The Price of Equity, Part 2
A musician's honest evaluation of the three symphonies of Florence Price
This is a continuation of my miniseries on the Florence Price phenomenon. Unlike Parts 1 and 3, this part is somewhat technical. It might be of interest to non-musicians who want to know how a conductor thinks about a musical score, but it will likely involve the Googling of some terminology. This part originated in my belief that when musicians make bold claims about the quality of other musicians’ work, they should do so only after carefully weighing the musical evidence. From my review, most of Florence Price’s most enthusiastic boosters have not done this.
I strongly encourage readers to listen to Florence Price’s music for themselves. For your convenience, I’ve placed YouTube links to her symphonies and several of her other orchestral works below this article.
The fact that Florence Price achieved any professional success at all during her lifetime is a testament to her extraordinary determination and energy.
Florence Price was born Florence Smith in 1887 to a black father (a dentist) and white mother (a piano teacher) in a racially-integrated middle class neighborhood in Little Rock, Arkansas. Showing exceptional aptitude as both a pianist and composer, she graduated high school at age 14 and was accepted at the New England Conservatory in Boston, a rarity for a black student at the time. There she studied with one of the preeminent American composers of the day, George Whitefield Chadwick.
After graduating, she accepted a job teaching music at the Clark Atlanta University, a black college in Georgia, where she taught for two years before marrying the Little Rock attorney Thomas Price and returning home to Arkansas in 1912. Unable to gain admittance to the all-white Arkansas Music Teachers’ Association, she began teaching music in all-black segregated public schools. As racial tensions escalated in Little Rock—including a high-profile lynching—Florence, her husband, and two daughters fled for Chicago in 1927.
Although Price's marriage fell apart within a year after arriving in Chicago, her composition career blossomed. In 1928, the same year when she filed for divorce from Mr. Price, the music publishing houses McKinley and G. Schirmer began publishing her solo piano music and art songs—many of them based in spirituals and other traditionally black musical forms. Price also began publishing popular songs under a pseudonym—Vee Jay. Before long, she was earning an independent living from the sale of her music and private teaching.
While mostly shut out of the white musical establishment in Chicago, she did manage to build an impressive web of musical friendships, including with composer Margaret Bonds and contralto Marian Anderson, who began singing one of Price’s original songs, as well as her arrangement of the spiritual My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord, on her international concert programs.
As Price’s star rose, she began writing more orchestral music, and that music gained some notice both in Chicago and around the country. She burst onto the international concert scene in 1933 when music critic Maude Roberts George of the Chicago Defender underwrote the cost for Price’s First Symphony to be premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a performance which made her the first black woman to have a symphony performed by a top American ensemble.
The 1933 premiere would be Price’s last performance by her hometown orchestra, but by the time she passed away two decades later, the WPA Symphony (a Great Depression-era publicly-funded ensemble in Detroit) and Chicago Women’s Symphony had also premiered her works. Her reputation spread so far that she even received a commission from the eminent British conductor John Barbirolli to write a string orchestra piece for his Hallé Orchestra.
When she died in 1953, Price left behind a prodigious output of piano music, songs, chamber music, and orchestral music—an output that grew even larger when a cache of unpublished Price manuscripts, including the Fourth Symphony, was found in 2009 in an abandoned house outside Chicago.
As of now, Price’s orchestral output includes three symphonies (number 2 seems to be permanently lost), a piano concerto, two violin concertos, and a range of symphonic poems and suites (including, most prominently, the Mississippi River Suite, Ethiopia’s Shadow in America, and the Dances in the Canebrakes).
I will confine my consideration here to her symphonies, since they are her most often performed orchestral works, and most often cited in support of her inclusion in the “canon” of regularly-performed symphonic masterpieces.
On first listen, as Larry David might have it, Price’s three surviving symphonies are pretty, pretty, pretty good.
Price’s skills as a melodist are evident throughout the symphonies. All of her first movements have rich themes that combine the comforting sounds of the American South with the lush romanticism of Dvorak (in all her symphonies) and Wagner (particularly in the first). They feature a healthy balance of down-home melodic simplicity and harmonic complexity. And in her third movements, all termed “Juba” dances (more on those shortly), Price shows herself equally adept at writing music of the feet. All three Jubas have an irresistible syncopated propulsion that seems to dare the listener not to move with the beat.
Price’s writing frequently straddles the boundary between pain and hope—often within the same melody. All three symphonies have a disarmingly wistful tone, moments of intimate lyricism, and expressive depth. In each, Price incorporates the richness of black musics into the orchestral medium for concert audiences who, especially at the time the symphonies were written, might not otherwise have heard them. Edward Seckerson put it beautifully in his review of a recent recording for Gramophone, when he wrote:
The weight of history bears down on the opening movement of the Third Symphony – another of Price’s signature brass chorales, ‘lest we forget’, morphing into a second subject on trumpet and trombone that wraps around you like a warm embrace. . . . It’s the hope, not the sorrow, that holds sway. These are big moments where Price clearly feels the burden of the African American experience but allows it to fuel her soul.
All this is very true. And most of those who praise Price’s orchestral music put their focus exactly where Seckerson does: on the materials she uses to write her symphonies. But, as any unbiased listener who sits through an entire Price symphony (or better yet, all three) will suspect, writing great melodies is but a small part of writing great large-scale music. Rossini had a point in his notorious quip that Wagner’s music had “lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour.”
When we judge Price’s symphonic oeuvre (or that of any romantic composer) for enshrinement among the greats, there are three main criteria we should consider: originality (both relative to the music written at the time and the composer’s other works), craft (as assessed through orchestration and form), and dramatic thrust. Music that consistently demonstrates the highest expression of all these traits is worthy of the canon.
How does Price fare? In my view, moments in her symphonies get high marks in all these categories, but her symphonic oeuvre as a whole does so only intermittently. Taken as a group, they do so with less frequency than most of the music that makes up the current standard symphonic repertoire. Accordingly, her symphonies are worthy of an occasional listen, but not perennial programming alongside the likes of Beethoven and Mahler, or indeed, the First Symphony of Price’s contemporary William Grant Still.
Criticizing a composer for not being canon-worthy is, admittedly, unfair. It’s somewhat like criticizing a novelist for not being Dickens or a playwright for not being Shakespeare. But I’m not the one who claimed that Price’s music was on par with Brahms or Dvorak, or that it was worthy of being programmed by every orchestra in America every few weeks. Those plaudits were advanced by some of the leading conductors and artistic administrators of our time (as detailed in Part 1).
Intelligent listeners will always differ in their appraisals of artworks, but the blindness of some of my industry’s most powerful voices to this music’s obvious shortcomings strains credulity. Part of my motivation in writing this series of articles is my growing conviction that this is not a mere difference of opinion but a willful blindness rooted in politics. And since many of the individuals who hold these views have influence over the direction of the music industry itself, refusing to engage with their ideas is not a luxury available to us.
Originality Relative to Music Already Written
Considering that Price’s three surviving symphonies were written in the 1930s and 1940s, what jumps out immediately at the listener is how old-fashioned their sound world is. Price’s orchestral textures hew toward the Eastern European, spiced up with a bit of American marching band flair in their frequent use of snare drum, cymbals, and accompanimental brass. For melodies and harmonic structure, Price often draws on pentatonic pitch collections that evoke black spirituals and church music, using thick romantic chromaticism either to develop those melodies or to link one idea to the next. Unlike her contemporary Still, she engages little with comparatively modern forms of black music like blues or swing. The most recent music she quotes is ragtime.
Price does occasionally throw in “modern” harmonic tropes. For instance, she punctuates the driving, pentatonic main theme of the Third Symphony’s first movement with questioning whole-tone phrases. Today’s (none-too-critical) critical writing about Price comically overstates the cool factor of her flirtation with whole-tone. On the second movement of the Third Symphony, where she deploys a similar device, a Philadelphia Orchestra program author writes: “the serene beauty of [the second movement’s] opening section is repeatedly interrupted by unsettled whole-tone material that reminds us that this is, after all, music of the 20th century, not the 19th.” The reader should be aware that the first major orchestral use of a whole-tone scale was in Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila, composed in the 1830s. French late romantics like Franck and Dukas were using the device as often as Price, and in similar situations, in the 1880s and 1890s.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with a composer writing in a romantic style in the 1940s, or, indeed, in the 2020s. In fact, there is a certain timeless dignity and moral authority in the unapologetically backward-looking sound of Price’s music. But her boosters cannot have it both ways. Composers who choose to write in an anachronistic voice cannot collect points for originality at the same time. (I should also note that many of the critics most eager to excuse Price’s old-fashionedness are the first to condemn it in other composers. More on Alex Ross in Part 3.)
Originality Relative to Herself
There is likely no regularly-performed classical composer later than Haydn whose symphonic output adheres to as rigid a blueprint as that of Florence Price. When we listen to all three symphonies in succession, it dawns on us that she essentially wrote the same symphony three times. We don’t have Symphony No. 2, so perhaps that one offered more variety. Or perhaps not.
Here is the formula:
Price’s first movements are all in duple meters (two or four beats to a bar) and moderate tempos. They have two basic themes. The first is a masculine, minor pentatonic work song. The second is a feminine, redemptive spiritual, presented in soothing orchestrations like a cello or horn melody with violin accompaniment or a brass chorale.
Price’s slow second movements all feature plaintive, tender, church-like main themes, dividing the orchestra up into timbral choirs in the same way as a church organist playing on multiple manuals. In the Third and Fourth Symphonies, the theme is presented in woodwinds first with spare accompaniment, building up to a redemptive brass choir response. In the First Symphony, the brass choir leads off—but we’re still in church.
Her third movement scherzos are all labelled “Juba” dances. Juba refers to a dance done by black slaves in the 1700s and 1800s, who did percussion on their bodies because they were denied drums. The syncopated musical material in Price’s “Jubas,” however, mostly evokes the ragtime cakewalks of the 1910s. Her Jubas are fun, diverting, and make creative use of the orchestra. They represent some of Price’s best work, but they are remarkably similar to one another.
If the Jubas are alike, the fourth movements could be carbon copies. Each is a whirling, breathless minor-key tarantella or giga-like dance in 6/8. While they bring their symphonies to rousing conclusions, they tend to feel tacked on, and unworthy of the expressive depth of the movements that precede them.
For a composer to find a formula that works for them and recycle it is no indictment. Many have. If that formula leads to the incredible result of getting a (black and female in the 1930s) composer a date with the Chicago Symphony, it stands to reason that she might try it again.
Indeed, there were times when almost all of the canonic composers wrote to a formula—after all, one must pay the rent! (But on the other hand, there’s a reason why you don’t often go to the concert hall and hear Beethoven’s Glorious Moment or Wellington’s Victory, Dvorak’s Piano Concerto in G Minor, or Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony.) I would submit that Price’s symphonic formula is significantly more enjoyable than the formula that produced Wellington’s Victory. But this does not change the fact that her symphonies feel very scripted.
One cannot, by contrast, go through the symphonies of Brahms and Dvorak (designated Price’s peers by Nezet-Seguin), select the same movement number from any two of their symphonies, and feel that one is comparing apples to apples. The aching, introspective scherzo of the Brahms Third inhabits a different planet than the playful “giocoso” scherzo of the Fourth. The searing finale of the Dvorak Seventh has nothing in common with the carnival landscape of the finale of the Eighth.
Genius composers never stand still. They show different sides of their artistic personalities at different times, and those personalities evolve as they gain experience and grow older. It can be difficult to listen to Dvorak 6 and Dvorak 9 and believe they were written by the same person, less than 13 years apart. One can listen to the complete symphonies of Price, written over a longer span, and be forgiven for assuming they were different drafts of the same piece.
Craft: Orchestrational Clarity
Good orchestration has two key attributes—clarity and expressivity (the latter meaning that the composer effectively harnesses the power of orchestral timbre to advance the expressive goals of the composition). It is generally the first of these attributes—clarity—that is taught in conservatory orchestration classes (which Price had). And it is in this area where even many of her ardent cheerleaders willingly concede that her music falls short.
Clear orchestrators use the orchestra’s diversity of pitch and timbre to distinguish each element from the others and build a hierarchy of importance in the listener’s ear. In Price’s symphonies, the conductor needs to work overtime to rescue musical material from obscurity. There are frequent instances when key melodies are hard to hear, and others when it is difficult to distinguish melody, countermelody, and accompaniment.
This challenge begins in the very first measure of the First Symphony, when the quite beautiful first theme, introduced in the bassoon, is blocked by a wall of strings. Close miking in a recording studio can make the bassoon as loud as we like, but in a performance it can be difficult to hear. This is only the first of hundreds of such episodes. In the opening sequence of the Third Symphony, the first theme is passed around the strings with little sense of purpose—in one bar, it leads to a cascade of frenetic triplets in the violas that is a sonic let-down at best, inaudible at worst. The Juba of the Third Symphony, like the other symphonies’ Jubas, gives us intricately-figured rag syncopations in the strings, but leaves that material vulnerable to burial by the woodwinds and brass when they enter shortly thereafter, playing structurally less important music.
(As an aside, I do encourage the reader to listen to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recent recordings of the First and Third Symphonies, which won a Grammy Award largely for their use of audio production wizardry to clarify poorly-orchestrated music that sounds muddy in the concert hall. This does not excuse the music’s lack of clarity, but it can enable the listener to focus on its more enjoyable aspects.)
Craft: Orchestrational Expressivity
Unlike clarity, orchestrational expressivity is hard to define and even harder to teach. Great expressive orchestrators (like Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Berlioz) have a richly varied quiver of timbres and combine them in novel ways that serve their expressive purposes. There are great, even canonic composers who have struggled to do this consistently. Schumann’s symphonies, for instance, are distinguished for their amazingly inventive treatment of form and melody, but without conductorly intervention, they all have a grey, murky orchestral sound—the result of Schumann’s using too much of the orchestra too much of the time.
The listener gets a similar sense from Price’s symphonies, albeit less consistently. They have some lovely and innovative orchestrational moments—who can forget the sultry xylophone setting of the trio theme in the Third Symphony Juba or the redemptive brass chorale of that same symphony’s slow movement? But listened to consecutively, her symphonies demonstrate a frequent saturation of orchestral color and a lack of orchestrational variety.
Her first and last movements often take an all-of-the-above approach to orchestration, using low brass, snare drum, and cymbals constantly, with the effect of making her crescendos and intensifications seem more like mad dashes to nowhere than building blocks in a larger narrative. And even when Price does find a novel and powerful way to orchestrate an idea—like the low brass/reedy wind chorale in the brooding opening of the Third—that orchestration tends to overstay its welcome. The opening of the Third goes on for an interminable minute and a half with little orchestral variation.
Lack of orchestrational variety handicaps Price’s quest to construct large-scale orchestral forms. It’s one reason why the Juba movements of her symphonies—which are the shortest—also happen to be the best.
Craft: Form and Development
One key difference between small- and large-scale music—say, between a Chopin waltz and a Beethoven symphony—is that small-scale music depends almost entirely on the quality of the thematic material used to write it. Large-scale music depends far more on what composers do with that material. Themes take up 75% of the airtime or more in a Chopin waltz; in a romantic symphony, they might consume only about 30%, with the remainder consisting of music that develops, or expands on, those themes.
This is why the last movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony—which is a theme-and-variations on what most fair-minded listeners would describe as an undistinguished, perhaps even goofy, melody—can still be one of the most beloved symphonic movements ever written. Beethoven did not always need great melodies to write great symphonies. For him, for Brahms, even for the great melodist Tchaikovsky, what made their symphonies great was the ability to see potential in their themes and develop them
Just as amazing thematic development can elevate mediocre materials, mediocre thematic development can cheapen great materials. This happens in the first movements of all three Price symphonies. In each, Price gives us a deeply stirring opening melody, only to transform it into an overwrought transitional passage that leaves us wondering whether that opening melody was really as great as we thought it was.
Her development sections, which “work out” the material introduced in the exposition, tend to give off more heat than light. In the first movement development of the Third Symphony, she lops off the first two measures of her theme and repeats this cell several times in a trite sequence, filling the rest of the development with tired classical devices like fugatos and omnibus progressions (where the treble and bass voices move in opposite directions by half steps). She might have done better by forgoing a development entirely.
And by the 1930s, she certainly could have chosen to do so! As an anachronist composer writing in the tonal, romantic style, all of the formal options used by pathbreaking late romantics like Mahler, Strauss, and Sibelius were available to her. But despite those liberating precedents, one gets the sense, when listening to Price’s music, that she feels hemmed in by classical expectations, even when they fail to serve her expressive purposes.
This manifests itself not only in her ineffective developments, but in her totally needless use of repeats. In the first movement of her First Symphony, Price lays out a range of wistful musical materials, but the conservative formal treatment she gives them detracts from the power of the piece. Jonathan Blumhofer, writing one of the few relatively honest recent reviews of Price’s music in ArtsFuse, explains:
Price follows symphonic sonata form to a T: there are contrasting subjects in two key areas, an exposition repeat, a busy development, a recapitulation of the opening materials, and a blazing coda. On paper, then, a textbook symphonic movement. In performance, though, the exposition repeat proves superfluous. The development lacks direction and shape: it ambles along to the recapitulation, but there’s no discernible musical reason for why or when we arrive there.
In Price’s Fourth Symphony, not featured in the recording Blumhofer was reviewing, the lack of a coherent second theme makes the repeat of its exposition even more baffling. Fortunately, Price’s Third spares us such an exposition repeat.
There may be no concept in music criticism as slippery as dramatic thrust or dramatic coherence. We may have to content ourselves by defining it the way art historian Kenneth Clark defined “civilization”—“I can’t define it in abstract terms—yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it; and I am looking at it now.”
We know it when we hear a large-scale piece of music that has a recognizable dramatic arc. Sometimes these arcs are easily communicable: Beethoven’s Fifth, which leads us from a pitiless onslaught of fate to ultimate victory; Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, which takes us through all the stages in a man’s life up through the moment of death; Mahler’s Second, which leads us through the valley of death to resurrection and everlasting life.
There are other dramatic arcs that are no less real, but defy our attempts to put them into words. I am loath to explain what exactly Brahms is trying to tell us in the gentle ending of his Third Symphony but I can feel the logic in the music as a performer, even if I can’t verbalize it.
Price’s symphonies tend to lack such dramatic coherence, both within their more substantial movements, and in the symphonies taken as a whole.
Within individual movements, her efforts toward coherence are often impaired by underwhelming thematic development, constant starts and stops (her Third Symphony in particular is riddled with slow-downs and speed-ups in odd places), and her penchant for deconstructing materials for no apparent reason (a common misstep in Price’s slow movements).
The overall coherence of all three symphonies tends to be undermined by Price’s lightweight finales, which make the symphonies top-heavy. (In traditional classical or romantic symphonies, the first and second movements tend to demand serious investment from the listener. The third movement minuet or scherzo allows the listener to put that seriousness out of their mind for a moment. It cleanses the palate for the finale, which resumes the dramatic threads of the opening movements and brings them to their final apotheosis.) Price’s Juba third movements perfectly fit this template in their light, carefree tone, but her last movements do not seem to resolve the deeper questions raised in the opening movements. Rather, they give the impression of giving up on those questions. None of the symphonies seem to end in any meaningful way; they peter out.
So, where does this leave us? With a portrait of a talented composer whose skills as a melodist and miniaturist were greater than her skills as a large-scale symphonic composer. On their musical merits, her symphonies are worthy of a listen, but probably not worthy of regular programming in American concert halls, let alone international ones.
To acknowledge that Price does not belong in the canon is not to denigrate her or her achievements— rather, it puts her at perhaps the 75th percentile of composers who have written for the orchestral medium. That she achieved that much despite the myriad roadblocks she faced as a black woman composer in the early 20th century is close to miraculous. That fact in itself is reason to celebrate her career and legacy.
There remains, however, a significant bloc in the community of both performers and artistic administrators who argue that Price’s orchestral music does belong in the canon. They rarely make this case on the basis of sound musical arguments. Rather, they do so based on the theory that the obstacles Price endured in her life elevate the quality of her work—that a certain artistic talent plus a certain amount of oppression equals symphonic greatness. The way these arguments have entered the conversation, and the risks of seriously entertaining them, will occupy us for the final part of this series.
Recordings of the Florence Price Symphonies:
Price: Symphony No. 1 (Philadelphia Orchestra)
Price: Symphony No. 3 (Philadelphia Orchestra)
Price: Symphony No. 4 (Fort Smith Symphony)
These links all lead to First Movements. Follow YouTube playlists for subsequent movements.