THE VENUE is smaller than I expected, though beautiful. Fewer than a hundred of us have gathered in the Great Hall of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. Besides the hall’s ceiling being ribbed with great wooden beams, the room has the illusion of being an island—glass walls reveal a reservoir around us, a forested embankment across the water to the left, and the shapely concrete and glass body of a museum that seems to grow from the land itself to the right. The Earth is audience to any performance in this Hall.
This gathering is for An Evening of Florence Price, a celebration of the Arkansas native who became the first African-American woman to earn widespread recognition as a symphonic composer. Nearly 70 years after her death, a performance of her work at a high-profile venue in her home state is long overdue. Violinist and University of Arkansas professor Er-Gene Kahng has long taken an interest in Florence’s work, and Er-Gene’s passion seems to have sparked an interest in others. Tonight, she and a handful of colleagues will perform some of the artist’s more intimate compositions. The audience chatters softly in anticipation.
By now, the story of Florence Price is well trod, though still remarkable: Over a long career, she composed as many as 300 orchestral, chamber, choral and solo vocal pieces, not to mention a number of arrangements of traditional spirituals—including “My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord,” which Marian Anderson famously performed in 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 75,000. Perhaps most notably, Florence was the first black woman to compose a symphony performed by a major American orchestra—the Frederick Stock-directed Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Florence inspired Stock, Anderson and other artists of her time (including poet Langston Hughes), yet much of her sheet music was lost for years following her death in 1953. In 2009, though, a couple renovating a derelict home in St. Anne, Illinois, roughly 70 miles south of Chicago, uncovered many of those works, boxed in an attic.
The University of Arkansas acquired the papers in what the head of Special Collections called “[perhaps] the best accomplishment of [his] career,” and over the next nine years, scholars uncovered many lost and never-published compositions. Today, after years of transition and expert examination, a number of Florence Price pieces are about to be resurrected by violinist Er-Gene Kahng. She tunes before a breathless audience and a pinkening sun.
THE EVENING’S performance begins with three spirituals Florence arranged. “O Holy” introduces her folk roots—roots that take seriously the architecture of the spiritual, allowing its repetitions to breathe, to mourn, to hope all at once. On the violin, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” feels as familiar—as tender, as breakable—as a mother’s voice. Finally, “Lord I Want to Be a Christian” is as short as a prayer, yet recalls a faith unrehearsed: fervent and vulnerable.
Florence’s Christian faith is palpable in her music, expressed in moves toward hope, even amid discord. Yet her hope never feels like a denial of suffering or mourning. Indeed, her life was spent facing injustice and hoping for something better.
Born in 1888 to the first black dentist in Little Rock and his white wife, Florence and her family garnered respect in a diverse community. Yet by her early 30s, the composer would relocate to Chicago to escape the intensifying violence against blacks, including a particularly horrific lynching in 1927 that led many people of color to flee the city. Within only a few years of moving, she captured the national spotlight by winning Chicago’s prestigious Wanamaker Music Contest, landing her work on the stands of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Yet the attention wasn’t sustainable, and after the first flash of success, her career languished.
Florence sought the support of patrons and champions of classical composers, notable among them conductor Serge Koussevitzky, but received no response—which she herself attributed in part to her race and sex. Years followed of working small jobs, composing for church recitals and even selling compositions under a pen name. In spite of a world turned against her, though, Florence persisted.
Western culture has long imagined a separate class of “genius” or “master” to exist among artists—musical, literary or otherwise. Troublingly, this class appears to be disproportionately white and male. This mythos continues today, expressed in our fixation on particular cultural figures, from Amadeus Mozart to Steve Jobs.
Yet if these “geniuses” do indeed exist, Florence Price by all measures ought to be counted among them. Er-Gene Kahng articulated it well before the performance began: that Florence’s music by turns gazes “upward” to the stars and “inward” to the heart. Within the first few songs, the audience understands precisely Er-Gene’s observation.
Many others, like Vanderbilt musicologist Douglas Shadle, have pointed to a prodigious life: Florence was performing by age 4, publishing compositions by 11 and graduating valedictorian of her high school class by 14. After completing two degrees at The New England Conservatory of Music in her teens, Florence would join the faculty of another conservatory and, by 23, chair Clark Atlanta University’s music department.
Yet Florence didn’t possess the “genius” our culture so readily fetishizes—the mysterious trait that drives wild success and simultaneous self-destruction. She left teaching to marry and parent, supported two daughters after divorcing an abusive husband, encouraged students and fellow artists, dedicated her compositions to black performers she admired. Yes, Florence was a prolific composer, an important influence in the 20th-century’s move toward a spiritual and eventually blues-soul aesthetic. But as importantly, she was a moral genius—the kind that perhaps doesn’t make for great drama but offers something more valuable, something good.
AFTER THE spirituals, Kahng and accompanying pianist Paul Whitley perform two fantasias, displaying both their technical proficiency and Florence’s easy American vernacular—her facility with individual instruments, their complementarity. Piano and violin playfully interweave, as though both were improvising concurrently, building the same musical structure almost by accident. They quicken and slow in perfect concert, each countering the other until they pause, as though both awestruck by the sun turned red and liquid behind them. The audience extends the dazed applause of one just waking from a dream.
This museum, tucked in a ravine in Northwest Arkansas, it occurs to me, is a perfect place for Florence’s music. In the silence before the last note of another piece, a young child burbles, and I revise my thought. Crystal Bridges isn’t the perfect place for Florence’s music; the long-extinguishing sun, the forest and the reservoir lit red, the child offering counterpoint— Florence’s music is precisely what perfects such a place.
Listening to her music makes it all the more stunning that only in recent years have many of Florence’s works become accessible—largely due to the recording efforts of African-American and women’s orchestras, or individual performers like Er-Gene Kahng.
Simply hearing her chamber pieces, it is clear Florence not only deserves her canonical due as a contributor to modern music (and which many publications, including this one, are working to rectify). Her compositions deserve to be liberated from the page, performed by major symphony orchestras, played by performers as gifted as Er-Gene Kahng and heard by everyone who loves worthwhile music.
THE SECOND half of the evening changes pace as Er-Gene is joined by violinist Andrew Chu, violist Evan Buckner and cellist Dominic Na. The first quartet they perform boasts a tight classical structure. Far from passionless intricacy, however, Florence’s Romantic influences inflect the piece with tenderness; it’s the sort of music that makes falling in love seem easy. Audience members, as night darkens the windows around us, shift almost imperceptibly closer to one another.
Transitioning into a series of spirituals, the quartet opens yet another window into Florence’s artistry. Individual lines seem to merge, conjuring something more—a spirit or fire—to be passed between the four performers seated on stage. The listeners follow the exchange intuitively, not quite understanding how they know whom to watch.
“String Quartet in A Minor,” published in 1935, slides through movements of haunting tension, sighing beauty, playful idiom (in a movement appropriately called “Juba”), and finally an effortless elision of them all, culminating in an almost percussive cello line hammered out by a furrowing Dominic Na. Using counterpoint that eschews traditional melody/harmony structures in favor of multiple melodies that grow interdependently, Florence herself becomes almost apparitional.
Florence’s life was itself a web of melodies—she was multiracial in a culture defined along a black/white binary; she was a refugee of a hostile state (that now celebrates her legacy); she was an escapee of an abusive husband. She was an artist influenced as much by world-renowned Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, who declared as early as the 19th century the spiritual as the future of the American idiom, as by a Romantic tradition that would have rejected her on the basis of her skin color.
Florence straddled racial, aesthetic and cultural lines as a way of being. To call any of these elements of her life secondary or harmonic, rather than primary or melodic, would be to do great harm to the complexity of her legacy.
THE EVENING finishes with five folk songs transformed. “Oh My Darling Clementine”—a song become cloying after years of overuse—is rendered urgent, as though the folk melody is trying to break free of a constriction of classical latticework, until wriggling, the animal and cage become one. Three more bursts of musical energy punctuate the night like a final ellipsis.
And yet one final song remains: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Here, Florence allows the cello to call out the melody, to which the rest of the arrangement responds. The countering melodies evolve, remember, return and find new life in their source: the famous melody of hope even at death, sung by slaves a generation before. The old call and young response unite, finish each other’s phrases, mount and finally burst.
The last note of “Swing Low” seems to break a spell. Night has painted the windows of the museum a shiny black, and many of us drift out of the Great Hall only because we know we must. We snake toward cars in the parking garage, begin the sleepy drive home. Florence’s music still swirls around us, ebbing with each wave of high beams that rinses our cars.
The world we’ve been thrust back into is different from Florence’s. Now even her response to “Swing Low” is grandmotherly. Yet as a composer whose work united times past, married the romantic and idiomatic and spiritual, I suspect she hoped for a world that looked different. That hope, that call, even as the music fades from my mind, feels as vital and demanding of a response today as it ever has.
David Priest is a Master of Fine Arts candidate at the University of Arkansas. He lives in Fayetteville with his wife, Lindsey, and his sons, Idris and Atticus. (Editor’s Note: Find Florence’s music on Spotify—“Florence Price: Violin Concertos”—to hear some of the composer’s work for yourself!)