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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper


Updated: Jan 27, 2021

Performances of Two Newly Unearthed Gems by Florence Price

When I began planning this post, 203,000 people in the United States had died of COVID-19; as of today, the death toll has risen to 216,277, with a total of 7.745 million cases and an average of about 43,000 new cases every day.

These are numbers indicative of a time of crisis. They’re numbers that, combined with the necessity of physical distancing and masking, would lead one to expect that musical production and musical life generally will have to grind to a halt.

That has happened to some extent, in devastating numbers of cancelled performances especially in the U.S., which has about 4% of the world’s population but some 25% of its COVID-19 cases. But the truth of the situation also offers ample reason for hope and inspiration as well.

Why? The reason was explained this past spring by Julia Torgovitskaya Levitan, co-founder and CEO of Cadenza Artists and iCadenza. In response to the oft-repeated claim that in times of crisis such as our own there is “no need” for music and the other arts, Julia responded with (for her) typical insight and wisdom that this is untrue because every need is, by definition, an opportunity viewed from another side. (Here is a link to the April 29 session in which Julia explains this and dispels other myths that artists are grappling with in the current environment. You will want to watch this.)

Arguably the most important of those reasons for hope and inspiration are musicians themselves – specifically, their resourcefulness in devising solutions to the cultural cataclysm produced by COVID-19 and their determination that, to put it simply, the music will not be silenced.

Better still, the disruption of the business-of-usual model of concert music has led many musicians not only to find new ways of making music and sharing music with our world, and not only to find ways of doing this better, but also to broaden their musical and stylistic horizons – specifically by exploring and celebrating composers and works that, to put it bluntly, would have been squeezed out of most concert programs this year because every musician everywhere would have been devoting most waking hours to the music of Beethoven – with the left-over space in concert and recital programs devoted to safe bets such as Mozart, Brahms, and other dead white males, most of them European.

Instead, after an initial period of shock at the enormity and pervasiveness of the COVID-19 shutdown, musicians threw themselves with renewed zeal and imagination into their art, into the sheer, abject joy that we all receive from making music and sharing it. The “shutdown” has seen the emergence of breathtakingly beautiful physically distanced performances like this one of an arrangement of Florence B. Price’s Adoration (originally written for organ), synched livestream recordings like this one of “We Shall Overcome” by Lara Downes and The Chapin Sisters (which I regard as a minor musical and technological miracle), and of synched socially distanced performances (such as this one of Adoration, although it’s hard not to love this inspired rendition of an arrangement of the “Ode to Joy” section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from the earliest days of the shutdown, by the members of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra). It’s occasioned an explosion of livestreamed video performances on Facebook (such as Lara Downes’s three-part AMPLIFY series on Florence Price for The Boulanger Initiative) and state-of-the-art music videos from outfits such as Lumedia Musicworks. It's prompted, and enhanced the viewership of, in-home recordings of musical works that would have found little time or space in routine concert life, such as Florence Price's previously unheard suite Snapshots (1947-52, performed by Robin Arrigo here). And it’s brought about a sizable number of music videos that defy the shutdown by, paradoxically, using the very technology that is in itself not live in order to create the ethos of live music-making, of the sharing of music in live performance (I’m talking about the Antwerp-based series #SongsofComfort, devoted to newly recovered and published music of Florence Price and Margaret Bonds; you can learn more about that venture here).

Better still, this surge in original programming has, for reasons that are as beautiful as they are practical, facilitated a new and widespread celebration of chamber music – some of it for solo instrumental ensemble with or without voices, much of it for solo instrument such as piano. Before COVID-19, orchestral concerts and opera attracted most of the musical world’s attention – but now, thanks to musicians’ determination that even though that music is now less practicable than before and that the music will not be silenced, composers and entire repertoires that mostly operated in the margins are claiming the spotlight.

The music will not be silenced.

And the musical world is taking in that light as never before.

Two new contributions have popped onto my personal radar for this sort of venture in the last couple of weeks: Florence B. Price’s A-flat major Barcarolle and her Until We Meet. Both are now available to hear thanks to collaborative pianist Maeve Brophy, who has been eagerly following G. Schirmer/AMP’s recent stream of releases of previously unknown piano works of Florence Price, learning them, and posting videos of some to YouTube. Both of these compositions, like almost everything Price wrote for the piano, are worthy of a stable place in the instrument’s repertoire; both of them are nowhere discussed or even mentioned in any published writing about Price; and both of them have remained utterly unheard since Price’s death in 1953.

Until now. Until the crisis of the shutdown gave the community of music lovers the opportunity to bring them out.

You’ll want to check these out. Of particular interest is that these two pieces bookend the main stations of Price’s extraordinary career and the compositions upon which her fame has rested thus far: the Barcarolle was apparently composed shortly after Price moved to Chicago, probably around 1929-32, and is a romantic character piece modeled on the songs traditionally sung by Venetian gondoliers. True to its stylistic models, it unfolds over a gently rocking accompaniment, with gracefully arching, songlike melodies in the right hand – but it also includes flavorful excursions into unexpected harmonic waters, a feature that situates it firmly in the rich harmonic technique for which Price is justly famous:

Until We Meet is even more remarkable. Those who have come to know Price’s sumptuous Your Hands in Mine since Schirmer published it and Lara Downes released it on her EP From the Heart[1] in February 2020 (here’s a beautiful live rendition Lara did this past July) will recognize its tone in Until We Meet – but the latter work was actually composed nearly a decade later; indeed, written on March 27, 1952, fifteen months before Price’s death, it is the last securely dateable piano composition we have from her pen. Here’s Maeve’s rendition of it:

These works, and a host of others like them, would likely still be waiting to see the light of day were it not for the energy, genius, hard work, resolve and – let’s face it – vision of the community of musicians who have worked so hard to un-silence musical voices that needed to be un-silenced, and that we desperately need to hear, precisely in circumstances that defy such affirmative artistic production.

But that is now changed, and music that probably would not yet have been recorded has now been heard, and is being studied, by thousands of others worldwide. All because of who understood that the NEED (writ large) occasioned by the catastrophe of COVID-19 was in fact an opportunity – for this music, its composers, and the community of music lovers worldwide.

The music will not be silenced. And because of that, there is hope for us all.

[1] Lara’s EP From the Heart has since been subsumed into the full album Florence Price: Piano Discoveries.

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