Price Symphonies contain echoes of Dvořák

Florence Beatrice Price: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4

Fort Smith Symphony, John Jeter

Florence Price was the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra and on the evidence of this CD she was a composer of some talent.

On this release in the American Classics series on Naxos we get performances of Price’s first and last symphonies. Her Symphony No. 1 in E minor won a composing prize and was first performed in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony led by Frederick Stock. It was was the first symphony, by an African-American woman to have been played by a major American orchestra. Her Symphony No. 4 in D minor gets a world premiere recording here having been recently discovered among nearly 30 boxes of manuscripts and papers found in Chicago.

Both of these symphonies contains echoes of Dvořák. The opening movement of the first symphony with its portentous sweep and lyrical melodies is reminiscent of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 ‘From the New World’. In this early work there are signs that Price is still finding her voice but in this account by John Jeter and the Arkansa based Fort Smith Symphony this massive nearly 40-minute work is well worth becoming acquainted with and is certainly to be prefered to the Leslie B. Dunner version on Albany. The fourth symphony, quotes one of the most famous spirituals, Wade in the Water in its  opening movement and ends with a bustling Scherzo that alternates serious and lighthearted episodes, before ending ending with a bang. Each of the symphonies is in the traditional four movement structure but Florence Price replaces the third movement scherzo by a ‘Juba Dance’.

Florence Price was celebrated in her day and her music was well received in Chicago. Since her untimely death in 1953 her works have fallen into neglect and will probably be unfamiliar to most readers. So should you be seeking out this disc? Florence Price’s style is steeped in the romantic tradition of Brahms and Dvořák and her musical language is a fascinating blend of European genres and African-American musical content. The Fort Smith Symphony deliver idiomatic performances of these pleasing works and this can be recommended both as an introduction to the music of Florence Price and as a means of becoming further acquainted with a composer who is clearly unjustifiably neglected. Hopefully this release will prompt a resurgence of interest in this composer and we can hope for further recordings of works discovered in those boxes.

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