• John Michael Cooper


Updated: Apr 9

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

In the first part of this post I talked about the context for the premiere of Florence Price’s First Symphony. That premiere was part of a concert themed “The Negro in Music” and offered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Music Director Frederick Stock on June 15, 1933. As I noted there, it was a milestone in many ways – and in latter-day commentaries on Price it’s often the only part of her professional biography that is mentioned with any specificity, eclipsing the extraordinary two subsequent decades of her creative life.

But in its own context, that triumph was sullied by racism and capitalist exploitation – and those unsavory contextual elements also carried over into its content. That’s what this second part of my three-part post is about.


Anyone who’s ever programmed a recital, a concert, or a conference program knows that there are two basic models: historical progression and thematic/topical. In both, the structure and ordering of pieces is crucial. The first piece or presentation serves as a keynote and has to be strong; the last will determine the audience’s take-away. What comes in the midsection (everything between the first piece and the last) is less important, and if more than one piece makes up that midsection, its own midsection is the least important. What’s in the pride-of-place cornerstone positions is what the programmer wants audiences to perceive as important. And the whole is predicated on audiences agreeing to the argument presented by the program as a whole, not thinking critically about the implicit, potent, and possibly unsavory biases built into it.

Every performer and programmer wants audience members to respect and, more importantly, feel good about their message. Not to want this would be counterproductive, wouldn’t it?

So let’s look at the program for the Century of Progress World’s Fair concert of June 15, 1933:

The order is clearly not historical: the first work of the entire program was composed in 1921; the second, in 1853; the third (Price’s symphony) in 1932; and so on. Price’s First Symphony, the only premiere on the concert, is located squarely in the middle of the first half – anything but a position of emphasis.If the programmers were trying to draw attention to that work, they probably failed – but the Symphony’s placement in the program and the overall sequence of the works actually suggests that the programmers were trying to downplay Price’s symphony, not feature it.

That impression is corroborated by the work that did receive pride of place in the program: the concert overture In Old Virginia by John Powell (1882-1963). For everyone involved, this composition served as the keynote for the entire concert. You probably have not heard of this work or its composer – but to Price and her contemporaries he was quite well known. Born and educated in Virginia, Powell toured widely as a concert pianist in Europe and the United States beginning 1907, also becoming widely known as a composer and musicologist. His musicological work is now utterly obscure, and so is his music. But his notoriety was sufficient for a building at Radford University to be named after him – only to have his name removed, finally, in 2010. It was removed for the same reason it was put there to begin with: because he was a famous White supremacist and eugenicist, indeed one of the mid-twentieth century's most influential figures in those debased discourses.

The keynote in a Chicago World's Fair concert devoted to "the Negro in Music" was by a White supremacist and eugenicist. Think about that for a moment. Take all the time you need.

If you’re uncomfortable with that highly public systemic celebration of White supremacy as the start to a concert themed "the Negro in music" -- the concert that included Price's First Symphony -- you'll also be interested to know that Powell was, in the words of Warren Storey Smith in the article on Powell in the third edition (1942) of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, “best known for his effective use of negro themes.”[1] What a paradox, yes? Moreover, Powell was the co-founder of the Anglo Saxon Clubs of America, the single organization most responsible for the Racial Integrity Act – the “one-drop” rule that became the legal gold standard of segregation in the mid-twentieth century, whereby any nonwhite ancestry rendered a person “colored” and all interracial marriage was forbidden.[2] As J. Douglas Smith emphasized in an important article about Powell:

In September 1922 John Powell, a Richmond native and world-renowned pianist and composer, and Ernest Sevier Cox, a self-proclaimed explorer and ethnographer, organized Post No. 1 of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America. By the following June the organization claimed four hundred members in Richmond alone and had added new groups throughout the state, all dedicated to “the preservation and maintenance of Anglo-Saxon ideals and civilization.” For the next ten years Powell and his supporters dominated racial discourse in the Old Dominion; successfully challenged the legislature to redefine blacks, whites, and Indians; used the power of a state agency to enforce the law with impunity and without mercy; fundamentally altered the lives of hundreds of mixed-race Virginians; and threatened the essence of the state’s devotion to paternalistic race relations.[3]

The Racial Integrity Act, in tandem with Virginia’s Eugenical Sterilization Act enacted that same year, became a model throughout the South and the U.S. generally, as dominant-caste Whites desperately sought ways to scientifically justify the subjugation of Blacks and other out-groups, and to enforce this subjugation by law. Powell, because of his aggressive leadership in that cause, was a national figure whose name would have been well known to 1933 fairgoers -- and to Price (who had recently moved from the South to Chicago). His reputation as pianist and composer would have further ensured that many or most who attended the June 15, 1933 concert also recognized the White-supremacist nature of the concert’s keynote composer and his featured work.

But it went further than that. For the Powell overture performed in Chicago that day was an overt celebration of the Confederacy and blackface minstrelsy. Like many concert overtures, Powell’s is cast in the form of a slow introduction whose substance becomes the work’s main theme in lively tempo, followed by a contrasting second theme in a new key and then by a central section in which elements from both themes are tossed about in unsettled harmonic context. Such works then move to a section that presents both themes again, now in the tonic, and then to a coda that brings the work to a rousing close.

And what is the thematic material of Powell’s In Old Virginia? Its main theme is “Dixie” – a song that originated in Ohio in blackface minstrelsy in 1859, and whose lyrics, typically for the genre, employ mock-African American dialect and reflect on how northern Blacks supposedly longed for the world of slavery. That theme – in a work by a composer “best known for his effective use of negro themes” – is pitted against a languid second theme whose rhythmic and melodic structure apparently are intended to evoke the character of Black folk In Old Virginia. The third section is stereotypical discordant battle music – which in the context of the titular Old Virginia obviously denotes the Civil War, with Whites (“Dixie”) and Blacks (the second theme) musically battling for primacy. And then the closing section presents both themes again –with “Dixie” not being vanquished, but rather emerging victorious. The work’s closing pages rewrite history musically: the “Negro” second theme is gone, and the work closes instead with a triumphant peroration of “Dixie,” presenting that blackface minstrel song first maestoso and then largamente assai, nobilmente, clothed in full orchestral glory – the sort of glory familiar from the close of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Any Confederate slave owner would feel vindicated and proud.[4]

Take a moment and imagine how the Black folk -- composer, soloists, and audience members -- who were present that night felt when they heard the keynote of a concert devoted to "the Negro in Music" given to a work by a famously racist White composer that celebrated blackface minstrelsy and a culture fiercely committed to the enslavement and permanent subjugation of Blacks, even as it pushed Black music aside and minimized its most significant contributions (here represented by Price's First Symphony).

That is the context for the critical reviews that are deftly parsed and analyzed in Dr. Rae Linda Brown's discussion of the reception of Price's symphony.[5] Inevitably aware that the programmers of the Juneteenth Concert (yes, that's what it was) had done everything in their power to minimize the impact of the most extraordinary artistic achievement on the entire program -- an achievement that was, after all, the work of an African American woman -- contemporary reviewers declined to give any oxygen to the slant on the concert that the programmers apparently desired. Instead, they lifted up Florence Price and her work. Even Alain Locke, whose 1936 remarks view skeptically Price's choice "to go up Parnassus by the broad high road of classicism rather than the narrower, more hazardous, but often more rewarding path of racialism," decreed that Price's achievement was "in the last analysis neither racial nor national but universal music."[6] That response -- although written some three years later and submitted as part of a comparison of Price's First Symphony to another work that was not performed at this concert and another one that wasn't yet written (Still's Afro-American Symphony and Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony) -- is typical: although Locke certainly perceived that the Century of Progress concert granted nothing Parnassian to Price or her Symphony, he simply told the truth and gave appropriate praise to Price's contribution, matter-of-factly portraying it as a vindication of "the Negro composer's right" to choose her/his own path to that height. Resistance has never been more elegant.

And what about us? How are we to interpret Powell's presence at the start of a program on the theme of “the Negro in music”? Surely we should be able to expect a concert whose programmers intended to honor rather than degrade that theme not to include a work by a White supremacist that celebrated a blackface minstrel tune. Surely we should be able to expect such a concert not to bury the premiere of a work by its most significant Black composer in the middle of the first half. Indeed, surely we should expect such a concert to celebrate that work and its composer, placing them as a triumphal conclusion to the entire concert, just as Powell’s loathsome overture celebrates “Dixie” In Old Virginia.

But the concert of June 15, 1933 does none of those things; in fact, it does the opposite. And while it featured legendary African American tenor Roland Hayes and the extraordinary young pianist/composer Margaret Bonds, those Black geniuses, like Florence Price, were allowed to take the stage only after they had faced musical humiliation by a work whose composer and music were famous for their denigration and subjugation of Blacks. They had no real choice, of course – for to object would have meant to have their presence denied, their contribution rejected.

That is where the tale of this concert intersects with “The Trouble with Tribbles” – to which I likened the familiar narrative of the concert in Part 1 of this post. Like the tribbles, that familiar narrative makes us feel good. In “The Trouble with Tribbles” we eventually learn that the furry, purring, intensely lovable feel-good creatures were actually brought on board the Enterprise as part of a Klingon saboteur’s design to sow dissent and provoke a rift between the Federation and the Klingon Empire – they are unwitting pawns of evil intentions.

Similarly, while it's important that the familiar narrative emphasize the achievement represented by Florence B. Price’s becoming the first African American woman to have her music played by a major U.S. orchestra, if we want to understand what that triumph would have meant to her it's also important that we not downplay the deeply troublesome problems of the concert's context in the Fair and the work's context in the program. To downplay those troublesome facts is effectively to forgive the concert’s programmers and forget the repugnant racism, denigration, and exploitation that characterize the program they created and its context -- which is precisely the programmers would prefer we do. What's more, in so doing we would fail to acknowledge an evil that inevitably was part of the experience of the concert that Price, Bonds, Hayes, and every African American in attendance had to suffer in order to win that grudgingly granted space for their achievements. Downplaying those troublesome facts would amount to forgiving the humiliating White-supremacist slap in the face with which those Black folk were “welcomed” to a concert that ostensibly celebrated them: to becoming unwitting pawns of evil intentions. We owe Price, Bonds, Burleigh, Coleridge-Taylor, and Hayes better than that.

The troubles do not end there, however – for as Dr. Barbara Wright-Pryor has shown, the familiar feel-good narrative also erases the one individual without whom the entire concert of June 15, 1933 would not have happened. That person is the center of Part 3 of this post.

[1] Warren Story Smith, “Powell, John,” in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 3rd ed., ed. H. C. Colles (New York: MacMillan, 1942), 4: 240. [2] For the context and significance of the Virginia race movement led by Powell and his cohorts, including its influence on the policies of Hitler and the Nazis, see the chapter titled “Pillar Number Four: Purity versus Pollution” (pp. 115-30) in Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York: Random House, 2020), esp. 121-25. [3] See J. Douglas Smith, “The Campaign for Racial Purity and the Erosion of Paternalism in Virginia, 1922-1930: ‘Nominally White, Biologically Mixed, and Legally Negro,’" Journal of Southern History 68 (2002): 65-106 at 65. [4] Powell’s overture (Op. 28, 1921; publ. 1927) was recorded on a 78 rpm disc by the Hamburger Kammerorchester under the direction of Hans-Jürgen Walther. This recording is available on YouTube here. The triumph of Dixie begins at about 11’23” in this recording.

[5] See Rae Linda Brown The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020), 115-25.

[6] Alain Locke, The Negro and His Music, Bronze Booklet No. 2 (Washington, D.C.: The Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1936), 115. These reviewers were not only telling the truth about an extraordinary composer and work, but also engaging in active critical resistance to the de facto sabotage committed by the concert's programmers.

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