• John Michael Cooper

THE PROBLEM WITH PROGRAMS (Part 1)

Updated: Apr 6

Florence Price’s First Symphony, the 1933-34 World’s Fair, and Three Tribbles


Never in my career of writing did I expect that one day I would link the concert program that included the world premiere of Florence B. Price’s First Symphony and music history’s retelling of that narrative with a classic and much-beloved episode of the original series of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. But here we are. This is a three-part post, so I hope you’ll bear with me because, to be perfectly frank, the points I’m covering are not just informational, but actually important. Here goes . . .


The Trouble with Tribbles” ranks as one of the most enduringly popular episodes of the original Star Trek, season 2. In this episode, the starship Enterprise, summoned to safeguard a supply of grain, is visited by a trader who introduces the Enterprise’s crew to tribbles, adorable, fluffy, purring creatures that endear themselves to everyone who comes into contact with them – and reproduce rapidly. The tribbles make everyone feel good. But before long, through no design of their own, they have virtually overtaken the entire starship and threatened its food supply. And while they are themselves good things and completely harmless, as the story goes on they create problems – problems that, we learn, are not entirely accidental. (That’s all I’ll say, because I don’t do spoilers, even for shows that aired fifty-four years ago.)


“The Trouble with Tribbles” was a comic episode of Star Trek, but, like most comedy, it also made serious points – most important among them the capacity of things that we find attractive or appealing for acting as agents for persons and things that are decidedly less attractive or appealing. And that is where the tale of the lovable little tribbles intersects with the tale of the concert where Florence Price’s First Symphony was premiered.


There’s a lot to discuss here, so this post will unfold in three parts. In this first part I’ll provide a rough overview and then propose that the “Century of Progress” concert’s programmatic affirmation of Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, and – as the concert’s theme announced – “the Negro in music” is remarkably tribble-like ("tribblesome"?). In the second part I’ll explain how the familiar narrative concerning the concert and the World’s Fair in general has, tribble-like, diverted attention from the same concert’s overt slap in the face to Black composers and music lovers. Finally, in the third part, I’ll draw on information garnered and shared by Dr. Barbara Wright-Pryor, past president of the Chicago Music Association and classical music critic of the Chicago Crusader, to talk about how this same tribble-like narrative has – surprise, surprise – almost completely eclipsed the agency of an African American woman in making the concert where Price’s First Symphony was premiered happen.


***


By 1933, the official centennial of its founding, Florence Price’s adopted home city of Chicago was the fourth largest city in the world, an industrial giant and one of the most important transportation hubs of the entire U.S. It was also a major target of the Great Migration. The massive private, municipal, and national investment in the entrepreneurial venture that would become the Century of Progress World’s Fair offered significant opportunities for work that enticed Black folk who had been hit hard by the Great Depression’s staggering unemployment in New York, drawing many westward to Chicago. From the time it opened on May 27, 1933 to the time it ended its extended run on October 31, 1934, the Century of Progress Fair ultimately would attract more than 39,000,000 paid visitors – an average of some 74,570 paid visitors per day. It was a staggeringly successful venture that eclipsed the metropolis’s already-legendary 1893 Columbian World’s Exposition and, as Cheryl R. Ganz notes in her 2012 book about the fair, dispensed with the beaux-arts tradition and instead emphasized modernist and futurist concepts, using “the very idea of progress as a tool to generate optimism . . . directing the fairgoer’s gaze toward a better future.”[1] (Here's the official guidebook for the 1933 fair; here’s a 1934 Technicolor short about the fair, and here’s a 2014 mini-doc put together by The Chicago Tribune.)


The fair was also home to the concert where Florence B. Price’s First Symphony was premiered. Price had composed her First Symphony while she had a broken foot, and with it had won first prize in the category of “symphonic work or concert suite for band, orchestra, or chorus” in the prestigious 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Contest in Musical Composition for Composers of the Negro Race.[2] (Her E-minor Piano Sonata won first prize in the piano category; and B-minor Fantasie nègre won Honorable Mention in that same competition.) According to most accounts, that prize attracted the attention of German conductor Frederick Stock, Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1905 to 1942.


Here’s the program for the concert, along with the cover of the program book:



It’s a great story, that one – but it’s also tribble-ish, as I’ll show in Parts 2 and 3 of this post. On the one hand, to overstate the significance of the concert itself would be difficult. It made Florence Price the first African American woman to have her music played by a major U.S. orchestra; it was a high-profile public premiere for Margaret Bonds; it featured Black concert music and African American performers with a White orchestra in a city (Chicago) that had been founded by a Black (probably Haitian) man (Jean Baptiste Point du Sable); and it did all this in a spectacularly entrepreneurial fashion, celebrating innovation and modernism as the future of the city of Chicago, and with it the U.S. generally, at a time when they were deep in the Great Depression and despair born of the capitalist exploitation that caused that economic crisis was abundant and overpowering. In that context, for an African American woman’s symphony (because yes, women did write in “large forms”) to be pronounced “faultless” and “worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory,” as the Chicago Daily News proclaimed of Price’s Symphony, was a dramatic and historic gesture.


But like the tribbles brought aboard the Enterprise, this program had its attendant problems – and these have been overlooked in almost all the writings about the First Symphony, Price, and the concert in general. The trouble with the tribble of the familiar narrative is that in making us feel good it distracts us from the deeply embedded racism and sexism that permeated the event and, most troublingly, would have been viciously integral aspects of the event for Black folk who were there – and for Florence Price herself. Those troubles are the subject of Parts 2 and 3 of this post.


Here’s the first tribble: newly-Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were regular, full-time components of the fair, objections from local Jewish and other groups notwithstanding. But despite persistent efforts on the part of African Americans (such as educator Annie E. Oliver and Robert S. Abbott, editor of the Chicago Defender, and alderman William L. Dawson), and a few allies to illustrate Black achievement in the fair and ensure that its vision for the future included at least a measure of racial justice, the fair steadfastly resisted allocating resources for Black folk and incorporated African Americans and/or Black cultural production “when it met the needs and goals of the exposition, especially to boost attendance, rather than when it met the needs of the black community.”[3] The State of Georgia exhibit showed Blacks picking cotton, and the Social Science Hall included an anthropological exhibit titled “Darkest Africa” that was a celebration of racist and exoticist stereotypes. The fair’s eighteen-month duration included a single “Negro Day” (August 12, 1933). This day had a fifty-cent admission price that effectively prohibited many Blacks from attending – and this, together with the day’s exploitation of racist stereotypes, led to its being effectively boycotted by African Americans and described as a “flop” by the Defender.

Racists, white supremacists, Nazis, and Fascists found much to please them and reinforce their stereotypes in the fair’s engagement with Black folk and Black culture -- Black folk themselves, not so much. Who could blame them? Whites making money off of Black labor and Black art was nothing new, and also nothing to celebrate.


And all this in a fair that included regular, full-time exhibits glorifying Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.


That is the context for the concert of June 15, 1933 where Price’s First Symphony was performed. And that concert fits into the tokenizing, racist character of the fair as a whole. Although classical music was by no means segregated out of the “Century of Progress” exhibition, which opened on May 27, 1933 and was extended to run through October 31, 1934, the same cannot be said of African American concert music or musicians. Orchestral concerts were regular features over that year and a half – indeed, the Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago performed Price’s First Piano Concerto, with Margaret Bonds as soloist, on October 11, 1933. In fact, of the hundreds of concerts given by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the Fair, the concert of June 15, 1933 was the only one of that featured African American music. This in a city that had not one, but two, thriving chapters of the National Association of Negro Musicians. Black concert music was not altogether absent, but to describe it as marginalized to the point of near-invisibility would be an understatement – and that, in my view at least, seriously undermines the triumphal air that attends most descriptions of the June 15, 1933 concert: surely, surely the fair could have mustered more than one concert that represented Chicago’s Black community during that eighteen-month span.


But that’s just the beginning. Stay tuned for more . . .


Oh, and in the meantime, here’s a famous still from “The Trouble with Tribbles”:

(to be continued)


[1] Cheryl R. Ganz, The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: A Century of Progress (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 3. [2] On the First Symphony, see especially Rae Linda Brown, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020), 126-37.

[3] Ganz, The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, 110.

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