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Rediscovering the Neglected Music of Florence Price

As many of you may well know, I am a staunch advocate of performing unfamiliar repertory, especially works by lesser-known composers. Coming soon this fall, I will be performing a recital program that explores the relationship between protest and music, Odyssey of Dissent. Among the composers featured on the program is Florence Price, a forgotten African-American female composer whose music has recently picked up greater traction due to the protests against racial injustices.

Price (1887-1953) is recognized by many scholars as one of the most important African-American composers of the 20th century and is credited to be the first African-American woman to compose a substantial work that was performed by a major orchestra. She was a prolific composer, having written a substantial amount of instrumental and chamber music. Despite the overall struggles of living in an era where she experienced racism and sexism, it is truly inspiring to learn about her strength and determination as she constantly faced uphill battles to gain recognition of her talents. Learn more about her stories here.

Price's compositional style can be generally summarized as a blend between the European romantic tradition (i.e. Chopin, Liszt, etc.) and her African-American heritage. Being a deeply religious person growing up in the South, she frequently incorporates African-American spirituals in her music. The piece that I will perform this season, Fantasie Negre, No. 4, is emblematic of her overall compositional process.

In this work, Price combines the European piano fantasy elements and African-American idioms as I previously described. The main theme conjures an African-American folk song or spiritual, but it is actually newly composed. As is typical in the fantasy genre, much of the music, especially in the transitional sections, is filled with cadenza-like, improvisatory, and virtuosic passages. When I first heard this piece, I was immediately reminded of the music of Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann. In the middle section, we hear another spiritual-like song, but this one is very reminiscent of the classic blues style. While this piece is not an explicit protest to systemic racism during her time, I like to think of it as her way of remembering and preserving her identity and roots. Here is a short excerpt of this wonderful work!

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