THE VIOLIN AS STORYTELLER
Florence Price’s Chamber Works for Violin and Piano
When Florence B. Price graduated from the New England Conservatory in 1906, she held diplomas in piano and organ — and indeed, she made her living mostly by teaching piano, and the piano and organ were the central instruments of her creative persona once she began composing in quantity ca. 1926.
But along the way she also developed an obvious love for another instrument: the violin. Her love for the violin, an instrument that channeled the inspirations of composers including J. S. Bach, H.I.F. Biber, Lili Boulanger, Beethoven, Brahms, Cécile Chaminade, Gabriel Fauré, Emilie Mayer, Felix Mendelssohn, Mozart, Clara Wieck Schumann, and Richard Strauss, among countless others, is evident not only from the violin writing in her three surviving symphonies, but also from her two recently unearthed concertos for that instrument. If, as some have said, the violin is a storyteller, the tales that Florence Price’s prodigious imagination gifted to it to tell are some of the most enthralling available to modern performers and listeners.They are also relative newcomers to today’s musical world.
Florence Price, composer for violin, burst onto the scene in 2018, when Er-Gene Kahng released the world-premiere recording of both of the violin concertos (in D minor and D major, 1939 and 1952 respectively) — stunning compositions that reveal, along with Price’s love for the solo instrument, the complex synthesis of African American and modernist styles within the idioms of a preeminent conventional genre of Euro-American orchestral music. G. Schirmer, which in 2018 acquired the exclusive international rights to Price’s complete catalog, published the First Concerto in 2018 and the Second the following year.
But Price came to the violin earlier than that, and in a more intimate manner — and those works are the ones that prompt this post. There are four of these gems: two fantasies (G minor and F-sharp minor, 1933 and 1940 respectively), The Deserted Garden (1933), and, first of all, Andante con espressione (1929). Spellbinding performances of three of them are commercially available on Juilliard violinist Randall Goosby’s debut album, Roots (2021), and all are now published by G. Schirmer. There are dissertations to be written about these works, let me just say a few words about each (and provide link and videos to bait you into listening!):
ANDANTE CON ESPRESSIONE (1929): Confession: recently I got a sneak peek at a forthcoming recording of this on the Steinway & Sons label, done by violinist Lady Jess and pianist Ric’key Pageot. Although the creative outpouring that signaled the arrival on the musical stage of Florence Price, Self-Identifying Composer began when she began her association with the National Association of Negro Musicians and her studies with Carl Busch and Wesley La Violette at Chicago Musical College in 1926–27, until 1929 her rich synthesis of Black vernacular styles with those more typical of classical music is only tenuously present. This work is an early — and to my ear priceless — musical fruit of her arrival at that musical maturity. The unassuming beauty of the melody over the ostinato of the accompaniment, the sudden turn to passion in the middle section, and especially the tenderness and sweetness of the coda — they’re remarkable; a story, if you will, of a beauty as intense as it is gentle.
The Lady Jess/Pageot recording that prompted this post isn’t out yet — I’ll update this post to feature it here when it is (it places more emphasis on the espressione than previous recordings do). In the meantime, here is a lovely performance by Wendy Putnam, violin, with Yehudi Wyner, piano:
TTHE DESERTED GARDEN (1933): This piece is of similar scale to the Andante con espressione and similar in its form and warmth of expression, but the blues-influenced melancholy of the main theme in this work is, well, simply delicious. This one isn’t on Mr. Goosby’s album, but there are several very fine performances on YouTube. Here’s one by Margaret Batjer, violin, with Andrew van Oejen, piano:
FANTASIE [NO. 1] IN G MINOR (1933): Composed in the same year as The Deserted Garden, this significantly more ambitious composition has an expressive ambitus that ranges from the passionate sincerity of Bach’s G-minor Sonata (BWV 1001) to the gorgeous intensity of Black vernacular styles, with plenty of romantic impulsiveness and wit thrown in. First published in 2019, it seems (judging from YouTube postings and reports of performances) to have become one of the more popular pieces in G. Schirmer’s post-2018 series of Price publications. Most performers seem to agree that the B section, which my good friend Jonathan Bellman described as “achingly beautiful American pastoralism,” is the main point of the piece, and who can disagree? But I also love the dialog-recitativelike exchange that leads back into the reprise, the pure fire of the coda, and of course the shape of the opening improvisatory material.
I know of seven YouTube postings of this beautiful and powerful piece; all offer a significantly different approach. Here’s the most recent, given by violinist Amy Hillis and pianist Meagan Milatz:
FANTASY NO. 2 IN F-SHARP MINOR (1940): The First Fantasy gave the introduction to the violinist, but the Second gives it to Price’s own instrument — the piano — and the prominence of the piano part lends a more symphonic character to this fantasy in general. Once the introduction is over with, the violin takes over — and now it’s not an original theme, but rather a folksong: “Workin’ on My Building.” This version of the tune, which resembles William Levi Dawson’s setting of “Talk about a Child that Do Love Jesus” (also known as “Here’s One”), is the same that Price used in one of the Two Traditional Negro Spirituals and sent to the great contralto Marian Anderson, a friend. One of the autographs for that setting explains why “Workin’ on My Building” here is different than in the versions most commonly encountered: Price sets the melody as it was sung to her by Fannie Carter Woods (1882–1948), who had in turn learned it from her grandmother, a formerly enslaved person from Memphis, Tennessee. What we hear here is Florence Price building a (chamber) symphonic fantasy out of the spiritual intensity of not just a spiritual, but a specific version of that Black American folksong that was born in enslavement. That, surely, explains the troubled, turbulent, burdened character that Florence Price imparts — save the rather flippant second theme — to this remarkable Fantasy.
Here are my two favorite recordings of the Second Violin Fantasy — the first by Randall Goosby and Zhu Wang, the second by Er-Gene Kahng and Nathan Carterette. I vacillate between these two, so I’m going to leave it to you to decide which interpretation is your preferred one:
Again, there’s much, much more to say about these pieces — but that’s for another storyteller. For now, let’s just observe that these are the first four chapters in the beautiful story of Florence Price’s love for the violin, a story that over the next decade would produce two more works that are more ambitious than these, but no more beautiful. Florence Price’s violin is indeed a storyteller — and its tale is that of the love that one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary musical geniuses held for the violin and its capacity for bringing forth an inexhaustible wellspring of music from the heights and the depths of human experience.
Postscript: Price also penned an Elfentanz for violin and piano, but due to the length of this post I decided to save that one for a future post on Florence Price and Felix Mendelssohn.