Arts & Culture

Symphonies to spirituals: violin-piano concerts explore forgotten works by African-American female composers

Courtesy photo

Classical composer Florence Beatrice Price, born in Little Rock, Ark., in 1887, and died in Chicago in 1953, was the first African-American woman to have a symphony played by a major American orchestra. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in E minor on June 15, 1933, during Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition. Her music for violin and piano will be performed Saturday at the University of Northern Iowa’s Russell Hall in Cedar Falls and Sunday at the University of Iowa’s Voxman Music Building in Iowa City.
Courtesy photo Classical composer Florence Beatrice Price, born in Little Rock, Ark., in 1887, and died in Chicago in 1953, was the first African-American woman to have a symphony played by a major American orchestra. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in E minor on June 15, 1933, during Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition. Her music for violin and piano will be performed Saturday at the University of Northern Iowa’s Russell Hall in Cedar Falls and Sunday at the University of Iowa’s Voxman Music Building in Iowa City.
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Their names have largely been forgotten, but their music is having a renaissance.

Florence Price and Irene Britton Smith, two African-American female composers born in different cities in different centuries, worked largely in the early 20th century in Chicago, striving to carve their own niches in the face of racial and gender barriers.

While finding some fame in their lifetime, it was fleeting, and their musical legacy has largely been forgotten. It will return to the spotlight with concerts of violin and piano pieces Saturday (2/2) at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls and Sunday (2/3) at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

“The quality of the music speaks for itself,” said pianist Nathan Carterette, 38, of Iowa City, who will be performing with Yale University classmate and violinist Er-Gene Kahng of Fayetteville, Ark.

“Price, in particular, wrote these big symphonic works, almost without a hope of having them performed,” he said, noting that she wrote to Serge Koussevitzky, then music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, telling him that she had two strikes against her: being a woman and having black blood in her mixed-race heritage. “She faced a lot of barriers in her society,” Carterette said.

“I think it’s important today to revive and discover this music, because even though our society is not what it was in the ’40s and ’50s, there’s a lot that hasn’t changed. We see comments even from our own elected representatives in Iowa that show just what can be on people’s minds when they talk about what is available for people of certain ethnic heritages,” he said. “It’s pretty shocking to think how in some ways, how little has changed since that time.

“I think that’s important, but in the end, the quality of their music does speak for itself. But these people like Price and Smith can also represent something bigger than their own music. It’s a moment of reckoning for us to try and give them the opportunities that in their lifetime were denied.”

LIFETIMES

Price, born in Arkansas in 1887, became the first African-American female composer to have a symphony played by a major American orchestra, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in E minor on June 15, 1933. The piece had won a prestigious competition the previous year, and was hailed by the Chicago Daily News as “a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion ... worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory.”

Her career took a different turn, however, when she met celebrated singer Marian Anderson and writer Langston Hughes. Anderson sang Price’s arrangements of spirituals, as well as her setting of poetry by Hughes, which brought Price renewed recognition.

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Price died in 1953, and when her dilapidated house near Chicago was purchased for renovation in 2009, the buyer found in the attic boxes with 200 manuscripts of her unknown works, which are now being published.

Juilliard-educated Smith, born in Chicago in 1907, studied piano, violin and composition. Initially, when her parents couldn’t afford to send her to Northwestern University to study music, she went to a teachers college.

She taught elementary school in Chicago, noted for her method for teaching reading. She eventually studied music at an elite level and composed works for violin, piano, ensembles, orchestra and voice until 1962, as noted in “From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and Their Music,” by Helen Walker-Hill.

Smith’s work has more of an avant-garde feel.

“It walks a line between really modernism and more traditional harmony,” Carterette said. “It’s quite bold but with traditional cadences ... with haunting, eerie counterpoint flowing lines that can take you in all sorts of directions.”

Church music is largely how they’ve been remembered, Carterette said, citing their arrangements of spirituals, as well as organ compositions.

“Both Florence Price and Irene Britton Smith were involved in the church world, and they wrote music for the church, especially Florence Price,” Carterette said. “That’s the area where she’s never been forgotten.”

In the manner in which Dvorak infused his classical works with folk music, Carterette said Price wove spirituals into her symphonic and classical ensemble compositions.

Audiences at this weekend’s concerts will hear songs they will recognize, Carterette said. “When we do the three spirituals arranged for violin and piano, people will really know these songs.”

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The program also will feature two of Price’s fantasies that experiment with harmony and form, a haunting sonata by Smith, and “Dreamscape” by Korean composer Quentin Kim, offering 12 miniature flights of fancy preludes that “are very intense in their mood,” Carterette said.

“So you’re going to get some stuff you don’t know, some things you do know and very concentrated mood music that just shows what the violin and piano can do together.”

• Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

FYI

• What: “Florence Price Duos and a Lost Concerto”

• Performers: Nathan Carterette, piano, and Er-Gene Kahng, violin

• Iowa City: 7:30 p.m. Sunday (2/3), Recital Hall, Voxman Music Building, 93 E. Burlington St., Iowa City; free; Uiowa.edu/cnm/concert-season-53#13

• Cedar Falls: 6 p.m. Saturday (2/2), Graham Hall at Russell Hall, University of Northern Iowa, 2675 Minnesota St., Cedar Falls; free; Music.uni.edu/guest-recital-er-gene-kahng-violin

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