Florence Beatrice Smith Price (1887-1953) was the first African American woman composer to earn national recognition. Born in Arkansas, she attended the New England Conservatory of Music and later studied with George Whitfield Chadwick (she was later to become head of the music department at Clark University in Atlanta). Her works, a collection of more than 300 compositions, have been performed by, among others, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, and the Chicago Symphony. Not surprising for a figure of her time, Price made use of traditional African American songs, particularly in the Mississippi River Suite. This half-hour piece describes a journey along the banks of the great waterway and quotes the spirituals Deep River, Stand still Jordan, and Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen, as well as incorporating Native American melodies, rhythms, and instruments.
Symphony No. 3 (1938) draws on a wider musical palette, and while no actual spirituals are quoted, Price’s original melodies contain their essence, and they are expertly worked into the musical structure. The Oak, a brief, unpublished orchestral essay, opens in a manner similar to Franck’s D minor symphony, and explores a number of moods in an air of self-conscious seriousness that stands in marked contrast to the freer creativity of the other works on this disc. Price’s music, while not nearly so original or captivating as William Grant Still’s jazz-inflected symphonic works, still holds an important place in the history of African American concert music, and American music in general, and if it’s not all great, it also doesn’t deserve its current neglect. Happily, the Women’s Philharmonic agrees, and gives first-rate performances under the lively and sympathetic baton of Apo Hsu, well recorded to boot.