Five Folksongs in Counterpoint

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            Florence Price, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, was a pioneer black American composer who distinguished herself early on.  Most notably, she is remembered as the first black American woman to garner success as a composer of symphonic music.  Her first symphony is perhaps her best-known work.  Winner of a national prize, it was given its première in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—a social and cultural milestone in this country at that time.

            At a young age she journeyed north to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory, and returned to Arkansas and Georgia to teach at various small black colleges.  After marriage she and her husband left a racially troubled Arkansas in 1927 for Chicago and her further study at the American Conservatory of Music.  Her career blossomed, and recognition for her art led to the afore-mentioned symphony in 1931, followed by two more symphonies, concertos, and other works for orchestra.  She composed in a variety of other genres:  chamber works, piano music, and vocal compositions--over three hundred in all!  Her songs and arrangements of spirituals were perhaps her most performed compositions.  But, sadly, little of her œuvre has been published; with her increasing popularity today, that very well may change.

            She apparently wrote two compositions for string quartet, both dated around 1950, although she may have begun one of them much earlier. They had similar titles—and underwent somewhat confusing title changes, as well—and both featured folksongs.   Our concert features the quartet originally entitled “Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint;” after the addition of two broadly American folksongs to the original three, she changed the title to simply “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint.”

            Thus, the five are:  “Calvary,”  “My Darling Clementine,” “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,”  “Shortnin’ Bread,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  These movements are manifestly not the usual simplistic arrangements of folksongs one often encounters.  Anyone capable of the composition of sophisticated symphonies can and will do much more.  Accordingly, they—notwithstanding the recognizable use of folk material—are miniature essays in contrapuntal treatment.   One will hear a variety of accompanying motives and countermotives, usually in a non-imitative texture.   Price was well educated in traditional European classical compositional styles and techniques, and her sophistication shows eloquently here.  Yet, she is concomitantly, proudly and solidly rooted in her cultural roots.   Recipient of early recognition, and then relative obscurity, her music is now enjoying a renaissance.

--Wm. Runyan

©2019 William E. Runyan