Florence Price Concerto In One Movement (1932-1934)
While never totally forgotten, Florence Price’s music has seen a resurgence of interest in the twenty-first century. A pioneering black woman in her era, she left a legacy of historical importance in a language readily accessible to audiences.
Price was raised comfortably in Little Rock, Arkansas, where her father was a successful dentist and her mother a musically talented businesswoman. The mixed racial heritage of both parents meant she was light-skinned, which helped social acceptance through her career, though the family agreed she would pass as Latina during college at New England Conservatory in Boston to minimize discrimination. She attended early from age sixteen, graduating in 1906 after piano and organ studies intended to prepare her for teaching. The first major works date from this time, but she spent the following two decades in her calling working with students of all ages (including postsecondary) in Little Rock and Atlanta.
Price moved with her family to Chicago in 1927 for better civil rights and opportunities, which she quickly received through membership in women’s professional music organizations and efforts as a graduate student. In her forties, she divorced and remarried, concentrating on two symphonies and this piano concerto in the 1930s. The first symphony won a prize that earned a performance by the Chicago Symphony, at the time the only instance of a major orchestra promoting a black woman’s work. Their conductor Frederick Stock also encouraged Price’s piano concerto as it came to fruition in 1933.
She herself played the keyboard solo in the commencement exercises of June 1934 for the Chicago Musical College at Orchestra Hall. Although the Tribune gave a favorable review, this period coincided with a marital separation that left her reliant as a single mother on the generosity of friends. Further performances of the concerto were given by pianist Margaret Bonds but a major portion of the full score was lost by 1940, and like most composers, Price was eager to proceed to other projects. She spent her remaining years in Chicago.
While nominally in one uninterrupted movement, the concerto is neatly divisible in three sections tracing the conventional fast-slow-fast pattern. The first has strong echoes of Dvořák and the harmonic rhetoric of the Romantic era. Price’s voice becomes more apparent in the central reverie, poetic but determined. The finale is a juba dance, an African-American genre she often emulated in her pieces. The dancer uses effects of bodily percussion (clapping and slapping) in a rhythmic mélange that overlays a brisk duple meter. She explained the significance of the style: “In all of my works which have been done in the sonata form with Negroid idiom, I have incorporated a juba as one of the several movements because it seems to me to be no more impossible to conceive of Negroid music devoid of the spiritualistic theme on the one hand than strongly syncopated rhythms of the juba on the other.”
The 2009 discovery of major Price manuscripts, including violin concertos and symphony in her neglected summer home, resulted in premieres through at least 2018. A reconstruction of the concerto’s instrumentation was made in 2011 and served until the recovery of the orchestral manuscript published in 2020. The University of Arkansas contains the most significant Price archival collection today.
Ludwig Van Beethoven Symphony No. 7 In A Major, OP. 92 (1811-1812)
If the basis of music is song and dance, Beethoven’s seventh symphony sits firmly in the second category. Much of the symphony is built of relatively simple motives (short groups of notes) combined with harmonic surprises (complementary notes). The word “monumental” is sometimes applied to the symphony, describing a quality that an orchestra captures eminently. Like a structural monument, the encompassing shape and proportions of the symphony contribute to its strength.
This music was first played at a benefit concert for wounded soldiers of the Napoleonic wars, with Beethoven’s Austria and many other countries massed against France. As such, the program included another Beethoven “symphony,” Wellington’s Victory, referring to a different British win over Napoleon. While that piece is now regarded as a noisy potboiler and rarely performed, the seventh symphony rode the coattails of its success. Adding to the English connection, Beethoven was at work on folksong settings of melodies of the British Isles in the early 1810s. One accompaniment figure became the main violin motive of the symphony’s finale.
As organized as that sounds, Beethoven’s life was generally in turmoil at this time (1811-13). His hearing had markedly deteriorated, and he tried to break up his brother’s marriage with legal force on ostensibly moral grounds. In August of 1811, he took a three-week “cure” at the baths in Teplitz, an old-fashioned prescription that did little but compress his timeline for a commission of incidental music to King Stephan and The Ruins of Athens. On the way home, he visited the castle of his patron Prince Lichnowsky to assist with a performance of his Mass in C. Back in Vienna around October, he had finished the seventh symphony (along with parts of the eighth) by April 1812. Disorder persisted into 1813, a year in which he wrote no major music. Luckily, Johann Maelzel, inventor of the metronome, the famous box that clicks in regulation of a musician’s practice, proposed both the concert and idea for Wellington’s Victory.
The event was December 8, 1813, and included in the hundred-strong orchestra several musical luminaries: Moscheles, the virtuoso pianist; Spohr, one of the most prominent living composers and violinists; Schuppanzigh, leader of the quartet that premiered Beethoven’s string works; and even Hummel, Mozart’s greatest student, and Salieri, the aged rival of Mozart, in the percussion section. Beethoven himself conducted, and a mechanical trumpet automaton-robot of Maelzel played interludes. It was a solid triumph, and Beethoven published a carefully worded letter in the newspaper giving credit to his colleagues for their part in the success. This gesture belies the common notion of Beethoven as a selfish boor.
In the seventh symphony, the second movement was particularly applauded and encored, maybe partially because its march-like tread resonated with the military theme of the concert. Its austerity contrasts with more reassuring interludes. Even the boy Franz Liszt, soon to be an iconic performer, used it for a piano improvisation. After a magisterial introduction, the other three movements have a nearly relentless propulsion with rhythm as their dominant element. The only exception is the noble “trio” (contrasting section) of the scherzo, which pointedly holds an isolated pitch as background. Sketches of this symphony in Beethoven’s notebooks form a prime example of his working method: an undistinguished idea becomes refined into greatness over the course of pages.,
Beethoven called the symphony one of his best pieces, a verdict with which posterity has agreed. The fact that it came right after a program (story) symphony, the sixth, meant that for a few generations commentators tried to attach an outline to the seventh also, concocting farfetched tales. One reading of the whole piece as a revolutionary uprising and subsequent trial of the instigators (surely remembering France) is conspicuously elaborate. Beethoven eventually got annoyed about those attempts. He continued conducting the symphony as late as 1819, by which time his hearing was too diminished for him to be effective. The symphony consistently ranks as a favorite among conductors for its listener appeal and infectious drive.
Michelle Cann appears by arrangement with the Curtis Institute of Music
Piano Concerto in One Movement by Florence Price presented under license from G. Schirmer Inc. and Associated Music Publishers, copyright owners
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