JOLLY JINKS WITH FLORENCE PRICE
Twenty Years Down the Road, a Great Composer Revisits an Early Work and Asks, “What’s in a Name?”
There aren’t many students of compositional process these days, but those who still appreciate the wonders that can come to light when we poke around in the composers’ workshop know that it’s always fascinating when composers return to a previously completed work after a period away from it. Among canonical composers, the best-known examples of what can happen are Beethoven’s Op. 130 String Quartet and Große Fuge for string quartet (Op. 133), the two versions of Felix Mendelssohn’s A-major (“Italian”) Symphony, and the two versions of Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (Op. 120). Scholars have devoted significant time and energy to studying these works, their respective manuscripts, and using those musicological forensics — that it is a fair description of the work entailed, both because of its emphasis on painstakingly reconstructed chronology documented in physical and circumstantial evidence — and as a result have come up with important insights into the composers’ aesthetics, musical priorities, and interactions with their changing publics of performers and listeners.
And it’s time we start doing the same with Florence Price.
One obvious case — not the subject of this post, but the best-known example in her oeuvre so far — is that of the Fourth (B-minor) Fantasie nègre. In 1932, under the pseudonym “Out of the Crucible,” Price submitted the first surviving complete version of that important work to the Rodman Wanamaker Contest in Musical Composition for Composers of the Negro Race. It it included a dreamy and rhapsodic B section in F-sharp major that melds elements of the main theme into a conspicuously Romantic texture reminiscent of, perhaps, Chopin or Robert or Clara Schumann. Dr. Samantha Ege recorded this early version of the Fantasie, and you can here that beautiful B section here (it’s also included as an appendix in my 2020 G. Schirmer edition of the work):
That 1932 version of the B-minor Fantasie nègre tied for Honorable Mention with a composition by Hugo Bornn (1902–1966) — a public success that might have led many composers to set the work aside as “finished” and move on to other things. But Florence Price was not finished — and five years later, on 15 June 1937, pianist Marion Hall [MacFadyen] (1910–2012), who would become a longtime member of the faculty at Indiana University, performed a significantly overhauled version of the B-minor Fantasie nègre that replaced the original conspicuously classical B section with a completely different section — now derived from the so-called “classic female blues” style familiar from the music of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and others of that generation. It’s a striking and significant rethinking of the work — a rejection of the previously successful “classical” version in favor of one that overtly acknowledged the Black vernacular idioms of celebrated Black women. This version, representing Price’s latest thoughts on her prize-winning composition, was obviously the one that was foregrounded in my Schirmer edition of the work, and in the same year of that volume’s publication (2020) pianist Lara Downes began championing it. You can hear Lara’s deliciously bluesy rendition of this middle section here in this livestream video (also recorded in her 2020 series of studio recordings titled Florence Price: Piano Discoveries):
But the B-minor Fantasie nègre is just one of several examples of Price reconsidering and rethinking her work — and the other day I was reminded of another one that, to my knowledge, has the greatest chronological span of any of these. This occurs with a piece that she wrote in 1928 and returned to ca. 1950: the Scherzo in G Major. In its original form, which I edited and published with Schirmer in 2020, this is a short but joyously playful piece of remarkable wit. She titled it Scherzo (It., “jest,” “joke,” or “game”) and evidently sent it to a publisher. I don’t know that it was actually published. But in the last years of her life Price returned to the Scherzo and wrote it out anew. You can tell the difference in years by the differences in her handwriting: the earlier manuscript is in the fine, easy script typical of her manuscripts from the late 1920s and early 1930s, while the later one is in the very heavy, blocky script that we find in her musical autographs written after about 1950:
Florence Price: Scherzo in G (University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, shelfmark MC 988b Box 4B folder 13) and Jolly Jinks (University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, shelfmark MC 988b Box 6B folder 39)
There are other factors that confirm the chronological distance between these two autographs — most obviously, the fact that the later one includes beneath Price’s name her address at 700 E. Oakwood. Price moved there in the Spring of 1941. The same address is penciled in, in the same way, on the first page of the autograph of her little-known choral work Weathers, the first page of which is dated 13 January 1950 — although the script in Weathers is still not as heavy and blocky as that in Jolly Jinks, suggesting that the latter may date from later in the chronological continuum of her handwriting’s changes over time:
Florence Price, autograph of Weathers (University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, shelfmark MC 988a Box 15, folder 3)
Those chronological considerations, though, are just keys — keys that unlock the doors that, when opened, tell us much about Florence Price’s creative imagination and how it changed over time. The Scherzo is a wide-ranging episodic celebration of pianistic wit, rollicking and humorously digressive. By contrast, Jolly Jinks — the same piece composed two decades or more later — is shorter than the 1928 Scherzo, tighter: it cuts out most of the piece’s midsection, introduces a literal da capo rather than a varied repeat of the main theme, and on the whole produces a more get-to-the-point version of the same idea.
That’s not so different, is it, from the considerable shortening and tightening that happened when Price returned to the Fourth Fantasie nègre five years after it won the 1932 Wanamaker prize? Both versions of both pieces are great and offer no fault to be found — or rather, no fault for us to find. But Price herself did later on find fault with those wonderful early versions — and if we consider what she evidently deemed worthy of keeping, what she deleted, and the effects of her revisions and deletions we can gain valuable insight into her own musical values, now noticing things that we might otherwise have taken for granted.
Which takes me to the final point: what’s in a name? Scherzo is a traditional musical title — in many ways a genre in its own right, telling performers and listeners that humor, jest, and wit are what the piece at hand is about. When Price wrote the Scherzo on 24 May 1928, she was newly settled in Chicago and eager to establish herself as a Black classical composer whose formidable imagination was worthy of alignment with classical composers who used that old Italian term for humorous or jocular piece: she was positioning herself in tradition. But by the early 1950s that had long since been accomplished — or perhaps Price, successful in so many ways by that point, simply no longer saw any need to assert her position in tradition. In that new context, the earlier, tradition-bound title Scherzo no longer worked for her, and so she replaced it with the less pretentious, more direct vernacular title that delivered the same message about the music at hand: Scherzo became Jolly Jinks.
Now, having gained a glimpse into the workshop of Florence Price’s musical imagination opened, listen to the Scherzo — and as you do so, try to appreciate not only the tighter, almost more austere character of Price’s musical imagination in those later years as you take in and revel in the exuberant, rambunctious wit of what she produced in that heady rush of musical creation that immediately followed her move to Chicago. This performance — part of a wonderfully organized set of Price’s recently published piano pieces — is given by Dr. Kevin Wayne Bumpers:
The four works (or versions?) discussed here are only four (or two?) out of many that we can compare in order to understand better how Florence Price composed and, more importantly, something of why she composed. Studies of the compositional processes of dead White European men have long since shown the value of such inquiries. I hope that sometime soon we can start applying the same (or similar) disciplines to Price’s musical imagination — that we can stop assuming that those canonical composers are more worthy of this sort of study than she is, that her musical imagination is somehow simpler, separate, “different” in ways that make it okay, in her case, for us to simply find a version, any version, and talk about it as if her creative imagination was somehow static, unchanging. For I believe that the changes that her works underwent over the years show just the opposite. They help us to understand, up close and personal, what a dynamic, ever-evolving force her imagination was.
Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on January 7, 2023.