Revisiting History: Florence Price – The Gifted Outsider

Article by Jacqueline Leung (MGBH)

In recent years,  Florence Price (OBM), described as “something of a mystery (1),” is beginning to emerge as an American composer of important contributions. One can gather from many online sources that Price was the first African American female composer to have a major symphonic work performed by a major American orchestra – the Chicago Symphony. Therefore, at a first glance, it appears that Price achieved major success in her career by reaching this important milestone.  However, upon closer examination, once can see that her musical path was paved with obstacles and struggles.

 

 Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.


                                                                               

Florence Price, née Florence Beatrice Smith was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887 to parents of French, Spanish, English, Indian, and “Negro” heritage (2).  Despite her white bloodline, her African roots inadvertently “tainted” her chances of substantial success in the classical music world. It may be argued that she had already achieved success with the performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, however, many have ignored the fact that the performance took place on World Fair Day and not a regular season series concert, hence, her work still hovered on the periphery of the dominant white world. Towards the end of her life, she wrote to a friend in Atlanta after having struggled to secure a concert engagement for 20 years, “I have finally learned that the successful ones amongst us are usually recognized by us only after the white man has put his stamp of approval on us (3).”

 

Price was first taught the piano by her mother and had her first composition published at age 11.  Her musical talent was recognized early. Growing up in a household where the cream of travelling African American artists and intelligentsia often frequented, she had broad exposure to the arts world since childhood. World travelling pianist Blind Boone (OBM) was once a houseguest of the Smiths and reportedly showed interest in hearing Florence play.  Florence continued her tertiary education at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts, majoring in piano and organ as well as studying composition.  She was one of the very few students with a double major and graduated with honors in 1906.  In her year, a mere 58 students out of 2000 graduated, and she was the only student who pursued two degrees.  At NEC, she was selected to play at various important concerts, and the repertoire she performed showcased her as a highly skilled organist and pianist.  However, after graduation she did not stay in Boston to pursue a performing career, but returned to the South where she became a teacher of music. Later, between 1910-1912, she headed the Music Department of Clark University in Atlanta.  In her personal life, she met her husband Thomas J. Price (OBM), an attorney with a career of promise.

After a few years of settling in the South and raising a family with two daughters in Little Rock, she started experiencing escalated racial tension. The White American Music Teachers Association turned down her applications to join the society. With lynching and segregation laws being implemented, the movement evoked a massive ‘migration,’ some 6 million African Americans emigrated north. As the racial segregation situation worsened, the Prices moved the whole family to Chicago to escape from the brutal situation down south. In Chicago, Florence’s career was able to flourish. She mingled among the most gifted and influential African American social circles.  The support led to more compositions despite leading a busy life. Invitations flowed in, including lectures on rare instruments for the Chicago Music Association. However, Florence’s husband suffered from the Great Depression and lost many clients.  His law firm and client lists dwindled, and facing increasing financial difficulties, he became abusive towards Florence. Inevitably, she had to divorce him to lead a single mother life with her two daughters.  Being the sole breadwinner of the family meant that she had to work as much as possible to provide for the household. Her various jobs included being the organist for silent film screenings. It is important to note that this was a position tailored for white musicians, in a theatre with predominantly white audiences. Thus, Florence must have been hired for her skills. Other jobs included running a large private piano studio at home and publishing her own teaching pieces to supplement her income as well as composing songs for radio under a pen name.

During a period when she broke her foot, she was forced to stay at home and rest.  With more time on her hands, she devoted time to compose her first symphony. Despite her injury, the time she had for composing this large-scale work proved to be a fortuitous turning point in her career. She entered two compositions – her Symphony in E minor and Piano Sonata – into a competition hosted by the Wanamaker Foundation. Out of a total of $1, 000 awards, her Symphony won first prize of $500 and the Piano Sonata won the 3rd prize of $250. This very success garnered attention of Frederic Stock (OBM), the conductor of the Chicago Symphony at the time, who thought very highly of her work and decided to program her symphony. In 1940, following the accolades she received for her composition at this performance, she was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.  Aside from composing large-scale works such as symphonies, sonatas, and concertos, Price was an avid arranger of spirituals.  Delving into her heritage for musical inspiration, she utilized elements of African American music in her compositions.  Her 3rd Symphony, for example, is written in the Juba dance style, of West African heritage. Not only did Price arrange spirituals, she also incorporated them into her compositions. The second movement of her piano sonata for example, is a poignant movement and uses elements of spirituals as a basis of the musical language.  It is a known fact that Antonin Dvořák (OBM) recognized the importance of incorporating ‘folk’ or ‘common people’ elements into Western classical art music, and he once predicted that spirituals would become the basis of American compositions.

Leading African American musicians including Marian Anderson (OBM) and Leontyne Price (OBM) performed her works in public concerts, during national events, and on radio. Her Piano Concerto gained the support of Frederic Stock again, who conducted the premiere of her piano concerto with her student and Margaret Bond (OBM) as a soloist. In the 1950s, Sir John Barbirolli (OBM), director of the Halle Orchestra in England, asked her to write a work made up of spirituals, which is a testament of how well- regarded her compositions were. Other ensembles, which performed her other works included the U.S. Marine Band, the Pittsburg Symphony, the New York City Symphonic Band, and the Michigan Symphony. For a period, she wrote using the pseudo name of Vee Jay, which, perhaps, gives us a hint of her fear of rejection due to her ethnical heritage if her real name is recognized. A particular work, At the Cotton Gin was published by Schirmer (OBM).  A thorough examination of her correspondence reveals, however, that while she did receive praise for some of her works, it was at times difficult to have all of her submitted compositions published.  Having received her formal musical education in Boston, she especially lamented being rejected by Serge Koussevitzky (OBM), the music director of the Boston Symphony, who turned a blind eye to her plead to look at her scores.  She wrote, “I’m a woman and I have Negro blood in my veins,” (5) and she understood that race and gender were her two ‘handicaps’, limiting her path to wider success.

Despite rejection by some American organizations, she did receive recognition from key figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt (OBM), who recognized her contribution in 1933 after attending the World’s Fair concert in Chicago.  In 1953, she received a letter from Clayton F. Summy Co. music publishers, which referred to her works as ‘attractive’ and that they ‘hope to see more of [her] compositions.  Valter Poole (OBM), conductor of the Michigan Symphony Orchestra was “very interested and quite anxious to do something from [her] pen.”  She appeared at the NANM (National Association of Negro Musicians) Convention in Chicago, and attendees were referred to as the “Finest Music Talent In the Country.”  Rae Linda Brown (OBM), a scholar of Price’s work, remarked in Drew Magazine, 2011 that Price was “a piece of African-American history, a very important piece of history.”

To this day, Florence Price is far from being a household name. Along with her counterpart, the African American composer William Grant Still (OBM), also from Little Rock, their works are still awaiting to be widely recognized. Price’s lively piano teaching pieces for children with animated titles such as ‘Tip-Toe To the Cookie Jar,’ ‘Pop Corn,’ ‘Washing Machine,’ and ‘Criss Cross’ would appeal to children who could relate the music to their everyday lives. Many of these pieces are still relatively unknown in piano pedagogical circles. Among these, a short teaching piece, “The Goblin and the Mosquito”, written for the elementary level pianist is a great study of hand coordination, yet containing varied thematic material. Works available online are few and far between and to date, and many of these compositions are still unpublished.  Her Piano Concerto, with the complete score lost since the 1940s, was reconstructed in 2011 by composer Trevor Weston (MGBH) with a commission from Center for Black Music Research.  It received a premiere by Dr. Karen Walwyn (MGBH), a devotee of Price’s music.  Yet, her compositions including her violin concertos and numerous other works, would be a very welcome addition to the American art music repertoire.

The compositions of Florence Price deserve much closer attention and recognition from classical music circles. The story of her life is a courageous and heroic one, with her having upheld herself as a strong willed, capable, and independent woman living in challenging times of the history of the United States. Traditionally, female composers have always been outnumbered by male composers, and being a female African American composer is a rarity. Her efforts and perseverance to break down the invisible walls, inch by inch, are still very much relevant today.

 

 

References:

(1) “Price, Florence Beatrice Smith (1887-1953) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.” www.blackpast.org/aah/price-florence-beatrice-smith-1887-1953.

(2) Gordon, Ashleigh. “The Life and Music of Florence Price: An Interview with Rae Linda Brown.” AAIHS, www.aaihs.org/the-life-and-music-of-florence-price-an-interview-with-rae-linda-brown/. Accessed 14 Aug. 2017.

(3) Hann, Christopher. “The Lost Concerto | Drew Today | Drew University.” Drew Today, 2011, www.drew.edu/news/2016/04/21/the-lost-concerto-2. Accessed 14 Aug. 2017.

 

 Enjoyed the article? Please, consider donating a small amount to the author to express your appreciation.


                                                                               

 

 

About The Author:

Jacqueline Leung is a Hong Kong based concert pianist and educator. She was trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She has performed on four continents and is in demand as a solo and chamber musician, lecturer and adjudicator. Alongside music, her passions include traveling and cooking. She also holds a MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong.  She has recently been appointed as Senior Lecturer of Music (Piano) at United International College, China.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Christopher Hann, Drew Magazine 2011

[2] Handwritten document on a form from the University of Arkansas Special Collections archives

[3] WQXR Radio Feature by Terrance McKnight

[4] Great Divide at the Concert Hall, New York Times, Aug 2014

REVISITING HISTORY: MARIA SZYMANOWSKA – THE POLISH PIONEER

by Jacqueline Leung (MGBH)

Acknowledged by the Grove Dictionary of Music for occupying ‘an important position in the history of Polish music before Chopin’, the name of Maria Szymanowska (OBM) may be familiar to students and teachers of today.  Born in 1789,  she carved out a career for herself as a professional concert pianist and a composer, and from 1815 sustained a successful performing career totaling around 100 concerts until three years before her death in 1831.  She travelled extensively, socialized, and performed amongst the cultural elites in various European countries.  However, her roots were somewhat humble.

Coming from a working class Polish-Jewish family with her parents being owners of a brewery, she was educated at home.  She received her piano training under private tutors in Warsaw and never attended a music conservatory.

Following a few years of piano lessons, Szymanowska’s musical talents shone through, and her name began to be recognized and circulated within the cultural circles of Warsaw.  She is known to have performed in private salons and homes.

Originally known as Maria AGATA Wołowska, she married JÓZEF Szymanowski (OBM), an estate owner in 1810.  It appears that her career took flight after the marriage, which is highly unusual considering the dominant gender roles of the day. After officially becoming Maria Szymanowska, she entered motherhood bearing three children – two daughters and a son.  In 1812, her name first appeared in the Polish press, and she became known to the public.  In 1815, she started her international concertizing career as possibly the most successful professional female pianist before Clara Schumann (OBM).  During Szymanowska’s lifetime, she became associated with two of the major literary figures of the time: the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (OBM) and the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz (OBM).  She is famously known as the dedicatee of Goethe’s Aussöhnung (Reconciliation to Fate) verses, in which he laments the suffering caused by passion and juxtaposes the pain by depicting angelic qualities of music, no doubt inspired by Szymanowska’s playing when the former became a close friend of the pianist.  Other major figures she encountered include Alexander Pushkin (OBM) and Mikhail Glinka (OBM) during her years in St. Petersburg and Moscow after emigration to Russia as the prestigious “First Pianist to the Russian Court,” a title bestowed on her by Tsar Alexander I (OBM).  Information from sources are divided as to whether she studied formally with the Irish composer John Field (OBM), yet it is without doubt that they were friends with each other and spent time together in Russia.  As for her relationship with Chopin (OBM), although there is no account of their correspondences or meetings, he was nevertheless familiar with Szymanowska’s name since he wrote in a letter to a friend that he had plans to attend Szymanowska’s recital at the National Theatre in 1827.   As two top ranked musicians living in Warsaw, with Szymanowska, being the established artist, and Chopin, the talented, emerging artist, it is highly possible that they did meet each other despite Chopin being 22 years her junior.  Other major composers of the era including Hummel (OBM), Field, and Cherubini (OBM) – all dedicated works to her.

As Maria Szymanowska had no formal compositional training, her works appear to be more creative and less confined by the strict rules of compositional structures and styles.  Despite being relatively more active as a pianist, by no means was she an underachiever in the compositional realm.  She signed and negotiated a contract with the German publishing firm Peters. Another German publishing firm – Breitkopf and Härtel – published her entire body of work.   John Field’s recommendation letter addressed to the firm is well documented.  She has been the subject of many recommendation letters by distinguished musicians of the day.  The majority of her compositions were written between 1815 and 1820.  They include etudes, mazurkas, polonaises, nocturnes, and songs.  These genres are immediately recognizable as the ones, in which Chopin later excelled.  Among Szymanowska’s output, her Vingt Exercises et Preludes are widely acknowledged as her most successful piano compositions and thus provide the modern pianist with a glimpse of technical capabilities and her musical language.  Polish pianist Sławomir Dobrzański (MGBH), author of the book Maria Szymanowska, Pianist and Composer, dedicated an entire chapter recounting the similarities between Chopin and Szymanowska’s works in terms of keys, figurations, and musical idioms. Although Chopin, without a doubt, pushed the boundaries of technique and pianism further, Szymanowska can be regarded as a pioneer who first composed etudes in a musical style, which can be performed as concert pieces.  Robert Schumann (OBM) once referred to her in Music and Musicians: Essays and Criticisms as “the feminine [John] Field” and commented that her compositions have “much in them that was new and extraordinary,” a testament that she was indeed an innovator.

 

As a concert artist, she travelled extensively throughout Western Europe and later settled in Russia.  There are numerous reviews of her performances, and a review published in the Kiev press described her as a “genuine virtuoso pianist.” However, not only was she a virtuoso, the Dresden review reported that “she possesses a magnificently strong touch on her instrument, combined with delicacy and much expression.”  Another review, which appeared in Leipzig in 1824, noted that “skill and musical spirit are equally strong in her.”  With her busy traveling schedule and performances all over Europe, Szymanowska became one of the first Polish pianists to reach audiences outside of her native country, which is an achievement in itself, especially when considering the confinements of travel in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  As a successful female performing artist, she was one of the first in the field.  She appealed to the audience of the day with her feminine grace, as recounted in the Weimar Literary Newspaper in 1823, “she gains insight into the spirit of a musical composition with a subtle female delicacy of feeling.”  The London Courier review of 1824 described her playing that possessed “grace and spontaneous charm…the biggest attributes of the female sex.”  Through these reviews, it is apparent that her playing, somewhat different amongst the leading male pianists of the time, brought about a breath of fresh air to audiences and critics, which was much appreciated.  At her recital in Poznań in 1823, she performed her own composition Caprice sur la Romance de Joconde by memory and stunned her audience with yet another pioneering feat.   Aside from solo concerts, she performed the Concerto for Two Pianos by Dussek (OBM), with Hummel (OBM), the leading piano virtuoso of the day, demonstrating her possession of comparable pianistic abilities.

 

In 1820, an important event occurred in her life.  Szymanowska divorced from her husband and took up the role as the sole breadwinner of the family through her concerts and compositions.  For a woman to divorce her husband at that time was  groundbreaking as far as gender roles are concerned. A woman possessing a flourishing career was almost unheard at the time, let alone a divorced woman retaining her married name.  Moreover, she was battling through a new frontier as a concert artist since the concept of a public concert was just beginning to be developed.   As a divorcée in the 19th century, Szymanowska made a bold move and immigrated to Russia with her three children, establishing a salon, which became a musical center at St. Petersburg, welcoming both local and visiting artists.

 

The story of Maria Szymanowska deserves far more attention than it is currently receiving.  Prior to the 1980s, her name had fallen into oblivion in the English-speaking world due to extremely limited sources and texts in English.  Until this time, information about Szymanowska was mostly documented in Polish and Russian texts.  Only since the 2000s had two books had been published by Anne Kijas (MGBH) and Sławomir Dobrzański respectively.  In 2013, Dobrzański has also released in Poland a CD album of her complete piano works.  Most of her works are available for printing at www.imslp.org

 

Szymanowska’s role in history demands further investigation because her influence in the realms of music and gender roles are threefold.  She was at the forefront of groundbreaking piano performance practices, before Franz Liszt changed the piano solo recital forever and her concert played by memory was certainly a novelty at the time.  Her compositions planted the seed of the beginning of Romanticism and her etudes played a part in propelling the advance of piano technique.  Lastly, she transcended traditional gender roles and social class divisions by appropriately utilizing her musical talents and became one of the first independent career women in classical music history. Szymanowska died suddenly at the age of 42 from cholera in Russia.  If it were not for this premature death, there may have been further pioneering and influential acts by this courageous and ambitious Polish musician.

 

REFERENCES:

 

  1. Azoury, P. H. Chopin through his contemporaries: friends, lovers and rivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. Print.

 

  1. Dobrzanski, Slawomir. “Maria Szymanowska and the Evolution of Professional Pianism.” Chopin Foundation of the United States. N.p., n.d. Web.

 

  1. Dobrzański, Sławomir, Maja Trochimczyk. ….Maria Szymanowska: pianist and composer. Los Angeles, CA: Polish Music Center at USC, 2006. Print.

 

  1. Grove, George. A dictionary of music and musicians. London: Macmillan, 1902. Print.

 

  1. Interactive, SUPERMEDIA. “Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831). Kobieta Europy.” Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831). A Woman of Europe – Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

 

  1. Sadie, Stanley, George Grove, and Alina Nowak-Romanowicz. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London: Macmillan, 1980. Print.

 

  1. Swartz, Anne. “Maria Szymanowska and the Salon music of the early nineteenth century.” The Polish Review 30.1 (1985): 43-58. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.

 

  1. TROCHIMCZYK, Maja. “Szymanowska and Chopin in Paris .” Chopin with Cherries. N.p., 12 Nov. 2011. Web.