FLORENCE PRICE AND THE ART OF MUSICAL STORYTELLING
Snapshots for Piano Solo
It’s no secret that the bulk of Florence Price’s output consists of works for solo piano. These compositions emerge contemporaneously with her earliest surviving song, and her final works were for piano. Quantitatively, they far outnumber her works in any other genre. And of course she taught piano for at least forty (40!) years.
So it’s no surprise that some of the most important, and in some ways surprising, works that have come to light in the last decade are works for piano solo. The piano, apparently even more than the organ, was Price’s instrument of choice. It was the vehicle to which her unstoppable imagination turned first, the primary creative channel for her compulsion to compose just about anything — ranging from quotidian experiences (“Egg Beater,” “Popcorn,” “My Neighbor’s Radio”), through personalities and social archetypes (Thumbnail Sketches in the Day of a Washerwoman, Three Miniature Portraits of Uncle Ned), to abstract ideas (the four Fantasies nègres, the Sonata in E Minor, and more).
Here’s an aspect of Price’s late piano oeuvre that might surprise the many folks who know her only through her orchestral music: the piano works are almost unfailingly programmatic or characteristic, and often narrative. To put it differently: for all their evocativeness and brilliance, the symphonies and concertos are what musicians of Price’s generation described as “absolute” music, while the piano works set out to depict extramusical events using tones and descriptive titles alone.  “Program music”has the added compositional challenge (or, from the composer’s perspective, opportunity) that by creating an ordered series of programmatic works the composer can create a musical narrative, tell a story, or suggest a sequence of extramusical events that have a beginning, middle, and end in the programmatic as well as musical sense.
It’s a gold mine for a rich and post-Romantic musical mind such as Price’s. She mined that gold in five programmatic suites for piano solo: Scenes in Tin Can Alley (ca. 1937; I’ll blog about this masterpiece separately later on), Thumbnail Sketches of a Day in the Life of a Washerwoman (1938–40); Village Scenes (1942); Three Miniature Portraits of Uncle Ned (1948); and finally Snapshots (1949–52).
Let’s take Snapshots as an example of how the previously unknown Florence Price musically performs the art of storytelling. The suite consists of three movements: “Lake Mirror,” “Moon behind a Cloud,” and “Flame.” Each movement could stand as an independent musical composition, and each has its own descriptive title — a title clear enough to conjure up an image (or images) in the mind of performers and listeners, but general enough for each performer’s and each listener’s mental image to be unique to her- or himself, authentic and personal. What the words mean is a little different for each of us, but we all understand the music.
Price’s music in Snapshots helps to bring us all together in those individualized and personally authentic understandings: the slow tempos and clear textures of “Lake Mirror” and “Moon behind a Cloud” probably elicit similar responses from most performers and listeners, while the incessant energy and unapologetically dissonant harmonies of “Flame” would be difficult to respond to the same way as those previous movements — and likewise are probably unsettling or disturbing to most performers and listeners.
What’s more, this is a clearly ordered set of musical images — and this is where the storytelling comes in. By arranging “Lake Mirror,” “Moon behind a Cloud,” and “Flame” in a specific order, Price in a very general sense, guides our imaginations, telling us what to envision and when to envision it but not providing further details about what the music represents. It’s an old technique, one that dates back to at least the Renaissance and is most famously employed in Beethoven’s Sixth (“Pastoral”) Symphony (1806–1808), Robert Schumann’s Carnaval (1834–35), and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1874).
What is the story of Snapshots? It’s a little different for each of us. Some performers and listeners might, for example, construe it as a series of stops or moments in an outing or a camping trip; others might construe it as a series of reflections on different kinds of light, ranging from the reflected light on the surface of a tranquil lake through the slightly obscured moonlight that breaks the darkness of night (with all the threats and all the beauties therein), through the heat and destruction born of the light of fire. Or perhaps the movements are allegorical, intended to signify something deeper. This is my own reading: Price actually groups “Lake Mirror” and “Moon behind a Cloud” together musically by alluding to “Lake Mirror” in the middle of “Moon behind a Cloud” and thus tying them together in their cool and generally placid air. (It also directly quotes another recently published masterpiece, Placid Lake.) But “Flame” casts aside any suggestion of coolness and tranquility, replacing them with pure energy and destructive, all-consuming heat. Viewed this way, the narrative progression of Snapshots would be a powerful allegory and social commentary for African Americans (including Price) who knew too well the experience of having a peaceful existence destroyed by the flame of racist hatred; one need look no further than the Greenwood Massacre, the Rosewood Massacre, or countless horrific lynchings in which African Americans were burned and mutilated as well as hanged — traumas that were all parts of Florence Price’s world (and are still part of our own, especially for African Americans). This sort of understanding seems likely to me because most of Price’s programmatic narratives end on affirmative note, but there is nothing affirmative about what happens in Snapshots: it ends with dissonance and destruction. Even the final C-sharp major chords are sullied by the dissonant nonharmonic tones D sharp and D.
We’ll never know any specific story behind Snapshots — and indeed, for Price, the point of the piece was probably to enjoin performers and listeners to use their own imaginations and experiences to figure out what her music meant to them, uniquely, individually, authentically. What we do know is that Snapshots and her other programmatic piano suites are important because they show us something about Price the composer, about her musical imagination, that is not evident in the works that have fueled the Florence Price revival to date.
Listen to this performance by my longtime friend and pianist Robin Arrigo. The YouTube video provides images (because it’s YouTube, after all), but don’t feel obligated to follow them. Price was writing for you. So let your own mind and imagination tell you what her music means to you, authentically.
“Lake Mirror”: beginning
“Moon behind a Cloud”: 3'05"
 The dichotomy between “absolute” and “programmatic/program” or “characteristic” music is not as clear-cut as it might seem; in fact, the body of compositions that fall somewhere between the two categories or cohabitate in both is vast. But Price clearly considered her piano works with descriptive titles as programmatic or characteristic, so this blog post takes the term at face value.
 My personal favorite from the nineteenth century in this category of composition, though, is Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s masterpiece Das Jahr (The Year, 1840–41).
Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on August 18, 2020.