It was the first symphony of an African-American woman to be performed by a major US orchestra. John Banther and Nicole Lacroix talk about how she found time to write, a hidden motif to listen for, Americana aspects of the symphony, and more.
History and significance of the Juba, as described by Sule Greg Wilson
A new (and Grammy-nominated) recording of Price's Symphony No. 1
I. Allegro ma non troppo
II. Largo Maestoso
III. Juba Dance. Allegro
IV. Finale. Presto
John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we take you behind the music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's Nicole Lacroix, and we're talking all about Florence Price's Symphony No. 1, the first work of an African American woman to be played by a major US orchestra. There is a lot to get into, from hidden motifs to listen for as the music develops, her use of orchestration and sense of rhythm, a specific dance she includes in every symphony and more. Florence Price completed her Symphony No. 1 in 1932, and a problem, I think every composer has had, is just finding time to compose. Nicole, it sounds like Price did find some time to focus on the symphony, but probably not in the way she had planned.
Nicole Lacroix: She said, " I found it possible to snatch a few precious days in the month of January in which to write undisturbed, but oh, dear me. When shall I ever be so fortunate again as to break a foot," and you know, John, as a mother of three kids, I completely understand where she's coming from. I used to think, " Well, if I could just get the flu for a couple days, I might have time for myself," so I understand. She had two little girls to raise on her own and she needed that undisturbed time.
John Banther: She was also around this time, early 1930s, things were financially not going well. She was living with one of her students, of course, great composer, Margaret Bonds, working as an organist for silent films and so on. I mean, it's hard to imagine for us normal people, non- com composers, breaking your a foot can sometimes be this blessing of undisturbed time to compose. Just think of Bach trying to write with all those kids running around in a small flat or Bernstein with his traveling and conducting schedule. They take, these composers, whatever time they can get.
Nicole Lacroix: When you say normal people like us, that was really re forced when I read about Florence Price. She was not, quote unquote, normal. She was a real genius. The amount of work she did over 300 compositions that we know of, ending school at 14, going to conservatory at 15, being a double major at your school, at the conservatory, it's unbelievable. I think when we listen to this Symphony No. 1, we're going to have to keep in mind the fact that she is a major intellect.
John Banther: Oh yes. If you did not listen to our episode on Florence Price, episode number 37, I highly recommend checking that one out after listening to this one. Florence Price wrote this symphony in early 1932, some of it on that rest from a broken foot. There was a competition that was announced in the Chicago Defender, historically important and still around today, African American newspaper. It was described as an event of paramount importance, open to all musical composers of the race. That's how it was announced. It was co- sponsored by the National Association of Negro Musicians and Wanamaker's department store. I'm thinking that I'm saying that name, right? Wanamaker's?
Nicole Lacroix: Yep.
John Banther: She wins this competition, right? She earns $ 500, which today is about $ 14, 000. After hearing the symphony, it's definitely worth a lot more than that, but then it was subsequently played, wasn't it, by the Chicago symphony in the following year, 1933.
Nicole Lacroix: What I find interesting, not to in any way take away from her achievement, is the fact that it was performed for a concert at the Chicago. World's Fair. It was an evening dedicated to African American music, the culmination of, quote unquote, Negro Day, and the concert was build as the Negro in music. This was such an important event. You have an all white orchestra of men playing the music of this African American woman and luminaries were in the audience, Gershwin, Adlai Stevenson and his wife flew in from DC, and even President Roosevelt sent his greetings.
John Banther: Let's jump into the music. The first movement, it opens beautifully with this line in the bassoon, and then a kind of response in the oboe and clarinets. You immediately get this sense of a story being told in the introduction.
Nicole Lacroix: Jan Swafford, who is the biographer of Brahms and also of Beethoven, had something that was very interesting to me. He said that Beethoven achieved unity in a four movement symphony with all sorts of different contexts and textures and so forth, by imagining a story to himself, not anything that he shared. This quality is sort of a rare quality in composers, but it's immediately felt between the composer and the audience or the listener. You understand that this is a whole, not just four separate pieces. This is the impression that I get from listening to Florence Price's Symphony No. 1 immediately.
John Banther: Oh yes. It's immediate because sometimes, well, a lot of symphonies, they start with an introduction and it's kind of like, " Okay, this is to get everyone quiet. When does the music start?" Here from the beginning, it's immediately kind of grabbing you and pulling you into this story. This really kind of grand E minor sound leads to some huge, big moments and a lot of use of pentatonic scales in the melodies, just five notes instead of seven notes in a full scale, including the eighth note, the octave, if you want to count that. That gives it this also full sounding quality as that pentatonic sound is found in pretty much every culture across the world independently, this kind of came up. Leads to some huge towering moments in the opening, but then suddenly the orchestra drops out and we have this flute solo, almost just kind of looking around and it goes seamlessly to oboe and then to clarinet.
I bring this up because this was not easy. It could not have been easy to write because the timbres of these instruments are so different, but the transitions between them are so smooth. They don't even generate notes in the same way. A flute, you blow over the tone hole, oboe has a double reed. Clarinet has a single reed. They sound so different, but she has found a few common notes in just the right registers, higher or low, where they can seamlessly go in between each other. It makes us kind of, it's not just three instruments, but one extended instrument,
Nicole Lacroix: She was a virtuoso organist. I think if you remember that when you listen to this, it shows her wonderful use of color and texture in orchestration. When I listen to the first movement, I feel this grand sense of America unfolding in front of me. Here again, the personal experience of the composer, she lived in Chicago. I remember driving from Chicago to Iowa, three hours of nothing but flat lands and corn fields. I have that same feeling with the opening of the symphony, all the way up to the horizon, nothing but America.
John Banther: Oh.
Nicole Lacroix: And the hope of America.
John Banther: That's right. You see such a huge expanse at once. It's kind of eerie, the first time you see something like that.
Nicole Lacroix: That's what I hear, especially those two wonderful themes that she opens with.
John Banther: Speaking of themes, there's a kind of theme within a theme in these opening sections and really in the whole movement. That is, an emphasis on a particular rhythm in the themes. We have two 16th notes followed by a long note, this particular rhythm that's basically two short notes and then a long note. If you listen to the recent Dvorak cello and concerto episode, this idea should sound familiar to you. By having such a simple motif that is emphasized in these various themes, it can then be extracted, combined, and manipulated into many different moods and ideas. It's genius how she does it, because sometimes it's just hidden in the melody. Sometimes it's an entire section of an orchestra repeating it and building tension and getting louder.
Sometimes she simplifies the rhythm by making it an eighth note followed by a long note, so a shorter note with a longer note. You don't need to know music or read music to you hear this, because basically instead of arriving on a big downbeat where you have a note that you're expecting, a nice resolution, she has that note come in on the offbeat. It's delaying this expected resolution. It gives it a very forward moving feeling in the music, and then very cleverly you hear sometimes, she uses that sustained note that's delayed, as a note that leads into the next line. It's always just kind of pushing forward.
Nicole Lacroix: And at the end of the movement, you're humming that particular theme.
John Banther: Oh yeah. It sticks with you.
Nicole Lacroix: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Banther: You hear it in many different ways. Sometimes it's in a section. Sometimes it's in a melody. Sometimes it's in the timpani, you hear a heartbeat just beating away this two short notes and then a long note. You hear that permeated in different ways through this movement. It kind of unifies everything because they're from different themes even.
Nicole Lacroix: It also has a cyclical nature to it that it really, by the end of the movement, as I said, it's really ingrained in your brain, which is a great thing because it's not just something that passes you by.
John Banther: Towards the end of the first movement, there's a great demonstration, I think, of how this little motif can be used. It can be changed around. It can be passed around in various sections of the orchestra. I want to play something here and this is to help us improve our listening skills. If you don't hear it the first time, that's totally fine, but try to listen for it and maybe repeat it. The more you do that, the more you kind of listen for some of the smaller things, the easier it gets, your listening skills improve. I'm going to play something, focus on that rhythmic motif that we were just describing, and try to catch for when it gets passed around for one instrument to the next. This is a very quick transition in the music. We'll hear it across bassoon, oboe, flute, clarinet, and strings underneath.
It's like all these little lines popping out. I'm thinking of that description you were giving earlier of seeing this large flat expanse and all these notes or lines are singing out. It's such a quick transition, but the way she uses that rhythmic motif is just beautiful.
Nicole Lacroix: It's almost pastoral because they're little, the flutes we were talking about the flutes earlier, but they're like little birds here and there. Again, it's that feeling of being out in the country, maybe the wind blowing, the theme back and forth, and the little birds coming. It's just kind of glorious really.
John Banther: I was wondering Nicole, how soon in this podcast would you be bringing up birds? There's so many birdlike moments in this, aren't there?
Nicole Lacroix: There really are. I think that makes it a pastoral movement, right?
John Banther: Yes. There is something else in this movement towards the end that is so striking.
She suddenly gives us this glistening, glittering kind of shimmering, like if you have some wall water rippling and the sun reflecting off of it. She gives this atmosphere to the music suddenly by having the violins in a bit of the upper register, playing triplets against the rest of the orchestra. They're playing three notes in a beat, and so far everyone's been playing two notes in a beat basically. It elevates the whole set out to, think of another composer, it sounds suddenly very Wagner- esque. It's just very striking in how she does it. What's interesting, is that we don't hear any triplets like this in the movement until now in the final couple minutes of the movement. This is not something you find in Mozart. We're now in the 20th century and she can, towards the end, here includes the material that we've not heard before. She has that liberty. What this does is, these rhythms don't quite fit together. It's this murmuring sound in the strings.
The notes don't line up perfectly. If you take a pencil and looking at the a little bit before this in the symphony and you draw a line down on the notes, they're all kind of going to line up with each other, these lines. If we do that here in this section, there's lines in between the lines. It doesn't fit quite together. It just gives this striking quality that is quite unexpected.
Nicole Lacroix: It's almost as if the Mississippi River suddenly started flowing through our vast corn fields.
John Banther: Again, that's a beautiful description because this is often used to depict something like water. Think of The Moldau, for instance, other works that do this, just absolutely beautiful. I love this movement. It's also, I think, the biggest movement in the symphony as well.
Nicole Lacroix: Right. I think that at this point in 1932, she was writing this, it's the depression. I guess they've come through the worst of the depression, but think of all the American composers who are writing about America, about the big vision, things like Copeland or Oklahoma or the ballets, the painters.
John Banther: Mm- hmm ( affirmative). Yeah.
Nicole Lacroix: American Gothic and that sort of thing, Georgia O'Keeffe, they're celebrating the land and they're celebrating the idea of having an American art form. It's also the time of the Harlem Renaissance and the Chicago art explosion too. Poetry and culture of all kinds, are really, as I said, celebrating America. I think that this, especially this first, well, no, the whole symphony is an example of that, that yearning, that realizing things aren't perfect. We have hard times, but we have hope for the future.
John Banther: That's a key word that I'm hearing, and that is hope. That brings us to the second movement where this is personally my favorite movement of the symphony. Of course, it opens with this beautiful hymn in the brass. For me, it's especially my favorite because it kind of changes our expectations of what's a slow second movement in a symphony can be. It starts with this beautiful, proud, hopeful hymn, like this slow march just moving forward, in the score and you're hearing it too, there's some percussion instruments as well. These are hand percussion instruments, they're not hit with drumsticks. She writes for a large African drum and a small African drum. This movement, you hear a second movement in a symphony, you expect something tranquil, something slow, something nice and beautiful. She's doing that here, but in a way I've not heard before. It changes the whole idea of a second movement for me.
Nicole Lacroix: The idea that she is writing what she knows, when you write something, a novel or whatever, they tell you, " write what you know," this is what she's doing. She is trained in the classical tradition, and yet she wants to express herself. What better expression than to portray a church, an African American church, with a hymn that she has written herself. It's not something that she has taken and improvised on. This is something she's written, but it expresses so much of life from joy and spirituality, to pain and the troubles that people have gone through, again, the hope of spirituality.
John Banther: Hope. That rhythmic motif that we listen to in the opening movement, that's back here in the second movement, but it is placed slightly differently in the beat. It's placed in a slightly different place in the beat and it changes it completely. Before we had those 16th notes on the downbeat, da- da- dum, the short notes, da-da- dum, now we have the short notes leading into the longer note, which is on the downbeat. It's happening a little bit earlier. We no longer have that delay of the resolution, of that final note. It gives it a completely different feeling. It's less forward moving. It's more in the moment, but it's here as well. It's just so beautiful.
Nicole Lacroix: The brass choir, and this why I think one of the reasons you like it so well as a tuba player, it consists of French horns, trumpets, trombones, and tubas, and then as you said, the African drums, the timpani, church bells, just in case we forgot where we are, in a church.
John Banther: It's just one tuba, but the tub's written a little higher. It's in the middle register. It's not super low. It just works perfectly. In this movement, Nicole, which is already different and so beautiful of a second movement in a symphony, there is this sudden moment that is almost, I don't know where it's coming from exactly. It's like a Bach organ fantasy has, in her own way, brought in with the strings. So striking. A moment later as it resolves, it's completely different. It sounds like to me, this butterfly is going up and up higher and higher and higher, of fluttering as hard as it can to get to the top of some building. Then it finally lands and then it stretches its wings in the sun. That gets me every time.
Nicole Lacroix: She was an organist. She had to have a little toccata stuck in there, right?
John Banther: Yes, that's exactly. I'm hearing more now, as you've been talking about it Nicole, this organ kind of influence in the music as well. That's such a beautiful moment for me.
Nicole Lacroix: It is. It also sort of emotionally, and that's another thing about at this symphony, is that it is very emotional. It talks to our feelings. I think we react to these great moments on that emotional level. It's almost as if she's saying, " You've been through a hard time, it's been difficult. As human beings, we have problems, but you've come to the right place and you are going to be saved." It's almost that feeling when I hear that.
John Banther: I think that's even emphasized what you're describing towards the end, because it sounded so far, it's very proud, it's very mannered. Then it gets very sentimental and very touching, almost heartwarming, the way she's orchestrating the end is just, it's so touching. I love it. We'll get into the third movement right after this.
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Now we get into the third movement that is called Juba Dance. Juba is a dance that she includes in all of her symphony. It was a dance that was brought by enslaved Africans from Congo to Charleston, South Carolina. Drums were banned out of fear that enslaved people would hide secret messages in the drumming, so drums were banned. The Juba Dance uses the hands and body parts, like the chest, thighs, and the legs, as the percussion instruments. This was a dance that was also used to release emotions, frustration, and anger. I'll put a video on the show notes page about Juba, but to semi quote the musician from that video, Sule Greg Wilson, he said that, " They understood that holding onto hate is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die. Juba was a part of just getting that out." You'll hear in this dance, some different percussion instruments. We have the timpani in the background, but we'll hear those hand percussion instruments that we heard in the second movement, the large and the small African drum, into the dance.
Nicole Lacroix: John, I remember when I was a kid, I lived in Côte D'ivoire, West Africa for a couple years. Every once in a while, street dancers would come to our development with the drums and they would just, for half an hour or so, just play and dance. It was a real celebration. That's what I see when I hear this movement.
John Banther: It sounds like a bustling town square, doesn't it? Lots of syncopation.
Nicole Lacroix: Yes.
John Banther: This is used in a way that pushes the music forward, in a more kind of longer extended way, compared to just that simple rhythmic motif in the first movement. It doesn't sound like you're tripping over yourself, but it's that effect where you kind of, you're walking and you trip, but it takes you 20 feet to fall. You have that kind of momentum in the music.
Nicole Lacroix: I love the way she uses a slide whistle. This is very humorous, fun, everybody's just letting their joy hang out. This is Americana at its best.
John Banther: That brings us to the fourth movement, which is rather short. The Juba dance is shorter, that's something you expect, especially in a symphony, a dance third movement that is only several minutes long. The fourth movement is just a little bit longer and it's quite extraordinary what she's doing here. At first, it sounds so simple. Sounds like a nice dance or jig like a leg row, but she's doing things that are extraordinary, but kind of hidden in plain sight. It starts off with triplets. These triplets are back that we heard in the first movement, but of course, very different. This is everyone together in this kind of dance.
Nicole Lacroix: When I heard this, and it's a sort of a perpetual movement kind of feeling. To me, we went from the wide open spaces of America and the countryside, to the bustling city of Chicago and people rushing here and there in modern life. To me, that's what I heard.
John Banther: It has this contrasting middle section and this movement, it really speaks for itself. There's not much to describe, except there's this extraordinary transition where she's bringing in material from previous movements. Remember that Bach organ fantasy like writing in the second movement? She brings that back as a way to transition from this dance, to some of the material from the first movement, that big E minor sound from the first movement, because this is the end of the symphony and it's normal to bring this material back. That elevates the whole thing and gives the transition that much more impact.
Nicole Lacroix: It really is, to me, like she transitioned from the pastoral opening and then we went to church and then we had a lot of fun at the hoe down, Juba Dance, and then now it's back to city life bustling modern in those times, Chicago with the L and the wind and everybody just running off in their own business. That's what I hear.
John Banther: It's amazing how she does this, right? This is a dance that's very complete, has a nice beginning, middle, and end. It's harder to get out of that and into something else. She's doing that here brilliantly with material from other movements, and then as you're describing, in just the feeling of it too. Where am I right now in this symphony? Where am I? Am I in Chicago or I in a more pastoral landscape? She does that here.
Nicole Lacroix: If you think back, the whole symphony is really related to the dance. Just like a box suite is all about the dance. There's all sorts of different rhythms throughout. She manipulates them throughout the symphony in a wonderful way.
John Banther: That's a key takeaway. We've said it a lot, and you were just talking Nicole, rhythm. She has an extraordinary sense and control over rhythm. You can write a beautiful line, but if you don't have the rhythm, which glues us, which drags us into the music and holds onto us, if the rhythm isn't there, if that feeling isn't there, then it tends to fall flat. We've all heard beautiful lines that don't seem to go anywhere because they don't have the rhythm and the sense of timing of going from one note to the next, or from the beginning of a line to the end. That's what Florence Price has.
The end is, it's fast and it's driving and a big shout out to cymbal players everywhere, especially this one, because cymbals, they're way harder than people realize. It is not just smashing two pieces of metal together at all. It's very difficult. Speeding up and staying in time, that's difficult writing she's putting in there. At the end, kind of rubbing the cymbals together quickly, it's not just a big crash that happens at the end, but the way she writes that to kind of roll on itself is, that wasn't easy, could not have been easy.
Nicole Lacroix: I was jogging to the Juba and the propulsion in that is visceral. Actually, there's a visceral aspect to every single movement in this symphony. That underscores what you're talking about, the idea of rhythm. We feel it, just like we feel an organ pipe vibrating through us. You have that one- on- one communication between the composer and the listener. I think that's quite rare.
John Banther: It is. That's Florence Price's first symphony, and believe it or not, I believe it's also one of her first large scale orchestral works, which is okay, that's incredible. Unfortunately, this symphony was not performed much in her lifetime. I highly recommend listening to episode number 37 on Florence Price, where you will hear reasons why, and readings of letters that Price wrote two conductors asking for her music to be played. Their read by Dr. Karen Walwyn in that episode. I highly recommend checking that one out as well. Well thank you so much, Nicole, do you have anything else for Price's Symphony No. 1?
Nicole Lacroix: Well, this is from a review in Vulture of a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra of this symphony. The writer says, " There is a belief in American perfectibility in the middle of the depression, the conviction that the country was more than the sum of its faults. That attitude," says the writer, " couldn't be more timely." I agree.
John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown. You can find more information about this episode and links to recordings on the show notes page at classclassicalbreakdown. org. If you have any comments or episode ideas, send me an email at classicalbreakdown@weta. org. If you enjoy this episode, leave a review in your podcast app. I'm John Banther, thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.