Knowledge Series returns with presentation on composer Florence B. Price

Source: The Knowledge Series

The Big Canoe Knowledge Series returns after a two-year absence with Big Canoe resident Calvert Johnson kicking off the Expert Summer Series of 2023 in the Canoe Lodge at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 17.

Johnson first encountered the compositions of Florence Beatrice Price when the Students for Black Awareness at Agnes Scott College asked him to play works by Black women at their annual convocation at the college. A search for Black women composers who had written works for the organ led to his finding the organ works of Price at the Special Collections section of the university library at the University of Arkansas in her childhood home state. Subsequently, he received permission from the family to edit and publish and record all the organ music. This recording, Chicago Renaissance Woman: Florence B. Price Organ Music (Calcante, 1994), was awarded the Third Annual Prize by the Society for American Music.

The first African-American woman composer to be recognized as a classical composer, Florence Beatrice Price (April 9, 1887-June 3, 1953) was trained in the European art music tradition. Aware of nationalism in the compositions of Dvorak and interested in the accomplishments of African-Americans, she was inspired to incorporate style elements of African and African-American music into her own symphonies, art songs and arrangements of Spirituals, chamber music, and pieces for organ and piano.

Price was born into an upper-middle-class family in Little Rock, where her father was a dentist and her mother an entrepreneur. She was educated at New England Conservatory where she majored in organ and piano pedagogy. She taught for a few years in Arkansas and Atlanta, then married a lawyer. After racial hate crimes in Little Rock, her family migrated to Chicago, where she made her career.

National attention turned to Price when her first symphony was premiered by the Chicago Symphony at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Recently, her music has gained a great deal of attention. The Grammy was awarded to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Deutsche Grammophon recording of her First and Third Symphonies in spring 2022.

Of particular interest is Price’s assimilation of African-American musical elements and style characteristics with European forms and compositional techniques. In this, she is a composer of her time, following in the path of nationalist composers like Dvorak or Sibelius. While her early works follow European models, as might be expected of her classical training, her works from the 1920s incorporate Spiritual melodies and pentatonic tunes constructed in a similar fashion with syncopated rhythms, jazz-inspired harmonies, and even call-and-response structures.

Expert Series programs are free, and open to the community without prior registration. For further information, contact Cal Johnson, 404-373-0748.

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