• John Michael Cooper


Updated: Apr 26, 2021

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

In Part 1 of this three-part post, I suggested that even though the June 15, 1933 premiere of Florence Price’s First Symphony was important, the familiar narrative portraying the symphony as a triumph and the (implicit) centerpiece of the program is not quite true and has eclipsed the Fair's celebration of deeply offensive racist stereotypes. In Part 2, I documented how that narrative has obscured the profoundly racist tone and programming strategy of the concert -- so that in telling the story we want to hear, we absolve the concert’s organizers of culpability and, worse, whitewash the stain of racism that would have been unmistakable to Price and the Black folk who contributed and attended.

And in both parts I suggested that the titular problem with programs draws on the popular classic Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” because the familiar narrative, which makes us feel good and distracts from the racist designs of those who granted that single event to Black concert music in a fair that stretched out over eighteen months, is like Star Trek’s “tribbles” – purring, instantly lovable creatures that make everyone feel good but are actually brought on board the Enterprise as part of planned sabotage.

But all good Star Trek fans know that “The Trouble with Tribbles” has a happy ending: once the Klingon subterfuge has been unmasked and relations (temporarily) repaired, the Klingons leave the Enterprise. There are no more tribbles on board, and Kirk wonders where they went. Scotty finally admits (to great laughter) that he beamed them onto the Klingon ship, where they’ll be no tribble at all.”

And in this regard, too, the story of Florence Price’s role in the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair offers the prospect of a happy ending – one that solicits us to replace the familiar, superficially correct White man’s narrative with a richer one that, pending further research, promises to reveal much about this extraordinary composer, her music, and its reception.

Oh, yes: I also promised that in this final installment I would identify the one person without whom the June 15, 1933 concert would not have happened. I’ll do that in this post and add a little bonus that I hope will be of interest.

Let’s begin.

The familiar narrative concerning the concert of that 1933 Juneteenth at the Chicago World’s Fair focuses on the presence of Price’s First Symphony in the program, also acknowledging twenty-year-old Margaret Bonds’s performance of the John Alden Carpenter Concertino for Piano and Orchestra. Star tenor Roland Hayes is mentioned, as are composers Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Harry Burleigh. But German conductor Frederick Stock and the all-White Chicago Symphony Orchestra usually get more attention than Hayes, Coleridge-Taylor, and Burleigh: Stock and the CSO bask in the reflected glory of Price’s achievement.

Two figures in that concert are rarely mentioned in the familiar narrative. One, a little paradoxically, has long been generally acknowledged as an important composer: Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), whose “Le Repos de la sainte famille” from the oratorio L’enfance du Christ (1854) was performed by Roland Hayes after Powell’s racist overture In Old Virginia and before Price’s First Symphony.

Berlioz is not our concern here, though. Instead, we’re concerned with an African American woman without whom that performance wouldn't have happened at all: Maude Roberts George (1888-1943).

A soprano, George was born in New Jersey and raised in Chicago. She graduated from Nashville’s Walden University in 1907 and Chicago’s Bryant & Stratton Business College in 1908, then went on to teach at Walden University and Lane College. She co-founded and served as president of the Chicago Music Association, and worked as music critic for the Chicago Defender from 1922 to about 1940. She rose to the leadership of one of the Chicago chapters of the National Association of Negro Musicians and served as that organization’s national director from 1933 to 1935. She was a member and leader of a remarkable number of groups that advocated for education, interracial relations, and gender justice, including the Housing Committee of the Governor’s Joint Emergency Relief of Illinois, director of the Sunshine Haven for Women, director of the Illinois State Association of Colored Women, and more. It was Maude Roberts George who, on Sunday, September 25, 1932, introduced Major Henry Scroggins as representative of Capt. John Wanamaker, jr., to announce the winners in the Rodman Wanamaker Contest in Musical Composition for Composers of the Negro Race – the contest in which Price’s First Symphony won first prize in the category of Symphonic Work or Concert Suite for Band, Orchestra, or Chorus.[1]

And – as Dr. Barbara Wright-Pryor has been pointing out since 2013[2] – it was Maude Roberts George who paid for the performance of Florence B. Price’s First Symphony in the Juneteenth concert. Without George’s underwriting – a sum of $250, roughly $5,093 today – the June 15, 1933 performance of Price's First Symphony would not have happened. (Here’s an online version of Dr. Wright-Pryor's 2013 program note, courtesy of John Malveaux Music.)

Few readers of this post will be familiar with Maude Roberts George, but as Dr. Samantha Ege has recently shown, George (along with Nora Holt and Estella Bonds, mother of Margaret) was a vitally important force in the network of women who nurtured and fueled the extraordinary concert-music culture of the Black Chicago Renaissance in the mid-twentieth century.[3]

What’s more, it’s Maude Roberts George, not Frederick Stock, who deserves primary credit for that historic performance of Price’s First Symphony – for although Stock did indeed conduct it, he did so only after George paid for him to do so. And Dr. Wright-Pryor points out in a personal communication that the Chicago Music Association minutes record that it was also Stock who selected White supremacist John Powell’s racist overture In Old Virginia to begin the program – a blatantly offensive gesture toward the concert’s Black contributors, performers, and audience members (see Part 2). If we want to tell the truth about the June 15, 1933 concert, we should quit giving Stock credit for programming Price's symphony, and instead cultivate and celebrate the memory of George’s agency: she, along with Price herself, was the sine qua non of that historic premiere.

I promised “a little bonus.” Here it is:

While the racist aspects of the June 15 concert program must have tarnished the experience of that event for Price, the Century of Progress also offered another event, generally overlooked in accounts of Price and the Fair that I know,[4] that would probably count as a triumph for any composer – especially an African American woman who had moved to the metropolis only a few years earlier. The 1937, 1940, 1942, and 1944 editions of Who’s Who in Colored America report that the Fair's Illinois Host House offered a program devoted entirely to Price’s music in that same season.[5] Here’s a snippet view:

Now that some progress is being made in the safe and controlled reopening of many institutions despite the ongoing cataclysm of COVID-19, it's time for the community of Price scholars (including Yours Truly) to get to work and do our due diligence in learning more about this important program.

An all-Price concert given by the Illinois Host House in the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair!

It’s time to stop repeating the narrative of the premiere of Price's First Symphony in that narrative's familiar form. It’s a tribble, one that makes us feel good but whitewashes the patently racist and exploitative character of the World’s Fair and the Juneteenth concert while also diverting attention from the bold African American woman who (with Price) was the sine qua non of the historic premiere of Price's First Symphony. Contenting ourselves with repeating that established narrative also keeps us from even realizing that there was another, even more important concert honoring Florence B. Price and her music later in that same fair.

Here's a better sketch of a narrative:

  1. Writing with a broken foot and less than ten years into her securely datable career as a composer, Florence B. Price penned a First Symphony that would make any composer -- Black or White, man or woman, young or old -- proud.

  2. Maude Roberts George, by paying for the Juneteenth concert, enabled Price to become the first African American woman to have her music played by a major U.S. orchestra.

  3. German conductor Frederick Stock and the all-White Chicago Symphony Orchestra took Maude Roberts George’s money. With it, they organized a conspicuously racist program that included Price’s First Symphony in a position of no emphasis. Apparently, they also performed well.

  4. The African American press gave no oxygen to the racist message of the concert as a whole. Instead, they ignored the racist message of the concert program and chose to uplift its most important composer and work. (I discussed this toward the end of Part 2 of this post.)

  5. Finally: at some (presumably later) point in that same season, Florence B. Price became the first African American woman to have an entire program of her music performed in the context of a World’s Fair that, in its totality, attracted an average of about 74,570 paid visitors per day. Only a fraction of those visitors would have attended the all-Price program, but this does not diminish that concert's significance, especially since it was given by the Host House of Illinois – a state that Price had adopted as her own only about five years earlier.

More research is needed, clearly, but let’s beam the tribblesome familiar narrative off-board. To retain it now that we know more is to be complicit in the whitewashing that enables Stock and the CSO to bask in the reflected glory of Florence Price’s achievement, to ignore the vital agency of another African American woman in making that performance happen, and to overlook the likely more significant event of that World’s Fair for Price, her musical contemporaries, and Black folk generally. And finally, let’s get to work learning more about Maude Roberts George, and about Florence Price’s music and its inclusion in the Illinois Host House concert of the Century of Progress 1933 Fair.

It’ll be no tribble at all.

[1] Rae Linda Brown, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price, ed. Guthrie P. Ramsey, jr. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 102-103). [2] Barbara Wright-Pryor, Program note, “Florence B. Price: The Mississippi River” (Chicago Symphony Orchestra, May 9, 11, and 14, 2013), 38-45. For sharing this program book with me I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Wright-Pryor, who in 2013 was president of the Chicago Music Association, to which Price also belonged. Dr. Wright-Pryor also pointed out George’s agency in a correction to Bill McGlaughlin at WFMT in a commiqué that was shared in AfriClassical on April 7, 2014; and has made the point in subsequent social-media posts. Nevertheless, commentators continue to repeat the familiar narrative with no mention of George. [3] Samantha Ege, “Composing a Symphonist: Florence Price and the Hand of Black Women’s Fellowship,” Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 24 (2020): 7-27.

[4] This concert is briefly mentioned (121 words) in Brown, The Heart of a Woman, 149-50. [5] Thomas Yenser, Who’s Who in Colored America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Persons of African Descent in America, 1941-44 (Sixth Edition) (Brooklyn: Thomas Yenser, 1944).

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