On the Recovery of Florence Price’s Fantasie Nègre №2

(This post is adapted from a blog post on my website devoted to my work as musical advocate for Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, and other classical composers and works that today’s world needs to hear and listen to.)

Exactly two years ago today, I completed my first edition of a previously unpublished piano masterpiece by Florence B. Price (1887–1953). I had completed my first research trip to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where many of the extant Price papers are housed, just about a week earlier — gently but firmly encouraged to do so by Lara Downes, who in early March had stunned music-loving audiences in the Austin area with two solid days of activities that culminated in a recital featuring a riveting performance of Price’s First (E-minor) Fantasie nègre.

I had begun my own inventory of Price’s unpublished works back in 2011. The impetus, back then, was partly dweebish delight in tracking sources and partly musicianly awareness that anyone who could create music as wonderful as the few pieces I already knew by Price had to be a good composer. Surely the many hundreds of still-unpublished manuscripts offered other still-unknown works that the world ought to know. Like many others in the slowly but surely broadening community of Price scholars back in 2011, I knew that Florence Price’s musical voice was one that today’s world needs — a voice that had been marginalized in virtually every narrative of music’s history not by accident, but through active erasure motivated by racism and sexism of a sort that has no place in any community of people of good will.

But back then, in 2011 and even 2018, I didn’t know the half of it. When I finally took the plunge into the world of Florence Price’s manuscripts that had been hiding in plain sight, and been extensively discussed but scarcely examined since their arrival at the University of Arkansas Libraries, I was stunned, dazzled, amazed.

I had expected to find good pieces and perhaps a few great ones, most or maybe all cut from the same cloth as the few pieces that I had already encountered. What I found instead was a corpus of works whose stylistic and expressive range was nothing short of extraordinary. As I remarked in an e-mail to Lara not long afterward, the sheer staying power of Price’s musical imagination was, in my opinion, unparalleled among other twentieth-century composers.

I edited one piece after another that summer, then another, then another and another. And while those pieces clearly flowed from a common source, each was so different from the others that — well, I couldn’t stop. I had to see what came next. All the expectations and limitations that Price’s own world had imposed on her and all the aggressions of later historians who had marginalized her notwithstanding, Florence Price’s musical voice could not and would not be stilled once it began to be committed to print for modern musicians. I had to hear more. And Lara, both tireless and courageous in her pursuits of social justice and musical greatness, eagerly played through all seventy-something pieces that I have edited so far. As of now she has recorded eighteen (!), most in her series of Florence Price Piano Discoveries. More recordings are to appear next year, as well as another forty-something editions.

That brings me to my final observation. Last week my friend Doug Schadle, one of the leading voices in the ongoing Florence Price renaissance, pointed out in the tag line to a superb and superbly thoughtful blog post titled “What I Wish Everyone Knew about Florence Price: Words Matter“ that “how we talk about Florence Price matters. A lot.” Those words could not be truer. Doug’s post raised crucial issues concerning not only Price’s biography, the contexts (racial and other) for her music and her reception, but also for her portrayals in modern discourse. As he points out, “consistent problems in how people talk about” Price “perpetuate underlying racism and sexism.” Summarizing: when we buy into White-savior narratives about how a “forgotten” woman composer was “rediscovered,” first by a young couple renovating a house and then by a major publisher (G. Schirmer) who in 2018 acquired the exclusive international rights to her complete catalog, we force Florence B. Price back into the racist and sexist constraints that her own world tried to impose on her — except that even classist, elitist, and racist circles in that world recognized Price’s significance, and continued to do so for more than a decade after her death.

Price resisted that suppression successfully. So how perverse is it for today’s world to take credit for the renown that she achieved in her own day?

The point is that Prof. Schadle is right. And as I pointed out in a presentation to a session at the national meeting of American Musicological Society last November, there is another gigantic problem with “how we talk [today] about Florence B. Price” — namely, that almost all of the discourse about her centers on the same small body of music that has been available and, in many circles, familiar for many years. Moreover, the works that figure most prominently when Price’s “rediscovery” is discussed today are works in the “large” genres (symphonies, concertos) that are the genres of the “big boys” of the Dead White European Male club in concert music — genres that constitute just a small portion of Price’s sizable output. Discussing those works may feel good, may make us feel that we’re “rediscovering” a “forgotten composer.” But if we decline to consider the smaller works that make up the bulk of her output — solo-piano works, songs, smaller choral compositions — we choose to suppress the voice of Price the composer as she self-identified: we choose to suppress her voice. If we do that, we do not just insist that the quantitative majority of her output is essentially irrelevant or insignificant. We also actively turn a deaf ear to most of her musical output and insist that she matters only when she agrees to play on the same field where we unquestioningly and uncritically welcome Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn (Felix, not Fanny), Schumann (Robert, not Clara), maybe a few others. The racism, sexism, and classism are palpable. We neither need nor want to perpetuate them. But when we celebrate her only on their terms, that’s precisely what we do.

Of course Price’s “large” works deserve to be celebrated. But if we really want to hear the musical voice of Florence Price that has been suppressed through racism and sexism for more than a century, we have to hear that voice holistically — and in order to do that we have to cast the net farther, and deeper, than those relatively few outlying works that we’ve always known in genres famously associated with Dead White (mostly) European Males. We also have to talk about more than Price’s life, more than her background and her reception, more than the racism and sexism that have suppressed and marginalized her musical voice. We have to talk about her music. Because, as Doug teaches, words matter. Price self-identified as a composer, and if not for her music we would not be talking about her at all. So let’s talk about her music — all of it.

Florence Price’s musical voice is ready to be heard, and it is needed now arguably more than ever. Let’s get on with it.

FULL CIRCLE: the composition by Price that I first finished editing on this day in 2018 has been recorded by Lara — the recording, in a wonderful coincidence, was released as a single two years to the day after my first day of work in Fayetteville — and its world-premiere edition is at press. It is the Fantasie nègre №2 in G minor, which Price composed eighty-eight years ago, in March of 1932. Those two events — Lara’s superbly poetic recording, which will be a featured track on her forthcoming album Some of These Days, and my edition, which is at press — will bring to fruition a process of letting Florence Price speak that Lara and I took up anew, left over from her own world, two years ago.

This is an extraordinary piece, and I hope you’ll enjoy it. Please study it and — most importantly — teach it to the generations of today’s younger musicians who expect all of us to introduce them to the beauties and glories of this wonderful art of music. That’s where Florence Price, and it, belong.

(For more updates on my ongoing Florence Price and Margaret Bonds projects, see my blog, here.)

— John Michael Cooper

March 22, 2018

The first page of one of the autographs for Price’s Second

A musicologist with a passion for social justice, bringing unheard music to life for performers and listeners, and teaching.

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