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Florence Beatrice PRICE (1887-1953)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor (1932) [37:22]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor (1945) [31:34]
Fort Smith Symphony/John Jeter
rec. 2018, ArcBest Performing Arts Center, Fort Smith, Arkansas, USA
NAXOS 8.559827 [69:04]

Florence Beatrice Price holds the distinction of being the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer. She was one of three children born into a mixed-race family in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her father was a dentist, and her mother a music teacher, who gave young Florence some initial tuition. At the age of fourteen she enrolled at the New England Conservatory in Boston to study piano teaching and organ. In addition, she had the opportunity to study composition and counterpoint with composers George Chadwick and Frederick Converse. She graduated in 1906 and returned to Arkansas to teach, then moved on to Georgia in 1910. Two years later she married Thomas J. Price, a lawyer, and moved back to Little Rock. A series of racial incidents there resulted in another move, this time to Chicago. It was here that her career as a composer really took off, in addition to her work as a teacher and concert pianist. Divorce and financial hardship, as well as having to bring up two daughters as a single mother, did eventually take its toll. She died of a stroke on June 3, 1953, at the age of only 66.

She has about 300 compositions to her name, being best-known for her art songs and arrangements of spirituals. In addition, there are orchestral, choral, chamber and works for piano and organ. Following her death, interest in her music declined due to changing tastes and styles. In 2009, a collection of her scores was discovered in Illinois, including two violin concertos and the Fourth Symphony. Her music is steeped in the European tradition yet embodying an American idiom and revealing her Southern roots.

The First Symphony dates from 1931 and is a delight from start to finish. It’s hardly surprising that it won the Rodman Wanamaker prize a year later, bringing it to the attention of Frederick Stock, who premiered it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on 15 June, 1933. History was made – the first time a major symphonic work by an African-American woman composer was performed by a major American orchestra. If you’re a devotee of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, you’ll be struck by the amazing similarity of the two opening movements. Gorgeous themes and soaring melodies laced with African-American spirituals make this a memorable experience. In the second movement a solemn hymn tune played more or less exclusively by the brass section points to Price’s strong religious convictions. Even church bells make an appearance. The third movement is titled Juba Dance. Here catchy dance rhythms are colourfully ornamented with fiddle and banjo sonorities in addition to whistle glissandi – it’s so much fun. The upbeat joie-de-vivre is continued in the snappy finale.

The recently discovered Fourth Symphony of 1945 here receives its first recording. Like the First Symphony it has immediate appeal, offering plenty to enjoy. Price makes reference to the Negro Spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’ in the substantial first movement, as long as the sum total of the other three movements. A tender Andante cantabile follows with, once more, the spirit of Dvořák hovering in the background. Again comes a Juba Dance, sprightly, engaging and full of elan. The fourth movement is marked Scherzo and packs a punch with its bold and valiant brass writing.

The Fort Smith Symphony deliver riveting performances of these two symphonic works, under the direction of their charismatic conductor John Jeter. This compelling music could have no better advocates. This constitutes a good starting point for those who haven't already encountered Price's music and are curious.

Stephen Greenbank


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