Monday 19 April 2021

Fantasie Nègre - The Piano Music of Florence Price

Fantasie Nègre: The Piano Music of Florence Price; Samantha Ege; Lorelt

Fantasie Nègre: The Piano Music of Florence Price
; Samantha Ege; Lorelt

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 April 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Known as the first African-American woman to have a composition played by a major orchestra, we hear Florence Price in more intimate mode with piano rhapsodies which mix Schumann-esque piano writing with Afro-American folk tradition

The National Conservatory of Music of America was founded in New York in 1885 and from 1892 to 1895 the director was the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. This was a period when the question of what an American classical composer was had not been fully nswered. Well into the 20th century, an American composer's finishing seemed to require them to spend a period studying and training in Europe, and it was only as composers like Aaron Copland started to combine Western European training with American themes that the ideas of what an America composer was began to coalesce.

Of course, the above paragraph needs to be heavily qualified. The composers concerned were largely male and almost exclusively white. Composers such as Amy Beach (1867-1944) never had the opportunity to travel beyond the USA, but still the training that such women received was still very Eurocentric. The case with Black composers was even more complex, and a generation sprang up that combined this European training with African-American themes. Important amongst these was William Grant Still (1895-1978) whose training included study with George Whitefield Chadwick  (1854-1931), an important member of the Eurocentric Second New England School (which included Amy Beach and Edward MacDowell). It was Grant Still who combined this European-style training with this African-American background to create his Afro-American Symphony (1930), which was, until 1950, the most widely performed symphony composed by an American.

If you were Black and female, then the challenge could be greater but there was still the innate tension between the traditional musical background of hymns, spirituals and African-inspired music, and the Western European tradition, not to mention the development of new traditions such as jazz.

Florence Price was born in Arkansas, trained under Chadwick at the New England Conservatory where she explored African American folk-inspirations in her music yet channelled into classical forms. On a new disc from Lorelt, Fantasie Nègre: The piano music of Florence Price, pianist and academic Samantha Ege explores Price's piano repertoire, specifically the pieces which mix African American folk traditions with classical genres.

An undated photograph of Florence Price in later life with her daughter Florence Louise Robinson looking at flowers in an outdoor garden (University of Arkansas Libraries)
An undated photograph of Florence Price in later life
with her daughter Florence Louise Robinson
looking at flowers in an outdoor garden
(University of Arkansas Libraries)
Price was remarkably successful in her day, thanks to the development of a significant support network of Black female classical musicians who, like her, lived in Chicago's South Side (where Price and her family had moved during the Great Migration). She would be the first African American woman to have a symphony performed by a major national orchestra. Yet Price's gender and colour were against her, and as her support network aged, faded and died, so as a composer she faded from memory so that by the time of her death in 1953 she was buried in an unmarked grave with a lack of ceremony. After her death, her family continued to promote her music, but her Eurocentric would have seemed rather conservative to the post-War musical generations. Thankfully, more recently there has been a significant resurgence in interest.

Price was remarkably prolific, there are four symphonies, four concertos and much else besides. But much of this could have been lost. In 2009, a substantial cache of Price's manuscripts was found in a dilapidated house in St Anne, Illinois, a house which had been her Summer home. The discoveries included her two violin concertos and her Symphony No. 4, as well as all the music on this disc except for the Fantasie Nègre No. 1. Not only did Price fail to enter the canon, she came close to being almost completely obliterated.

Central to the disc are Price's four Fantasie Nègre where Price's titles with their mixture of languages, deliberately evoke the melting pot of American musical life. She deliberately mixes  the Western classical free-form fantasy genre with Afro-American music so that the first one includes a melody based on the Negro Spiritual Sinner, Please Don't Let This Harvest Pass, but other melodies are Price's own yet evoke spirituals. Yet she places these melodies in a harmonic structure which is very inspired by German romanticism.

The first Fantasie Nègre was written in 1929 and was dedicated to her friend, the pianist and composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), the remaining three were written in 1932. The third and fourth have complex textual histories, the manuscript for no. three was incomplete and Ege had to search for loose leaves amongst Price's papers to find the missing material, whilst no. four was simplified but Ege presents it in its original large-scale version.

Whilst looking for the second, third and fourth fantasies in Price's papers, Ege came across untitled and undated solo piano pieces, which were numbered and are presented here as a trio of Untitled Sketches. Price's suite, Snapshots: Lake Mirror, Moon Behind a Cloud & Flame was assembled in 1952, though only Lake Mirror  was composed that year. Here we move from the Afro-American material of the fantasies to a more evocative impressionistic music. They are in fact her final musical works before her death in 1953.

This is not easy music, and Ege's performances combine the necessary bravura with a shapely turnof phrase and stylistic confidence as the music moves between German Romanticism, spirituals and more. The result is utterly beguiling, the fantasies are not salon-works but big, bold, Schumann-esque pieces which simply use the Afro-American folk tradition as their source melodic material. It is tempting to call the small works character pieces in the European style, but we should perhaps bear in mind Price's training with Chadwick and think of another influence by piano works from Second New England School members such as Edward MacDowell.    

Dr Ege is both a pianist and a musicologist. British-born of mixed Nigerian and Jamaican heritage, her PhD at the University of York was in Florence Price, and she is Lord Crewe Junior Research Fellow in Music at Lincoln College, Oxford.

Whilst Ege has recorded Price's music before (on her disc Four Women), there is still not a lot of Florence Price easily available on disc (particularly the larger scale works). Much of the recorded repertoire was issued on smaller labels though the Fort Smith Symphony, conductor John Jeter has recorded the first and fourth symphonies for Naxos, and Dr Ege is to be admired for the way she has not only brought the music to our attention via this lovely disc, but has put in the work to find the pieces in the first place. There is a lot more Price out there, so I do hope that Dr Samantha Ege will be returning to the studio.

Florence Price (1887-1953) - Fantasie Nègre Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4; Untitle Sketch Nos. 1, 2; Snapshots: Lake Mirror, Moon behind a Cloud & Flame
Samantha Ege (piano)
Recrded at the niversity of Surrey PAT Studio on 19, 20 December 2020
LORELT LNT144 1CD [53:56]

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