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The Price of Equity, Part 3
Alex Ross and the Florence Price Feeding Frenzy
The first two parts of this series have focused on the musico-political context of Florence Price’s rise, and evaluated three of her most frequently performed orchestral works. This final part focuses on two remaining topics: the justifications that have been made—and continue to be made—for her meteoric rise; and the all-important question of whom this hurts and how.
Alex Ross: A Political Surfer on Turbulent Seas
In the 20th century, major changes in the classical music industry tended to be guided by a small cadre of professional tastemakers: Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski democratized and popularized the symphony orchestra in America. Leonard Bernstein foregrounded education and outreach in American orchestras and brought our attention to underplayed music like the symphonies of Mahler. Critic/composer Virgil Thomson gave a platform to singular American voices in classical composition.
But over the last few decades, musician tastemakers have declined in influence. Nowadays, one often gets the impression that the “great” conductors or soloists are mere interchangeable parts. True power in orchestras, as in almost all institutions in our increasingly politicized country, lies with the administrative class. It lies with the League of American Orchestras and its representatives in orchestra offices around the country, whose job it is to interpret America’s political currents and apply their lessons to the music industry.
The most influential non-administrators these days are those artists, organizations, and critics who have made it their business to ‘meet the political moment’ even more skillfully than the administrators. Music critics have particularly sought to maintain relevance by riding the wave of politics. Some have done this ham-handedly, like New York Times critic Tony Tomassini, mentioned in Part 1 for his desperate pre-retirement attempt to put himself on the ‘right side of history’ by advocating an end to blind auditions.
But political surfing, deftly done, can pay huge dividends in power and influence. And no surfer is more skilled at catching the wave than New Yorker critic Alex Ross, author of popular music history classics The Rest is Noise and Wagnerism. Ross’ abilities at describing works of music and diagnosing musico-cultural currents are paralleled only by his impeccable sense of political timing. He is one of those rare critics who reads the political currents so skillfully that he tells readers what they want to hear before they want to hear it, and thereby sets the agenda for a notoriously slow-to-change industry.
It is Ross, more than any other individual or organization, who is responsible for identifying Florence Price as the perfect composer to meet audiences’ conservative musical expectations while checking off two “intersectional” boxes at once—race and gender. His February 2018 short article or think piece, “The Rediscovery of Florence Price,” published both in the New Yorker print magazine and online, set off the Florence Price boom and prefigured nearly all of the arguments made in defense of her genius cult, particularly those that urge us to overlook her works’ musical shortcomings in service of their political significance.
Here are four argumentative threads inspired by Ross that boosters of Florence Price have used continuously since 2018.
Thread 1: Sidelining the Music
One of the first things to jump out to any reader of Ross’s piece is how little space it devotes to the music itself. The article is eleven paragraphs long, but only three of them discuss Price’s musical output. The rest establishes her biography and story (understandable enough for a composer who was virtually unknown in 2018), but then goes into the reasons behind her “shocking neglect” (racism and sexism, of course), followed by a several-paragraph interrogation of the “white[ness], male[ness], and dead[ness]” of the classical music canon that has neglected her. Price’s music plays, at most, a supporting role.
When Ross does discuss her music, he does so with his usual vigor, but with frequent use of telling euphemisms. When he hears “hypnotic stillness” in the slow movement of the First Symphony, one can’t help but wonder whether that’s code for “soporific repetitiveness.” Likewise he describes the first movement of the Third Symphony as having a “restless, quicksilver air, seldom staying in one mood for long”—which seems like a convenient way of rebranding the movement’s lack of direction as a virtue.
Ross readily acknowledges the derivative nature of Price’s music. In fact, if his language was not quite so glowing, a reader could be excused for assuming he was criticizing her lack of originality. In Ross’s telling, the First Symphony relies on “insistent sequences in the Tchaikovsky manner,” the Third’s brass opening “smacks of Wagner,” before giving way to “Dvořákian hoedowns.” Price’s violin concertos, which come in for Ross’s greatest commendation, have “an autumnal quality reminiscent of the final works of Richard Strauss,” and contain passages “so obviously indebted to famous Romantic concertos that one suspects Price of putting us on.”
There are two ways to interpret Ross’s frequent citations of canonic composers’ influence on Price—one benign, one malignant. The benign explanation is that like many a skilled critic, he is giving listeners unfamiliar with Price a window into her music by comparing her to composers they already know. The malignant is that while he acknowledges how derivative her music is, he asserts that Price’s political import makes that derivativeness beside the point. Most likely, both interpretations are correct.
The second interpretation is made explicit in more recent writing about Price. In a late 2021 article in Gramophone, for instance, Vanderbilt Professor Douglas Shadle is quoted: “Of course we should never get away from [Price’s] race and gender identities, but we need to talk about just how good her music is, too.” If we can “never get away” from Price’s race and gender, neither can we appreciate her music on its own musical terms. Perhaps if Shadle had his way, we would not even try.
Much critical writing on Price follows Ross’s mold of namedropping her compositional influences and using declarative descriptions of her music that could easily be backhanded critiques. Perhaps most amusingly, a Bachtrack review by Cameron Kelsall of a recent performance of Price’s Fourth Symphony uses the same idiosyncratic word choice Ross employs to describe the first movement of her Third: “Nézet-Séguin handled the often quicksilver shifts in tone and style, from forceful brass chorales to lilting string melodies, and underlined in each movement how Price adapted, blended and superseded cultural expectations.” (For those curious, “quicksilver” was hardly a fixture of the music criticism vernacular before Alex Ross wrote about Price.)
Kelsall next opined that Price’s Fourth “is a symphony that deserves to be heard as often as any contemporaneous piece”—a bold claim considering that she wrote the symphony the same year as the premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes, one year after Copland’s Appalachian Spring, two years after Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and five years after Messiaen wrote his Quartet for the End of Time in a Nazi POW camp. I will let the reader decide how Price’s Fourth stands up to those contemporaries.
Some reviewers have even gone a step beyond Ross’s euphemisms—by levelling substantive critiques at Price’s music but then informing the reader that those shortcomings actually don’t matter. One particularly arresting example appears in the review by Jonathan Blumhofer that I quoted in Part 2. Blumhofer spends all of three consecutive paragraphs picking apart Price’s ineffective use of form in her First Symphony, before adding:
Having said all of that, Price’s First is no flop. Quite the opposite: apart from the overlong first movement, it’s a beguiling essay. Her orchestrations, if not always inspired, display — even in that meandering first movement — an ingenious ear for color (like the appearance of chimes and celesta in the development) and texture (vaguely Ivesian clarinet shadow lines pop up periodically).
Her orchestrations are simultaneously “ingenious” and “not always inspired,” her treatment of form “overlong” and “meandering,” and yet somehow “beguiling.” One hopes Blumhofer might one day pull himself out of this rhetorical ooze, but I’m not holding my breath. More strikingly, the amount of cognitive dissonance he displays—by picking apart Price’s music while simultaneously telling us that his honest criticisms have no bearing on its overall quality—is breathtaking.
In a review of a Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Price’s String Quartet in G, Financial Times critic Richard Fairman dances the same pirouette as Blumhofer, but in fewer words, when he describes the work as “slight, though none the worse for that.”
Thread 2: Price Wasn’t a Mere Anachronist; She Was Building an “Imaginary Past”
There is one subcategory of Ross’s first argumentative thread that deserves its own thread. This is his attempt to recast Price’s anachronistic compositional language as an asset. I quote Ross, from the rarefied moral air of his closing paragraph:
The anachronisms in Florence Price’s music are, in the end, no flaw. Listening to her, I have the uncanny sense of hearing the symphonies and operas that women and African-Americans were all but barred from writing during the Romantic heyday, when the busts on the piano were being carved. She seems to speak from an imaginary past, from an alternative history of an America that lived up to its stated ideals.
For lovers of debate and good writing, Ross does something truly beautiful here. In three sentences, he not only dismisses all criticism of Price’s old-fashioned musical voice; he does so by implying that her critics are failing to see that she is engaged in a grand reclamation project on behalf of all underrepresented minority composers. Her music is therefore not merely music, but a sort of moral nutritional supplement from which any listener stuck on the dominantly white canon might benefit.
Ross’s closing salvo on Price has echoed across the music critical landscape ever since. Take, for instance, the final paragraph of Edward Seckerson’s review of the newest Philadelphia Orchestra Price recordings for Gramophone:
The simple and the homespun can grow mighty in her music. There is a quiet pride and majesty about it but equally an infectious joy in the unquenchable spirit of her brothers and sisters. . . It isn’t music that was ever going to change the world or indeed the American landscape as Ives and others did – but its honesty, emotional truth and exuberance make it so much more than just a footnote. Had the world been different, what then of Florence Price? What might have been? Plenty of clues here.
Thread 3: We should be focusing on what Florence Price might have accomplished in a world free of racism and sexism
By asking “What might have been?” Seckerson brings us to our third thread: the idea that the primary reasons Price’s music is not better known to classical musicians and audiences around the world are racism and sexism. Ross sketches a prototype for this argument early in his piece:
The reasons for the shocking neglect of Price’s legacy are not hard to find. In a 1943 letter to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, she introduced herself thus: “My dear Dr. Koussevitzky, To begin with I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.” She plainly saw these factors as obstacles to her career, because she then spoke of Koussevitzky “knowing the worst.” Indeed, she had a difficult time making headway in a culture that defined composers as white, male, and dead. One prominent conductor took up her cause—Frederick Stock, the German-born music director of the Chicago Symphony—but most others ignored her, Koussevitzky included. Only in the past couple of decades have Price’s major works begun to receive recordings and performances, and these are still infrequent.
Ross and Price herself were surely correct that her sex and race both constituted barriers to her professional advancement while she was alive. Indeed—as mentioned in Part 2 of this series, but not by Ross—Stock only performed Price’s First with the Chicago Symphony because a wealthy philanthropist underwrote the concert.
However, Ross’s claim that Price’s lack of name recognition in 2018 was mainly due to racism and sexism—whether perpetrated in her own era or ours—is incorrect. In fact, an honest reading of her musical output (as we did in Part 2) finds that the neglect of Price’s legacy is not “shocking” at all. It is the same fate that has befallen hundreds of good, but not ingenious, composers over the last 300 years—most of them white males.
And yet, Ross’s claim that Price has until now been shut out of the canon mainly due to continuing racism and sexism in classical music is absolutely everywhere.
We find it in the music academy. Take, for instance, aforementioned Vanderbilt Professor Doug Shadle, professorially ‘correcting’ a ‘problematic’ blurb promoting a concert of Price’s music. He writes: “Florence Price was the first Black woman to have a symphonic work performed by a major symphony orchestra (Chicago Symphony, 1933). Whether through prejudice or ignorance, most conductors have since neglected her music, depriving her and the world of the legacy she deserves.”
We find it in the world of performance literature. For instance, the following promotional blurb from chamber music presenter Groupmuse San Francisco: “However great her work, [Price] was always creating at the margins. The world has grown a great deal since she passed, we're coming to appreciate all the genius that’s been burning at the margins for too long. At long last, Florence Price is coming center stage.”
We find it in music journalism. For instance, there’s Cameron Kelsall’s review telling us that “Pride of place” in a concert “was given to Florence Price, the unjustly neglected mid-century composer whose work is in the midst of a major rediscovery, as institutions reckon with centuries of racism and sexism that kept artists like her outside the concert hall far too long.”
Thread 4: Price’s Absence from the Canon Means the Canon Itself is Illegitimate
Halfway through his piece, Ross makes a startling admission. He writes: “The obvious objection that could be lodged against the modest Florence Price revival [in 2018, the Price revival could still be called “modest”] is that the composer benefits from special pleading. If she were not black and a woman, would she be played?”
It is indeed an obvious objection, and an increasing number of brave souls are making it. But the way that Ross deals with that objection is revealing. He does not attempt to refute it by pleading the quality of Price’s music. He doesn’t even claim to disagree with it at all. Instead, he answers the question with another question: “If racism and misogyny had not so profoundly defined European and American culture, would as many white male composers have prospered?”
Here, Ross walks onto truly perilous ground. For he knows perfectly well that the equality or inequality of opportunity that composers of different races or genders experienced over time does not change the quality of the works they ended up writing, as artistic artifacts worthy of our attention based on their artistic merits. The fact that Price suffered from racism and misogyny and Sibelius didn’t doesn’t make his Second Symphony any worse or her Third any better.
Ross’s claim, while fallacious, will sound familiar to anyone who has spent time in the woke academy recently and heard the argument that since our world is defined according to unjust imbalances of power, redressing those imbalances requires us both to elevate the oppressed and to cut the privileged down to size. This is why the discipline of African American or Black Studies has its mirror image—Whiteness Studies, which is devoted not to celebrating, but to “problematizing,” whiteness and/or white people. Likewise, in redressing the historical injustices that have elevated composers like Beethoven or Brahms over composers like Price, only some of the work can be done by celebrating Price’s life and music. The rest must be done by bringing the “canonic” musicians who occupy her rightful place down from their pedestal.
Ross claims to be personally conflicted on the question he has raised. “Having grown up with the notion of musical genius,” he writes, “I am reluctant to let it go entirely.” But he doesn’t seem reluctant. Far from it, he follows up his pair of rhetorical questions with a claim about musical genius far more “shocking” than the neglect of Florence Price’s legacy: “The adulation of the master, the genius, the divinely gifted creator,” he says, “all too easily lapses into a cult of the white-male hero, to whom such traits are almost unthinkingly attached.” In other words, Ross is telling us that the content of the music we claim to love means little compared to the intersectional identity of the person who wrote it.
This idea of “the artist, not the art,” or “the writer, not the text” has been gestating in the academy for some time, but Ross has brought it into the classical music mainstream—first in this article and then in a series of others. It has been mostly through Ross that performing musicians have been introduced to scholars like Hunter College music theorist Philip Ewell, who has argued that Beethoven was merely an “above-average” composer and that the main reason we venerate the composers we do is the unacknowledged presence of a “white racial frame” that keeps composers like Beethoven in and composers like Price out.
I will refrain from delving too deeply into the “white racial frame” thesis here. It, and Ewell’s musical arsonism, deserve their own article. But as we wrap up our appraisal of Florence Price, it is useful to think a bit about the nature of the canon where we are told her symphonies deserve to be enshrined.
The “canon” of 50-or-so composers and 500-or-so compositions has been democratically chosen by listeners, musicians, and academics the world over as representing—on the basis of criteria like those we presented in Part 2—the best works of classical music that we know of. Contrary to how critics like Ross present it, the musical canon is not a centrally-determined list. Every rehearsal, salon, concert, and musicale for the last several hundred years has played a role in shaping it. Audiences, musicians, and scholars have voted with their feet, privileging certain pieces of music over others and continuously reevaluating the choices of past generations.
Through this organic process, some composers have risen to the top, having written music of enduring power and relevance, and many others have not, including some of the most popular and influential musicians of their own days. (Many music lovers, for instance, would be surprised to learn that the most frequently performed opera composer during the 1800s was not Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, or Wagner. It was Giacomo Meyerbeer, a composer whose name only those who have read a music history textbook are likely to have heard nowadays.)
Many who question the value of a canon argue that it is incompatible with discovering new great music. Unsurprisingly, this is the next argument Ross turns to in his article:
If we are going to treat music as a full-fledged art form—and, surprisingly often, we don’t—we need to be open to the bewildering richness of everything that has been written during the past thousand years. To reduce music history to a pageant of masters is, at bottom, lazy. We stick with the known in order to avoid the hard work of exploring the unknown.
This is a self-serving red herring. The canon is not closed, nor does it represent an exhaustive list of all the greatest works of music ever written. And today, orchestras around the U.S. are test driving not only the works of Price and other underrepresented composers, but also those of contemporary composers, at a clip unseen since the early 20th century.
Of course we should continue to audition unfamiliar musical works for inclusion in the canon—whether they are old or new. Anyone claiming to have found underappreciated music worthy of inclusion in the canon deserves a fair hearing from fair-minded listeners, like the one we gave to Price in Part 2. And once we’ve heard the music, we can decide whether it’s a work of overriding genius worthy of the canon, pleasant and worthy of a few listens, or not all that great.
There is no hard data yet on how Price has fared among rank-and-file U.S. orchestra audiences and musicians. But the early returns I have observed from attending several rehearsals and performances of her music are, well, not outstanding. After one major U.S. orchestra’s recent rehearsal of Price’s First Symphony, musicians in the orchestra were giggling into their shirt collars over the first movement’s awkward orchestration. While I don’t believe this is entirely fair, it does not bode well for the piece’s incorporation into the canon.
Conductors, even those most enthusiastic about Price, also seem to be hedging their bets. In Part 1, I wrote of Philadelphia Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducted Price on six different Philadelphia programs in 2021 and several Met Orchestra programs, and is always willing to burnish her ‘unjustly neglected’ legacy in the media.
But Nézet-Séguin also directs the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal, and is an honorary conductor and frequent guest at both the Rotterdam Philharmonic in The Netherlands and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (COE). If Nézet-Séguin truly believed, as we quoted him claiming in Part 1, that Florence Price was worthy of entering the canon alongside Brahms or Dvorak, he would be enthusiastically programming her for his non-American orchestras. If he did, and Price truly were an undiscovered genius, he would be heralded as a hero for introducing European audiences (who already have a taste for American composers like Copland and Gershwin) to a brilliant musical voice unjustly withheld from them by racism and sexism.
But he is not. Through the end of 2022, according to Nézet-Séguin’s concert schedule (which features many performances with his Canadian and European ensembles), he will have conducted Price only once in Montreal, and not a single time in Rotterdam or with COE.
Postscript: Why does any of this matter?
At this point, I believe I have conclusively demonstrated that the classical music industry is engaging in monumental hypocrisy and self-delusion on the matter of Florence Price and her legacy. I believe I have established, furthermore, that this hypocrisy and self-delusion are due to an obsession with appearing on the “right side of history” amid our fraught political climate.
But I have not yet addressed one key question: why the orchestral cult of Florence Price matters, or why it matters enough to get upset about it.
To that, I offer four answers:
1. It takes airtime away from other worthwhile music.
Well-meaning critics of the shoehorning of “underrepresented” composers into every concert program normally worry that it’s taking away airtime from the “warhorses” of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. But that’s largely untrue. It is not Beethoven and Tchaikovsky losing their position on orchestra concert seasons to Florence Price, but other “marginal” composers, whose music in many cases is more interesting than Price’s but whose intersectional credit scores are lower. It is not Brahms we are in danger of losing but Josef Suk, not Sibelius but Carl Nielsen. We are also in danger of hearing less of the relatively more talented composers of color who were not lucky enough to be born female, like William Grant Still and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
2. It distracts attention from the many talented female composers of color working today.
For most of the last 300 years, only extraordinarily privileged members of racial minority groups, or women, were given the opportunity to formally study classical music composition. Florence Price was one of the very few. But today, those doors are open to a much wider swath of young musicians, so the elite few who rise to the top are likely to be very talented indeed. And they are! Just listen to some Clarice Assad if you don’t believe me. Orchestras can achieve representation onstage while playing great music consistently. Featuring new music from those who have risen to the top amidst such fierce competition is the way to do it.
3. It further entrenches identity politics in music.
Historically, classical music has been a force for unity in our world, not balkanization. Although the purveyors of division might preach otherwise, Still and Price probably had little doubt that the works of Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin had been written for them, as much as they had been written for their white colleagues. Today, however, orchestras are operating on the identity politics-based assumption (discussed in Part 1) that listeners prefer to listen to music by composers who look like them, even if that music is objectively worse than music written by composers of other races or genders. This assumption is not only entirely unproven, but insulting and patronizing. It is likely to accomplish exactly the opposite of the minority audience bonanza administrators are looking for. Black listeners, just like white listeners, come to the concert hall for great music, not political pandering.
4. It is dishonest.
In 1974, Alexander Solzhenitsyn published “Live Not by Lies,” an essay highlighting the strain that acquiescence to ideology exacts both on individuals and institutions, particularly when they acquiesce to claims that they do not believe. I can only speak from my anecdotal experience, but most orchestral musicians and conductors I have spoken with do not believe that Florence Price was an ingenious composer or even a great one. Rather, they are informed by their orchestra’s administrations that celebrating Price’s legacy and performing plenty of her music are institutional priorities, and that their job is to play along. In an industry notorious for its low job satisfaction and resentment toward artistic leadership, administrators should ask themselves whether they really want to direct their musicians to be standard bearers for a political crusade they do not believe in. Instead, we should ask how we can reach new audiences with honesty and integrity, putting forward the best music we can play.