Tuesday 24 November 2020

Rediscovering the music of Florence Price: A composer who not only dropped out the repertoire, but whose music nearly fell into oblivion

Florence Price
Florence Price

Not only did the music of African-American composer Florence Price (1887-1953) fall out of the repertoire after her death, but the very music itself nearly disappeared. In 2009, a trove of her manuscripts and papers, including two violin concertos and her Symphony No. 4 was found in an abandoned house in Illinois. Even now her catalogue of over 300 works (four symphonies, four concertante works, numerous orchestral works, songs, piano music and chamber music) is woefully represented in CD catalogues. Thankfully this is now, slowly, beginning to change.

Dr Samantha Ege, Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, and a leading interpreter and scholar of Florence Price, recently discovered Price's Fantasie Nègre No. 3 for piano, whilst on a research trip to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Price was born. Now Ege is planning to record all four of Price's virtuosic Fantasie Nègre showpieces along with a group of smaller piano works for a disc on the LORELT label.

Born in the American South and initially taught by her mother, Price moved with her family to Chicago to avoid race riots and lynchings. She would study at the New England Conservatory and with leading teachers in Chicago, yet whilst she became the first African-American woman to have her music presented by a major American orchestra, she continued to find barriers due to her race and gender.

Whilst Price's music will have seemed somewhat conservative in the 1950s and 1960s, the way she wrote in a vernacular style using sounds and ideas that fit the reality of urban society, came to use the rhythm and syncopation of the spirituals, and wrote music that was blues inspired, would all seem to suggest that Price as a composer ripe for rediscovery. So the way that her music has remained locked away is somewhat shocking.

As Dr Samantha Ege said: "As a young pianist, discovering Florence Price made me feel visible. She belonged to a long legacy of black composers who channelled their African heritage into classical forms. The classical mainstream must now work to realize the future that Price no doubt hoped to see, one where the concert hall welcomes black classical artists, not only posthumously."

Dr Ege has already recorded Price's Sonata in E minor,  and we look forward to the release of her new disc. But there is a lot more of her music waiting to be rediscovered.

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