Florence Price’s Piano Concerto
Notes by TŌN clarinetist Olivia Hamilton
As the first Black woman to have a composition performed by a major American orchestra, Florence Beatrice Price created a musical legacy that was tied to her training in the European classical tradition and Black American spirituals. A Black woman who lived primarily in the Jim Crow south, Price had to struggle with many facets of her identity that were deemed unacceptable to the people in her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas. However, this did not stop her from having her Symphony No. 1 premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933 on a concert entitled “The Negro in Music.” This premiere pushed Price to put composition at the forefront of her musical legacy, along with being accomplished on the piano and organ.
A Musical Reconstruction
The Piano Concerto in One Movement was one of many works by Price that disappeared for decades. The loss and mishandling of her compositions due to her identity is abhorrent, proving that the proper care and attention was not given to music which deserved to be treated like the music of her peers. During America’s recent racial awakening, many orchestras and institutions have found an interest in her music again. In 2011, Trevor Weston, a Black American composer, reconstructed the Piano Concerto in One Movement from a few instrumental parts and a manuscript written for two pianos. An orchestral manuscript later turned up at an auction in 2019.
This work features three distinct sections, although it is performed in one movement. It begins with a nostalgic passage between the woodwinds and brass. This transitions into an illustrious introduction in the piano, using its full range and featuring chromatic leading in a flurry of notes until it arpeggiates to a transition back to the orchestra. The second distinct section begins with a singing passage in the strings before it makes room for an oboe solo that will eventually expand and flow within the piano harmonies. This section makes use of the consecutive sixth and first scale degree in a major key, which is often heard in Black American spirituals. The third section transitions with an accelerando and the passing off of wind solos. This dance section is an example of a juba, which is a dance brought to America by enslaved people from the Kingdom of Kongo (present day Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Gabon) characterized by stomping, slapping, and patting. This dance was used when rhythmic instruments were stolen to stop enslaved people from communicating.