CELEBRATING A FLORENCE PRICE COMPOSITION THAT DIDN’T WIN
Lady Jess and Ric’key Pageot Record the Recently Published Andante con espressione for Violin and Piano
The Summer of 1926 was important in the life of Florence B. Price in two ways. It was the summer in which she began study at Chicago Musical College and the summer in which — on July 30, during the Chicago meeting of the National Association of Negro Musicians — Rodman Wanamaker, owner of the well-known Wanamaker’s department store chain and founder of other competitions in the arts, established the Rodman Wanamaker Contest in Musical Composition for Composers of the Negro Race. In 1932, Price famously won first prize in this competition in two categories: “Piano Compositions” (Class II) and “Symphonic Work” (Class IV). Her Piano Sonata in E Minor won the former; her Symphony in E Minor, the latter. The first version of the Fantasie nègre №4 (recently recorded by Samantha Ege) also won Honorable Mention in Class II. As Rae Linda Brown pointed out in her 2020 biography of the composer, the tone poem Ethiopia’s Shadow in America was also entered in Class IV, but did not win or place.
But those were not Price’s only Wanamaker submissions: in 1931–32, she submitted a beautiful and moving song titled Brown Arms (To Mother) that remains unpublished and will receive its world-premiere performance this Saturday (Feb. 5) at a two-day Florence Price Celebration jointly hosted by the University of the Incarnate Word and Texas Lutheran University; and probably in 1929–30, she submitted a recently published composition for violin and piano titled Andante con espressione.
That second work is the subject of this post. It’s one of four currently available compositions that Price wrote for violin and piano (the others are the Elfentanz, The Deserted Garden and the two Fantasies for violin and piano; these last three recently recorded by Randall Goosby on his beautiful album Roots). The Andante con espressione occupies a special position among the four, though, in that it’s evidently the only one that Price submitted for public adjudication in a competition. There’s a second manuscript in another hand, but the autograph that she submitted to the competition is dated June 26, 1929.
I’ll say a few more words all this in a moment. For now — and my excitement about this is what actually prompted this post — you need to know that Andante con espressione has finally, ninety-three (93!) years after its composition, been professionally recorded. The recording, issued on the Steinway & Sons label, is by violinist Lady Jess, with Steinway & Sons artist Ric’key Pageot on piano. It’s only 4’50” long, but wonderfully rich, intimate, and beautiful. Take 4’50” and listen to it now:
(Pretending I’m a critic for just a moment here: I absolutely adore Lady Jess’s relaxed, sensitive handling of those beautiful violin lines in the A sections, and Ric’key Pageot makes genuine magic with his treatment of the piano part, particularly in the way he shapes the ostinato in response to things that Lady Jess does. The individuals’ playing and their interaction with one another bring out the poetry in this unassuming musical gem.)
How do we know that Price submitted the Andante con espressione to this competition? One clue is that the autograph is actually a holograph — i.e., it does not include Price’s name or signature, even though it’s in her handwriting. That’s suggestive but not conclusive (there are plenty of other Price compositions that don’t include her name or signature, and for that matter plenty that don’t even include a title!). A stronger clue is that both this autograph and the manuscript copy in another hand include the blue crayon inscription “654A” in a foreign hand in the upper left-hand corner. This foreign hand appears to be the same as the one that numbered the Fantasie nègre №4 and the other works that Price submitted to the Wanamaker Competition. That means that unless the same clerical staff who processed the works that are demonstrably for the Wanamaker Competition also worked for another contest, the Andante con espressione is also a Wanamaker piece.
As you’ve already heard, it’s a lovely piece — one whose A section presents a lyrical, gently arching violin melody and an accompaniment that suggest the influence of Black vernacular styles, an agitated central section more obviously consistent with Euro-American classical tradition, and a coda that combines aspects of both.
As is always the case with Price, there’s much more to this piece than meets the eye (or ear). If you want to learn more, you can check out my keynote address for the Price Celebration this weekend at 1:00 CT (here’s a link to register and get the Zoom link). I should note that this talk with include the posthumous premiere of the song that Price submitted to the Wanamaker Competition (but that, amazingly, did not win or place!), given by UIW Prof. of Music Orit Eylon with Prof. William Gokelman on piano, as well as a beautiful performance of the 1949 miracle-in-music Placid Lake given by Prof. Kevin Wayne Bumpers — all these pieces in their entirety.
The Celebration as a whole is a thing of beauty, by the way. It’s organized by Prof. Michele Aichele and reflects a vision for celebrating Florence Price that is itself noteworthy — including, in addition to two evening recitals, two concerts featuring newly recovered compositions of Florence Price:
• a composition masterclass by Guggenheim Fellow Nkeiru Okoye, composer of the opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom and numerous other works in a variety of genres;
• A poetry discussion with Andrea Vocab Sanderson, San Antonio Poet Laureate 2020–2023
• A student poetry reading;
• A presentation and vocal masterclass given by Dr. Minnita Daniel-Cox, performer-scholar and founder of the Paul Laurence Dunbar Music Archive;
• A vocal masterclass with performer-scholar Dr. Louise Toppin, whose sustained work in de-marginalizing African Diasporic composers has brought more Black composers’ music to the modern world than anyone would ever think possible for one individual; and
• a TLU student research symposium.
Many of us are housebound this weekend. Why not take the time to celebrate Florence Price with us?