Question: You had not heard of the late African-American composer Florence Price until you read a New Yorker article about her in February 2018. As Alex Ross, the author, wrote: “She is widely cited as one of the first African-American classical composers to win national attention, and she was unquestionably the first black woman to be so recognized. Yet she is mentioned more often than she is heard. . . Not only did Price fail to enter the canon; a large quantity of her music came perilously close to obliteration.” What was your reaction upon reading the New Yorker article?
Driscoll: My first reaction was “why have I never heard of Florence Price?” I was both bewildered and bothered by the fact that in my many years of study and research, I had never come across any of her music–or even her name. She even went to school at New England Conservatory where I received my masters of music in choral conducting!
I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting music. More recently I have been looking for music of underrepresented and underappreciated composers. This search has spanned everything from the works of the baroque-era Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka, the subject of my doctoral dissertation, to the tango Mass of contemporary Argentinian composer Martín Palmeri. Female composers and composers of color, however, are very much under-represented in the ‘classical’ choral canon, so Florence Price was particularly intriguing.
After learning a bit about Price, my next thought was “hmm…I wonder if she wrote any choral music, particularly choral-orchestral works?” I then did some Google searches and eventually found the online catalogs of the two archives of her music that are held at the University of Arkansas. From there, I found two works that appeared to be extended works for chorus and orchestra. I contacted a librarian at the University of Arkansas, paid to have copies made, and then received the hand-written manuscript of two works by Price.
I read through the two works, “Song of Hope” and “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight.” I was particularly intrigued by the latter work for a number of reasons. First, I was intrigued by the music itself, particularly the final movement which ends with a sophisticated fugue. The text and subject matter of Vachel Lindsay’s poem is interesting and I think in many ways connects with life today.
The work existed in both a solo piano accompaniment version as well as a version for large orchestra and organ accompaniment. Given the size of the orchestra required, the piano version seemed like a more feasible solution for Andover Choral Society’s performance.
Q: The poet Vachel Lindsay set the poem in Springfield, Illinois–home to both poet and president. In the poem Lincoln laments the senseless brutality of war –not in Civil War America—but in World War I Europe. He is roused from his gravesite on a “hillside” and cannot rest until peace is restored. Even though some of the poem’s language may seem anachronistic to today’s listeners, the poem was published in 1914, to much success. In fact, the sculptor Fred Torrey chose this depiction of the melancholic Lincoln—head bowed, draped in a shawl–for the creation of a statue that stands today just outside the main entrance of the capitol building in West Virginia. The poem also inspired two other musical adaptions: Roy Harris’s 1953 chamber work and Abbie Betinis’s 2009 choral work for male voices. Clearly, the themes of war, despair, and hope continue to resonate with modern audiences.
D: Though Price’s “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” has never been published, Rae Linda Brown’s preface to her edition of Price’s “Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3” notes that “almost all of Florence Price’s . . . works were performed during her lifetime.” So far, however, I have been unable to verify any performance of this work. If “Abraham” was performed during Price’s lifetime, it likely has not been performed since. I do not believe any recording of this work exists.
The two versions I received from the University of Arkansas library were in Price’s own hand, which is very neat and legible. Performers today, however, are not used to reading from manuscript. In addition, the photocopied pages that I received were inconsistent in orientation and copy quality, which made reading the music difficult. So during the summer of 2018 I created a performing edition of the piano accompaniment version of the work.
Q: Your choir is a community-based, non-auditioned chorus serving the Merrimack Valley area. The chorus performs classical music, repertoire drawn mostly from the “old masters,” with an occasional foray into twentieth- and twenty-first century compositions. Was there something about this work that you thought would be particularly appealing to a choir like this?
D: Stylistically, “Abraham” is very much in the traditional “classical” music style of Price’s era. Structurally, the work is divided into several movements, which feature either soloists or chorus, there is a long piano/orchestral introduction and the work concludes with an extended fugue. All of these elements clearly derive from European models that still influence composers today. Harmonically, the piece is in line with the late Romanticism of the day. Within that genre, however, Price’s compositional voice is clearly unique. One movement in particular to me is undoubtedly influenced by the African-American spiritual. Price also worked as a theater organist, which I believe also influenced her compositional style. Price was an excellent pianist, which is evident in the piano part that she wrote for this work.
Q: Do you plan to continue to introduce the chorus to works that are new or a departure from the standard choral repertoire—if one, in fact, exists?
D: Performances of the “standards” will of course continue. But I believe musicians have a duty to introduce works beyond the traditional canon. Introducing new works and new composers is exciting and essential for continued growth, interest, and relevance of the work we do. After all, even the “standard” choral repertoire of today was new at one point!
Dr. Michael Driscoll, music director of the Andover Choral Society, will conduct the chorus in a performance of “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight,” by composer Florence Price, on May 4, 2019. He notes that they will be making a professional recording of the performance, which will be posted on YouTube. He hopes that recording, as well as the availability of his performing edition, will encourage other choral directors to include Price’s works in their programs.