Few composers have experienced the kind of meteoric rediscovery that Florence Price has enjoyed in the last decade. Nearly forgotten after she died in 1953 because she was a woman and African-American, her works can be heard on some two dozen new recordings in just the past few years alone. In addition, G. Schirmer announced in November 2018 that it had acquired the international publishing rights to Price’s music, and the firm has published nearly six dozen works to date, with more on the way in 2021.
“That is the most sustained revival of public and scholarly interest in a composer since the mid-20th century rediscovered Mahler,” said Michael Cooper, professor of music at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. “And I think we’re looking at something that is more than a moment here. I think it has the potential to be a movement in the sense that the Bach revival became a movement in the early 19th century or the Mahler revival became a movement in the late 20th century.”
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which presented the premiere of Price’s Symphony No. 1 in conjunction with the World’s Fair of 1933, was scheduled to perform her 1932 orchestral suite, Ethiopia’s Shadow in America, in November, before coronavirus restrictions forced the orchestra to cancel its planned 2020-21 season. A group of Chicago Symphony musicians will perform Price’s Five American Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet as part of a CSO Sessions program premiering Feb. 25.
After spending the first part of her career in Little Rock, Ark., the composer left in the late 1920s for Chicago, fleeing rising racial violence in her native city and domestic abuse at the hands of her first husband. She went on to enjoy her greatest successes in the succeeding decades, filling out a lifetime catalog of compositions that includes four symphonies, three concertos and abundant chamber music and organ works.
As part of his ongoing musicological research, Cooper discovered the few works of Price that were known in the 1980s; since then he has been a fan. “She was clearly a serious composer to be reckoned with,” he said. In 2011, on “kind of a lark,” he began compiling a list of her works and working to find where some of the missing ones were housed. “Because someone who could produce music of that quality so consistently had to have produced many, many other works, and I knew that she had a long and incredibly productive career.”
A few years later, Cooper traveled to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where about 70 percent of her manuscripts are held, with the mission of editing some of the works and preparing them for publication. All composers have up and down days, and he expected to find pieces that were good, some that were very good and maybe a few that were excellent but also ones that were not exactly top drawer. “What I found instead was one piece after another that was just stunning in its originality, invention, tunefulness, harmonic richness and instrumentation — everything. Even though you could tell that they all flowed from a single stream, as it were, every work was so different form every other one that I was driven to keep editing.”
When G. Schirmer acquired the publishing rights to Price’s compositions, the firm learned that Cooper had already edited a group of her works, most in 2017-18, and approached him about publishing those editions and doing more. To date, 60 of his editions (all but one previously unpublished) have been released, starting in September 2019 with the debut edition of Price’s String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor (1935). In late December, he submitted a new edition of Price’s Seven Descriptive Pieces for Piano Solo, which will likely be published later this month. Ten more of his Price editions are slated for the spring.
Many of Price’s works remain unpublished, but Cooper said he has a lead on a cache of them, which he believes contains at least three major works. But he won’t be able to confirm what is there until the lifting of coronavirus restrictions makes travel possible. “They’re actually not hard to locate,” he said of Price’s manuscripts. “They’re kind of hiding in plain sight. It’s just that no one has actually looked for them.”
One work Cooper has not yet edited and G. Schirmer has not yet published is Five American Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet, so CSO musicians will be using an edition from another source. Price wrote her first string quartet in 1929, about 1½ years after moving to Chicago, and her second one came in 1935, but it went unpublished until Cooper’s edition. She didn’t return to the form until the 1940s, when she wrote Negro Folksongs for String Quartet, which consisted of Price’s takes on four spirituals and folk songs. It was performed in Chicago in 1946. Then in 1951 or slightly later, according to Cooper, she wrote what was first known as the String Quartet on Negro Themes, which consisted of adaptations of three songs, including "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." She then added two more songs, including "Clementine," changing the name of the 20-minute work first to Five Folksongs in Counterpoint and then Five American Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet. Because of the similarity of their titles, the 1940s and ’50s works are sometime confused.
On the question of why Price created instrumental versions of well-known spirituals and folk songs for string quartet, Cooper conjectures that she would have been well versed in the history of the string quartet from her extensive studies at the New England Conservatory and elsewhere. One theme running through those discussions was what Cooper described as Goethe’s notion of the form as a “conversation among four equally intelligent gentlemen.” Because counterpoint is all about the equitable interaction of all the parts, the string quartet became a natural vehicle for these undertakings. “And that’s how all of these songs are written,” he said. “Every instrument participates as an equal partner in the conversation among the four.”
At the same time, a significant aspect of Price’s music was finding ways to integrate musical genres that were traditionally segregated from one another — in this case, African-American folk songs and the string quartet. There was little or no precedent or model for such a fusion, so it provided her with a compositional challenge — one she obviously relished — to treat these songs in a contrapuntal fashion and explore the musical potential of these time-honored classics.
“That is typical of Price,” Cooper said. “In a world that worked so hard to dehumanize her and lessen her as a woman and an African-American, she was determined, not in an overcompensating way but just being honest, to show that she could do this. Almost every composition I know by her, and there are still many that we haven’t seen, appears to be something where she has an unstoppable musical imagination that is spurred by a challenge, something like what we described here, taking two things that are never ever put together and finding a way to make sense together, to integrate them.”