ANOTHER FLORENCE PRICE PREMIERE

Maeve Brophy and one of the Seven Descriptive Pieces for Piano Solo (1927–28)

A month or so ago I published the premiere edition of Florence B. Price’s Seven Descriptive Pieces for piano solo.[1] This edition was number fifty-nine (59) in my series of source-critical editions of compositions by Price that, despite the considerable attention being devoted to Price in recent musical and musicological discourse, have lain untouched — neither consulted, nor edited, nor performed, nor studied, nor taught — in the Special Collections division of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, for the last decade. The paradox of its obscurity, and the pity of its having remained ignored even by those for whom Price is a serious professional and musical interest, is underscored by the fact that those same parties[2] exclaim about a young (White) couple’s discovery of a trove of Price manuscripts in the house on the south side of Chicago where Price worked during much of the last two decades of her creative life: why, one wonders, has more not been done to make this music usable to modern performers and, through performance, to listeners? And in this case it is all the more remarkable because the particular piece that Maeve will perform, titled Pensive Mood, was composed on March 3, 1928 and thus stands as the very first securely dateable composition for piano solo from after her move to Chicago — the city whose two chapters of the National Association for Negro Musicians and thriving musical culture would, evidently, lead Price finally to self-identify as a composer, the vocation that would become central to her contemporary and posthumous identity.

A quick note about the piece and its context: as mentioned above, “Pensive Mood”[3] is published along with six other descriptive pieces. (“Descriptive” meaning that each has a title that refers to something extramusical and uses music to suggest or evoke the image of that title in the minds and imaginations of performers and listeners: “Little Truants,” “Hard Problems,” etc.) The first six pieces in the volume were written in October, 1927 — just before the racist violence and Black Codes of the Jim Crow south made Price and her family decide to abandon the world that had been home to herself and her parents in favor of a safer, better life in the North. And those first months in Chicago were of course difficult ones — not only because of the substantial change in cultural environment, but also because Price’s then-husband, Thomas, a lawyer, had difficulty finding work and she had to re-establish herself as a piano teacher in a new city where competition was intense. The “pensive” (“Sorrowfully thoughtful; gloomy, sad, melancholy”; OED) mood that could easily be produced by those biographical circumstances is readily evident in Price’s music: it begins haltingly, moves through a brief, unsettled, chromatic passage, turns to a melancholy melody, and generally seems to reflect the thoughts and emotions of one who is trying valiantly to find a way forward; indeed, a central Allegro with galloping repeated notes in the right hand seems devoted to such determination. The ending is cautiously positive, but to my own ear not convincingly so.

Of all the Seven Descriptive Pieces Price penned at this crossroads in her personal and professional life, this one has the greatest emotional range. Having edited it from the manuscript, I cannot wait to hear what Maeve makes of it. I hope you’ll attend.

[1] The title Seven Descriptive Pieces is editorial, not authorial. Price clearly composed the first six pieces as a set, and “Pensive Mood” is contained in the same folder in the Florence Price Papers of the University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville. The title was created to reflect the works’ current status and chronological proximity, but shouldn’t be ascribed to Price herself.[2] Maeve gives the title as “ A Pensive Mood,” but Price did not provide the initial article.

[1] The title Seven Descriptive Pieces is editorial, not authorial. Price clearly composed the first six pieces as a set, and “Pensive Mood” is contained in the same folder in the Florence Price Papers of the University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville. The title was created to reflect the works’ current status and chronological proximity, but shouldn’t be ascribed to Price herself.

[2] [Added 15 February 2021:] NB “Parties,” not “scholars.” Yesterday (14 February) I returned to Twitter to find myself at the center of a Twitter war in which one of today’s leading Price scholars took offence that I had supposedly “critici[zed]” [this scholar] for ignored the music transmitted in the manuscripts found in the house to the south of Chicago. Others joined in, with another scholar accusing me of having been dismissive toward younger Price scholars of color, especially women. (I will not name these scholars because I stand criticized for supposedly criticizing them — in Twitter, no less. I am old enough to believe that it’s a stretch to use a blog for scholarly discourse — and I certainly will not use the Twitterverse for that purpose.)

Please note: these accusations are baseless. The scholars who took offense are not the “parties” referred to in the offending sentence; quite the contrary. They are, in fact, the ones who are doing the hard work of coming to terms with Price’s legacy more holistically than has been possible while others have ignored all but the tiny body of about 10–12 works that I had to content myself with as publicly available music by Price for the first five and a half decades of my life. The offending remark was not directed toward any scholar. It was, rather, directed at a popular press and any other “parties” that tokenize Price, exceptionalize her, and displays no interest in the sizeable body of works that collectively document her creative life more fully than has been possible until recently. Those parties indeed “ignore” the musical fruits of her prodigious musical imagination and the fuller picture of her life that her many still-marginalized works collectively document.

To the scholars who felt that my criticism was directed at them: it was not, and I apologize for having been unclear.

[3] Maeve gives the title as “ A Pensive Mood,” but Price did not provide the initial article.

Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on February 13, 2021.

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