Naxos Releases New Recording of Music by Florence Price

If we listened to music other than the greatest hits of the anointed few, might we be impressed by some ignored masterpiece?

For example, consider Florence Price, the first black woman to have had her music performed by a major American orchestra, and composer of at least three Symphonies for full orchestra.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence Smith showed musical talent from an early age, and her mother taught her all she could. No one else in Little Rock would teach her; the white piano teachers just simply refused.

So she went to the New England Conservatory, where she studied with, among others, George Whitefield Chadwick. After graduation, she taught at black colleges like Clark College.

At some point after 1912 she married the lawyer Thomas Price, and stayed in Arkansas until, fed up with the racism there, she moved her family to Chicago.

A lot of opportunities opened up in Chicago. Florence Price won a $500 prize for her Symphony No. 1 in E minor, and the conductor Frederick Stock took an interest in the piece. In 1933, Stock conducted the Chicago Symphony in the premiere.

Price’s musical influences include Antonín Dvořák and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (a black British composer named after the poet). The former is very well-covered by Naxos, the latter has some coverage.

One aspect Price has in common with Dvořák is a certain confusion about the numbering of her Symphonies. As far as I can tell, her Symphony No. 1 in E minor really is her First Symphony.

Apparently after that she completed a Second Symphony which is now lost except for a few fragmentary sketches. Or it could also be that, as so often happened with Franz Schubert, she simply abandoned the project (by the way, Schubert has far more interesting unfinished Symphonies than the B minor).

And then Price did complete a Third Symphony, though you might be a little thrown by the fact that she ended it with a Scherzo. It has been recorded by the Women’s Philharmonic conducted by Apo Hsu, and was released on the Koch Schwann label several years ago.

The recent Naxos recording is of her First Symphony and Symphony No. 4 in D minor (the latter is a world premiere recording), by the Fort Smith Symphony conducted by John Jeter. The catalogue number is 8.559827, it’s available directly from Naxos Records, as well as of course Amazon, iTunes, etc.

These recordings first came to my attention through the Naxos Music Library, right on the home page, featured new releases this week.

Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C minor impressed me enough that I included it in my book 104 Great Symphonies You Haven’t Heard Yet. Get it for $1 directly from Smashwords with coupon code CL95R, “Florence Price strikes the right note.”

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