Suggested Listening: “Scherzo: Finale” from Symphony No. 3 by Florence Price

For this week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC, check out the riveting finale from Florence Price’s Third Symphony, performed below by the Women’s Philharmonic (US), Apo Hsu conducting.

About the Composer:

Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953), née Smith, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the youngest of three children.  Her father was, at that time, the only black dentist in Little Rock; her mother was a schoolteacher, musician, and businesswoman.  Price and her siblings were raised in a prominent and intellectual household, and were encouraged by their mother to pursue musical studies, with Price giving her debut piano recital at the age of four.  In 1903, Price graduated at the top of her high school class and entered Boston’s New England Conservatory as a student of piano and organ — but her mother feared for her daughter’s safety and reputation (the year 1903 saw eighty-four lynchings of African-Americans), and listed Florence’s hometown as Pueblo, Mexico, on her enrollment papers so the young composer might “pass” as Mexican and avoid the brutal prejudice faced by the African-American community.  At the time, the New England Conservatory was one of only a small number of American music schools that accepted students of color (the great composer William Grant Still also attended several years after Price).

After graduating with a performance degree in organ and a teaching degree in piano, Price moved to Atlanta and became the head of Clark University‘s music department in 1910.  Two years later, she married Thomas J. Price, a respected attorney, and moved with him back to Little Rock.  However, an escalation of racial violence in that city, including a 1927 lynching, led the Price family — now with two daughters — to relocate to Chicago.  It was there that Price’s career as a composer truly blossomed: she studied with prominent local composers; published numerous works; forged connections with Harlem Renaissance icon Langston Hughes and renowned singer Marian Anderson; and won a competition for which the prize was a performance of the winning composition by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  This performance made Price the first African-American woman to have a piece premiered by a major symphony orchestra — just one example of the pioneering work and creative spirit that define her legacy as one of America’s most significant, though sadly underperformed, composers.

About the Piece:

Composed in 1940, Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C minor is a masterwork of the Chicago Renaissance.  This vibrant creative movement — though of less national renown than its sister movement in Harlem — brought the talents and intellects of leading African-American artists and scholars to the forefront of society in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood.  Energized by the Great Migration of African-Americans from continuously deteriorating race relations and socioeconomic conditions in the South, the Chicago Renaissance gave voice to this thriving and evolving community as they adjusted to, shaped, and contemplated this new, urban environment.  Price’s Symphony, however, stands uniquely among other output of the Chicago Renaissance: rather than overtly spotlighting musical elements of African-American culture, she synthesized such familiar syncopations and folk melodies into her own symphonic style.  This fourth and final movement from the symphony is a thrilling one.  Swinging and swelling in compound meter, the brass and strings compete for domination while nautical clarinet interjections interrupt the hurried heroism of the main theme.  A quieter interlude — woodwinds wandering through unsettled harmonies — is the eye of the storm, before the full orchestra returns at gale force, charging toward the final, crashing chord.

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