The modern rediscovery of the little-known African-American composer Florence Price began in 2009, when a large number of her musical manuscripts came to light in a dilapidated, abandoned house in St. Anne, Illinois. On Saturday April 21st at 8pm, the Du Bois Orchestra will perform her Mississippi River Suite in the second of a three-part series at the University Lutheran Church in Cambridge commemorating the 150th anniversary of the birth of W.E.B. Du Bois. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto featuring the internationally acclaimed, Boston-based violinist Angelo Xiang Yu, and the finale from Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, “What Love Tells Me” will fill out the concert.
The Du Bois Orchestra at Harvard, founded in 2015, is a chamber orchestra with a mission to make music a means of overcoming social exclusion. Inspired by the namesake Harvard sociologist who combined music, sociology, and philosophy to fight for social equity, the orchestra devotes itself to historically neglected composers alongside well-known works of the classical tradition. The orchestra also educates and reaches out to youth and the underserved.
One of the most prolific, yet largely unrecognized composers in American music history, Florence Price had been a significant figure in the Chicago Renaissance, and corresponded with many of the leading black intelligentsia, including Du Bois and Langston Hughes, whose poetry she set to music.
A musical prodigy, she enrolled at the New England Conservatory at the age of 14 where she studied piano and organ. At her mother’s request, she identified as a native of Pueblo, Mexico to avoid discrimination. At the conservatory, she took composition from Frederick Converse and George Chadwick, members of the Boston Six or Second New England School who showed the influence of German romanticism.
In the beginning of the 20th century, American composers still labored under European musical traditions. In the Mississippi River Suite, Price combines the lush romantic European style with beautiful settings of traditional African-American spirituals such as “Go Down Moses,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” and “Deep River.” Price also makes use of aspects of African-American musical tradition such as call and response, pentatonicism, blues-like harmonies, and jazz rhythms.
After winning a composition competition in 1932, Price came to the attention of Frederick Stock, a German conductor who directed the Chicago Symphony. He gave Price’s First Symphony the following year, making Price the first African-American woman to have her work performed by a major orchestra.
However, her acclaim was relatively short-lived, and she never entered the standard orchestral canon, very likely due to her race and gender. In 1943, she wrote to Serge Koussevitzky to ask if he would consider playing one of her compositions: “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”. There are no records that her letter was answered.
With over 300 hundred compositions, Florence Price was more prolific than Bernstein, Copland, and Samuel Barber, but her name is left out of music history textbooks. No biography about her life and music has been published. Yet for decades, she contributed significantly to our American cultural heritage; her musical voice surely deserves to be heard.
From Belmont, and trained at Yale and Indiana, the author is conductor of the Du Bois Orchestra.
Du Bois Orchestra at Harvard Commemorates
150th anniversary of the birth of W.E.B. Du Bois
Saturday April 21st at 8pm
University Lutheran Church,
66 Winthrop Street in Cambridge.
Free, but reservations suggested HERE.