--Victor Carr Jr.
Florence Beatrice Smith Price (1887-1953) was the first
African American woman composer to earn national
recognition. Born in Arkansas, she attended the New
England Conservatory of Music and later studied with
George Whitfield Chadwick (she was later to become head
of the music department at Clark University in Atlanta).
Her works, a collection of more than 300 compositions,
have been performed by, among others, Marian
Anderson, Leontyne Price, and the Chicago Symphony.
Not surprising for a figure of her time, Price made use of
traditional African American songs, particularly in the
Mississippi River Suite. This half-hour piece describes a
journey along the banks of the great waterway and quotes
the spirituals Deep River, Stand still Jordan, and Nobody
Knows de Trouble I've Seen, as well as incorporating
Native American melodies, rhythms, and instruments.
Symphony No. 3 (1938) draws on a wider musical palette,
and while no actual spirituals are quoted, Price's original
melodies contain their essence, and they are expertly
worked into the musical structure. The Oak, a brief,
unpublished orchestral essay, opens in a manner similar
to Franck's D minor symphony, and explores a number of
moods in an air of self-conscious seriousness that stands
in marked contrast to the freer creativity of the other
works on this disc. Price's music, while not nearly so
original or captivating as William Grant Still's
jazz-inflected symphonic works, still holds an important
place in the history of African American concert music,
and American music in general, and if it's not all great, it
also doesn't deserve its current neglect. Happily, the
Women's Philharmonic agrees, and gives first-rate
performances under the lively and sympathetic baton of
Apo Hsu, well recorded to boot.