of recently published compositions by Price for solo piano.


In last night’s interview – there are two more, tonight and tomorrow night (7/22 and 7/23), and you should definitely watch them – one viewer asked a question that exemplifies the power that these distance-powered recital/interviews have to keep the arts and artistic discourse moving forward even in an era when progress is challenged on virtually all fronts. The viewer, David Anderson, asked: “How might Florence Price’s training at the New England Conservatory and elsewhere influence her ideas about developing an African American classical music?”


It’s an excellent question – one that Price scholarship needs to answer more solidly than I can do in the 6-minute-read cap I’ve set for this post, and one that Lara answered wonderfully with reference to how Dvořák and others had addressed similar issues. But it’s a very richly textured question and there are also richer answers.


One answer is obvious, another less obvious but clear enough, the other distressingly elusive.


The obvious answer: while Price contributed, seminally, to the development of an African American classical music, she did not develop it; there was already a rich and thriving tradition of African-American music by the earliest years of the twentieth century. (A good summary of this is provided on pp. 7-9 and 82-89 of Rae Linda Brown’s recently published Price biography, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price, ed. Guthrie P. Ramsey, jr.)


Less obvious but clear enough: Price graduated from the New England Conservatory in 1906, but her earliest surviving composition (“To My Little Son”) probably dates from about 1914; there are no more works until about 1919, and she apparently did not begin composing with any regularity until the late 1920s, around the time of her visits to Chicago and eventual move to that city – and the first few years’ worth of these compositions refer only infrequently to recognizable Black vernacular styles.


That's about a twenty-year gap between the time she left the NEC and the beginning of the period where she composed regularly.


The surviving evidence thus suggests that after the NEC Price did not self-identify as a composer; she was apparently more committed to teaching during these years, both at the collegiate level and (after she married Thomas Price) privately. Her retooling into a self-identifying composer coincides with her commencement of her involvement with the two Chicago branches of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) and her studies at Chicago Musical College. Two figures there were obvious candidates for inculcating in Price a desire to speak in her ancestral vernacular as well as traditional classical idioms. The older of these, Carl Busch (1862-1943), himself Danish and a former student of great Danish nationalist composer Niels Gade, was deeply involved in the “Indianist” movement in U.S. music – and indeed, Price penned a series of Indianist songs (still unpublished) that probably date from these years. From Busch, Price would have been strongly encouraged to cultivate a musical voice authentic to her own national identity. The other figure, Wesley La Violette (1894-1978), was specifically involved with the cultivation of Black vernacular styles within the classical tradition. La Violette was a stylistic polymath and, more importantly, a teacher and mentor of many important figures on the West Coast jazz scene. In La Violette Price would have found important support for the integration of jazz and related styles into her music.


What does this tell us? First, that what Dr. Brown terms Price’s “Afro-Romantic” style was not born until some twenty years after her graduation from the NEC. Second, that a future need of Price scholarship is to track down more of the particulars of her work at the Chicago Musical College and tease out a fuller understanding of the impact of this chapter of her education on the development of the brilliant and distinctive voice that we know and love today. And – most importantly – that when Price found encouragement for the cultivation and development of a musical style that would be consistent with what her teachers considered “nationalist,” she identified as African American (not just American). Because – again, apart from the handful of Indianist songs, which are probably student pieces and possibly were assigned – there are no surviving compositions that behave like other U.S. nationalist works of the twentieth century, we can use the chronology of the emergence of Price’s Afro-Romanticism to confirm that her Black heritage was in fact not just important or natural to her, but consciously sought out and cultivated, and indeed central, to her musical imagination and her identity in general.


The distressingly elusive answer is a question: is it true, as the surviving evidence suggests, that Price did not really begin composing for twenty years after her graduation from the only musical education that her biographers have ever discussed in any detail?


The answer is probably Yes. While it’s possible that there is still a rich trove of lost Price compositions written during this gap of about twenty years (at least some of these would bear her maiden name, Smith), the evidence currently available suggests that Price began to “find herself” as a composer, to discover her musical voice, only in her late thirties. Not until the 1930s, when she was in her forties – and, probably not coincidentally, in the context of the profoundly beneficial arts initiatives of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration – did the synthesis of traditional and African-American styles for which she is celebrated today become a consistent feature of her style.


All this (which, I admit, has been a great deal of fun to write about even as I worry about other deadlines) is not just instructive with regard to Price, her music, and the still-to-do challenges that lie before us as we continue to explore the hundreds of works by Price that were part of the much-discussed discovery of her papers in 2009 but have remain utterly beyond the pale of musical life and Price scholarship until G. Schirmer acquired the rights to her complete catalog and began publishing her works regularly last year. More importantly, it’s indicative of the importance of the leadership that Lara Downes has taken in championing this unjustly marginalized repertoire, and more generally, of the brilliance of The Boulanger Initiative in championing music of, by, and for womxn “and to enrich our collective understanding of what music is, has been, and can be.”

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