The work of the celebrated composer was ignored after her death. That oversight is being corrected

Books, arts and culture
Prospero

IN THE ARTS, “Lost and Found” stories often trace a cheerful path, as changing tastes and values rescue once-obscure figures from undeserved oblivion. The afterlife of Florence Price (sitting far right), an American composer, however, belongs to a less consoling genre: “Found and Lost and Found Again”.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887, by 1933 Price had become the first African-American woman to have a composition—her “Symphony No. 1 in E Minor”—performed by a major American orchestra. She wrote around 300 pieces, from songs to concertos, won several awards and stood at the pinnacle of a thriving African-American classical-music scene in mid-century Chicago. Marian Anderson, a star contralto and the first black singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, championed Price’s settings of spirituals. As first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt lauded her. In 1951, two years before she died, the leading British conductor Sir John Barbirolli commissioned a concert overture from Price.

Yet many of her compositions disappeared after her death and her name began to fade. For decades, Price’s odds-defying achievements seemed to fit a familiar pattern of African-American cultural breakthroughs that were forbidden to leave a lasting legacy. Then, in a fairy-tale twist in 2009, piles of her manuscripts came to light in the now-derelict house in St Anne, Illinois, where she had spent her summers. This chance trove prompted a re-evaluation of her work, an uptick in live performances and belated posthumous acclaim. The fresh fame has led to an International Florence Price Festival and a clutch of new recordings.

Samantha Ege, a pianist and musicologist at Oxford University whose research has helped bring Price’s career back into focus, recently recorded the composer’s four “Fantasies Nègres” for solo piano. Ms Ege, who had to reconstruct one of the Fantasies from fragmentary manuscripts, says that the series “captures the fortitude of a composer who imagined space for herself in the classical realm while the entwined racism and sexism of her society deemed this improbable, even impossible, for a black woman”. She points to Price’s signature talent for fusing the styles and moods of African-American popular song with the forms of European art music, whether German Romanticism or French Impressionism.

Price’s music grew out of rural folk (and church) styles rather than the brasher tonalities of urban jazz; it is a captivating blend of the wistful, modal soundscape of spirituals with richly layered formal harmonies. It can sound more like Dvorak than Gershwin—but always with a subtle, bluesy, gently syncopated edge. She deepens her tonal colours and harmonic textures in ways that may equally bring Brahms or Rachmaninoff to mind, but, in Ms Ege’s words, never loses touch with “the idiomatic musical language of the enslaved”.

Price’s family—her father a dentist, her mother a music teacher—came from the African-American middle class able to flourish, within limits, in the segregated South. After successful studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she was advised to “pass” as Mexican, she returned to Little Rock as a pianist and teacher. Her southern life ended abruptly in 1927, when a lynching followed by white riots drove many black citizens north. In Chicago, she divorced her husband, a lawyer who had turned violent, and became a mainstay of an African-American classical milieu that included Margaret Bonds, a fellow composer. Frederick Stock, the German-born conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, championed Price’s prize-winning symphony as well as a concerto for orchestra. She found less favour with Serge Koussevitzky of the Boston Symphony. For years, the taste-making maestro repeatedly ignored Price’s polite requests for him to read her scores. “I should like to be judged on merit alone,” she pleaded, to no avail.

During this period a group of white composers, from Stravinsky and Ravel to Copland and Tippett, were happily plundering the rhythms and melodies of jazz, blues and spirituals in order to revitalise European traditions. The galvanising sounds of black America became a sort of exotic fairy-dust sprinkled over staid concert halls. Yet despite her high-profile advocates, a composer such as Price found it impossible to open most of those stoutly barred doors. True, her lush late-Romantic idiom would by then have sounded dated to the avant-garde. She was, though, no more a stylistic throwback in the 1930s and 1940s than the much-loved Samuel Barber, the elder Richard Strauss or even Rachmaninoff himself.

In 2017 Ms Ege could still lament that “in the widely accepted accounts of Western music history, Florence Beatrice Price simply does not exist”. Thanks to her own and others’ efforts, that invisibility has come to an end. Newcomers who listen to the “Fantasies Nègres” will not only find a gift that bears witness to (as Ms Ege puts it) “the plurality of human expression”, but one that creates enchantingly memorable music. In Price’s case, correcting past injustices feels not like a duty but pure pleasure.

“Fantasie Nègre: the Piano Music of Florence Price” is available to download from Lontano Records. It will be released on CD on April 13th