Dances in the Canebrakes

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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; but with her increasing popularity today, that situation is rapidly changing.

            Price was a prolific composer of piano works and this three-movement suite for piano solo was composed shortly before her death.  It was later orchestrated by the eminent fellow Southern composer, William Grant Still.  The snazzy first movement, “Nimble Feet,” is clearly in ragtime style, infused with its characteristic syncopations. “Tropical Moon” is redolent of a languorous Caribbean evening, with its intimation of what Jelly Roll Morton called a “slow drag,” or jazz’s “Spanish Tinge.”  Others may think of it as similar to a tango. In any case, it’s immensely seductive.  Finally, the last movement, “Silk Hat and Walking Cane,” evokes nothing of the hard labor of working in the cane fields.  Rather, it is all about escaping that, and finding a bit of refuge in the urban fancy balls and social gatherings that often featured the dance called the “cake walk.”  Associated with African-American dances, it may be remembered even in Debussy’s tribute, Golliwog’s Cakewalk.  It probably originated on antebellum plantations as a black satire of white society, but evolved into a complex life in the whole controversial minstrel show tradition.  It, too, has a habanera rhythm, woven into ragtime textures.

            This little suite, while modest in scope, is a gem of crafting popular ethnic musical elements into an artful and charming work of art.  Price, as with so many accomplished composers, was as capable of composing for the salon as for the symphony hall.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2023 William E. Runyan