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‘Priceless: The Music of Florence Price’ revives pioneering composer’s lost works

Two of Florence Price's Violin Concertos, considered lost for decades, have been newly recorded.
Two of Florence Price's Violin Concertos, considered lost for decades, have been newly recorded.

In a classical music culture that recognizes composers as male, white and dead, Florence Price, a black woman, is certainly an anomaly. Her resilience amid a difficult life has resonated with a new generation of listeners, including Duke faculty, staff and students.

The music department will highlight the music of this pioneering African American composer in two concerts this fall. On Sept. 21, they will showcase “Priceless: The Music of Florence Price,” organized by David Heid, director of the Duke Opera Theater and instructor of music, and is co-sponsored by Trinity College of Arts and Sciences through Dean Ashby and the gender, sexuality, and feminist studies program.

Florence Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Ark., during a time of severe racial tension. She studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, one of the only music schools that accepted black students at the time. Although she excelled as a pianist and organist, Price was not taken very seriously in the field — she was a black woman when there were very few women in classical music and almost no African Americans. She was also forced to leave an abusive marriage during a time when women were not expected to stand up for themselves. As the conditions under Jim Crow became more violent, Price fled north to Chicago, looking for a new start.

In 1932, Price submitted her works to the Rodman Wanamaker Contest in Musical Composition, a major competition for African American composers at the time. To everyone’s surprise, she won first prize for her Symphony in E minor, and third for her Piano Sonata. When the Chicago Symphony performed her winning symphony in 1933, she became the first black woman to have a composition performed by a major American orchestra. Yet, despite this promising start, the press considered her win a fluke because she was a woman, and her career failed to take off. After she passed away in 1953, the few works she had created languished in obscurity.

In 2009, a young couple bought a house on a lake in Illinois that was in terrible disrepair. When they cleaned out the attic, they found a trunk of papers that was miraculously undamaged. They realized that they had bought Price’s summer home and ran across hundreds of her old manuscripts and letters.

With this recent rediscovery of her music, there has been an incredible revival of interest in her compositions in the past decade. However, her works are still rarely performed. David Heid is attempting to change that.

“Florence Price is someone really important and incredibly impactful in our world who many students don’t know,” Heid said. “I have been a big fan of hers for a while — I’ve taught her Piano Sonata and played a lot of her vocal works — so now that we have access to more of her compositions, it’s been an exciting time for Florence Price.”

The program includes a selection of Price’s vocal works performed by Marlissa Hudson, Trinity ‘99, a soprano and Duke alum, and the Duke Chorale and Chamber Choir. Hudson is an accomplished concert soloist who has performed with many prominent American symphonies. She received her formal training at Duke University and the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University.

“This is a great opportunity for students in the Chorale,” Heid said. “It’s always inspiring to see someone who was at your stage at one point, who’s now older and flourishing in their artistic profession, come back to campus.”

Additionally, the concert will feature the Ciompi Quartet, Duke’s resident string quartet, with Price’s “5 Folksongs in Counterpoint,” and David Heid and Daniel Seyfried on piano.

The Duke Symphony Orchestra will open its season Oct. 2 in Baldwin Auditorium with “Cultural Confluence: The Old World Meets the New.” The program includes Coleridge Taylor’s “Dance Nègre” from African Suite, Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement — performed by guest pianist and Florence Price researcher Karen Walwyn — and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 “From the New World.”

In spotlighting such a compelling story, these two performances are indicative of the music department’s mission to preserve Florence Price’s legacy. Price wrote in the late Romantic tradition, and her compositions present sincerity in its purest form, with a passion that pours out of the page and into the contemplative hearts of every listener.

“I discussed this with my colleague who is playing the Piano Sonata,” Heid said. “It’s amazing how somebody who had such a difficult life could write such beautiful music. She had a bad marriage that she had to leave during a time when women didn’t leave marriages very easily. She had to escape from the violence in Little Rock, and still, she had a soul that imbued incredible music. To me, it reveals the resiliency of the human spirit, that no matter what, it still lived in her.”

“Priceless: The Music of Florence Price” will be performed Sept. 21, at 8 p.m., in Baldwin Auditorium. “Duke Symphony Orchestra with Karen Walwyn, Piano” will be performed Oct. 2, at 7:30 p.m. in Baldwin Auditorium. Admission is free.

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