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Trinity Orchestra Harrow bring ‘The Birth of the American Sound’

On Saturday, March 11th, Trinity Orchestra Harrow and I are performing a concert of works by three composers all to some degree known – fairly or unfairly – as musical conservatives. And whilst the Academic Festival Overture of Brahms and the Second Horn Concerto of Richard Strauss are well-known and well-loved, the rediscovery of Florence Price’s huge output is still a comparatively recent phenomenon.

Sat 11 Mar 2023

Saturday 11 March 2023

Concert 7.30pm | Pre-concert talk 7pm
St Edmund’s Church, Pinner Road, Northwood, HA6 1QS

BRAHMS Academic Festival Overture
R.STRAUSS Horn Concerto No. 2
PRICE Symphony No. 1

Trinity Orchestra
Conductor: John Andrews
Horn soloist: Ben Goldscheider

For me, there is always a particular joy in getting to grips with a new piece of music, and especially when it is by a composer that I didn’t previously know. Florence Price has come to international attention in the last few years, following the discovery of a large number of her scores and papers in 2009, at her abandoned summer home. Following this, there have been some wonderful recordings of the orchestral works, and her symphonies have that magical combination of not only being hugely accomplished and enjoyable works in their own right but also illuminating a vitally important period of musical history: the birth of a characteristically American symphonic sound.

Trinity Orchestra Harrow bring 'The Birth of the American Sound' Harrow Online
St Edmund’s Church, Northwood. Credit: Google

Born in Arkansas in 1887 to a middle-class mixed-race couple, she showed enormous talent at an early age, giving piano recitals, and publishing her first composition aged eleven. According to her daughter, she actually wanted to pursue a medical career, but the racial politics of the deep south precluded it, and instead, she went to the well-established New England Conservatory of Music. Moving to Chicago as part of what is now known as the ‘Great Migration’ she came to public attention in 1929 with her Phantasie nègre. This was followed in 1932 by first and third prizes for the E minor Symphony and Piano Sonata respectively. The following twenty years saw the composition of over three hundred works including three more symphonies and the Piano Concerto as well as numerous vocal and chamber works.

Price was deeply influenced by the music and musical philosophy of Antonin Dvorak. Therein lies both her enormous importance and the source of her terrible neglect in the later twentieth century. Coming to New York at the end of the nineteenth century, Dvorak strongly believed that by integrating folk melodies and rhythms with the symphonic language of the modern orchestra, that each country could develop a recognisably national style. He laid out this approach in his own Symphony in E minor (‘from the New Word’) to thunderous success. Whether Dvorak really did base the second movement of that work on Native American melodies remains disputed, but the spacious, modal, deceptively simple musical style that he offered was enthusiastically taken up by Price as a model for how to write a great American symphony. In her own E minor Symphony (usually given the number 1, although there was a youthful predecessor), the outer movements show that rich, late-Romantic post-European style, while the two inner movements go much further in combining African-American idioms with the older symphonic heritage. The Second movement is a long hymn-like chorale, whilst the third – taking the role of the traditional scherzo – is a Juba Dance, a style dating back to the cotton plantations and prefiguring modern tap-dance. In both cases, she succeeds brilliantly in respecting both musical styles and fusing them into something new.

It is perhaps in her expansiveness that Price seems most characteristically American. That easy unfolding of long melodies evoked the great open spaces of the Midwest in a way that we now know from a hundred western scores. And yet it was precise that accessibility and rootedness in late nineteenth-century Romanticism that made her music seem to date so quickly. Her younger contemporaries, Gershwin and Copland, and the even younger Leonard Bernstein, all studied in Paris and brought a heady fusion of jazz and modernism back to the United States, which left her looking increasingly old-fashioned. With very little of her work published, very little was performed after her death in 1953. Yet, looking back now with the benefit of seventy years’ perspective we can see quite how important the musical voice was in creating what we now think of as the American Sound. It may live now more in films than on the concert platform, but it is no less powerful for that. From the very opening bars of her Symphony, we hear something which is at once totally American, and absolutely within a tradition that goes back to Mozart and Haydn.