Florence Beatrice Price

Klassik

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Every so often, a composer becomes trendy in the classical music world for various reasons. Florence Beatrice Price has certainly become one of those trendy composers, at least here in the US in the last few years, but Klassik suspects that given the quality of her music, Price's music may maintain some popularity after the trends change. Price's music gained a lot of attention in early 2019 when Naxos released a CD with her symphonies nos. 1 & 4. Naxos and now even Deutsche Grammophon have released new CDs with Price's music in the last few months and so now the popularity of Price's music is at an all-time high.

Klassik will not spend much time getting into the biography of Florence Price as Wikipedia and the Naxos liner notes, which are available freely online, do a good job summarizing Price's career. The very short summary of it is that Price was a female African-American composer born (and raised) in Little Rock, Arkansas, USA in 1887 (another African-American composer of fame, William Grant Still, was also raised in Little Rock, Arkansas around the same time so certainly that area was fertile ground for musicians). Even with the prejudices against black and female composers, she graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music and became her Symphony No. 1 in E minor became the first piece by a black woman composer performed by a major American orchestra when it was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. For more on this, read the Naxos liner notes for the CD with symphonies nos. 1 & 3.

Even under the weight of the Great Depression, Price (and surely many others) were able to artistically thrive thanks to FDR's 'socialist' Works Progress Administration orchestras as pointed out in the Naxos liner notes for the CD with Price's Symphony No. 3 on it:

Douglas W. Shadle said:
Despite the ongoing economic depression, the 1930s proved to be a period of great creative energy for Price. Her success in competitions early in the decade gave way to participation in events sponsored by the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Music Project – a New Deal initiative designed to support struggling professional musicians while providing communities with much-needed access to concerts. With government sponsored venues now available, Price was able to secure several public performances of older pieces while continuing to compose new large-scale works, including the Third Symphony. The Michigan WPA Symphony Orchestra of Detroit premiered the work in November 1940 under the direction of Valter Poole.

So while Price's music certainly had some popularity during her lifetime, that popularity faded and the fact that many of her works were lost didn't help matters. Many of her works, including two violin concertos and Symphony No. 4, were found in an old house that Price once lived in in Illinois. These discoveries probably helped the drive to record Price's works here in recent times.

There are now more than a handful of recordings with Price's music on it with more in the works. Klassik will focus on two recordings, the two aforementioned CDs that were released in late 2021-early 2022 from Naxos and DG. Both discs have Price's Symphony No. 3 in C minor. The Naxos disc also has two tone poems, The Mississippi River and Ethiopia’s Shadow in America. The DG disc has Price's Symphony No. 1 in E minor on it.

Naxos' 2019 Price disc also had Symphony No. 1 on it, but the DG performance and sound quality is quite a bit higher than that 2019 Naxos disc. Fortunately, the performance and sound quality on the newer Naxos disc is quite a bit better than the older Naxos disc as well. Both Naxos disc performances were conducted by John Jeter, a bit of a Price expert from Arkansas, but the newer Naxos disc uses the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony instead of the Fort Smith Symphony, a local Arkansas orchestra, that performed the older Naxos recordings. The DG recordings are by The Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Obviously the DG disc is performed by about as major of an orchestra as there is and a conductor who is also one of the most popular conductors of current times. Nonetheless, the Naxos performance with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony is very good as well. Klassik was very pleased to listen to both. The DG performance perhaps has a bit more 'swing' to it whereas the Naxos performance is more of the typical orchestral performance with the added benefit of a recording that really highlights the winds (which is not a small thing as the winds play a major rôle in Price's music). Ultimately, Klassik purchased the Naxos CD thanks to A) the presence of the tone poems and B) the DG CD appears to be quite popular and it ultimately has gone in and out of stock since it was released and it was out of stock when Klassik purchased the album. Oh well, the Naxos recording is a winner as well and both are available to stream.

So, with that, here are some samples. Price's symphonies, at least the three that are known, all have a third movement using the 'Juba Dance' form. Read the previously linked liner notes for more information about that, but they are quite entertaining. Klassik believes the Juba Dance from the E minor symphony is the most interesting. Here is that from the DG recording:

Symphony No. 1 in E Minor - III. Juba Dance. Allegro

Also from the DG recording is the last movement of the C minor symphony which is another rousing affair. It's also not too common for a symphony to end on a movement marked as a scherzo:

Symphony No. 3 in C Minor - IV. Scherzo. Finale. Allegro

Switching to the Naxos recording, here is a sample of the tone poems. In The Mississippi River, one can hear Price's great use of orchestral color, changing moods, and integration of folk tunes and spirituals. This is a straight-through piece, but at nearly 30 minutes in length, Naxos split it into four different gapless tracks on the CD. For those listening to the CD on a CD player that supports gapless playback (as any proper CD player/DAC should), this is no problem, but this could present a minor issue for those listening on streaming. Since that's all Klassik can share, do keep in mind that these tracks are jumping right into the middle of the music.

3rd of 4 parts of The Mississippi River:

4th of 4 parts of The Mississippi River:

Full Naxos album on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_mw5NM2iLOqYp4Eom5LxqY0O9t6Vot_EOI

Full DG album on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_nVvX2BMP6_ncZ6fOQLg5SQEi-6kRX2_Mo

Klassik believes that DG has already said that more recordings will be coming from The Philadelphia Orchestra with Price's music and Klassik suspects there might be more albums of Price's music from Naxos and others as well.
 

Le Baron

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I remember you said you'd bought the CDs, have they delivered satisfaction? The C minor symphony is her best imo, and the Naxos recording.
 
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Klassik

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I remember you said you'd bought the CDs, have they delivered satisfaction? The C minor symphony is her best imo, and the Naxos recording.
Sí señor, Klassik did indeed buy the Naxos CD with the C minor symphony and the two tone poems, The Mississippi River and Ethiopia's Shadow in America. The CD is very good and the Naxos recording of the C minor symphony does emphsize the winds a bit more than what's in the DG Philadelphia Orchestra performance. They're both good performances and either one is a worthy listen.

Lately, Klassik has been listening to the music from Price's fellow composer from Arkansas, William Grant Still. As Le Baron knows, Klassik is a fan of Rachel Barton Pine's violin playing and here is a good performance she puts in performing some of Still's excellent music.



Perhaps Arkansas may never be seen internationally as a hotbed of fine classical music, but that is a bit of a shame if that is the case. Scott Joplin was born in Texarkana, TX (supposedly, there is some dispute about this), but he was raised on the other side of Texarkana in Texarkana, AR. With just Joplin, William Grant Still, and Florence Beatrice Price, Arkansas has enough to claim importance in music history.
 

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