Suite of Dances

Florence Price (1887 - 1953)

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

The music of Florence Price has experienced a renaissance in recent years. Price worked hard to overcome racism and misogyny in the Chicago music scene during the 1930s and 1940s and faded from public consciousness in the years following her death. Now, almost seventy years later, performers and conductors are newly discovering and programming her works, giving them the attention they have long deserved. Florence Beatrice Smith was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. She learned to play the piano at age four. After graduating as valedictorian of a segregated Black High School at fourteen years old, Price enrolled at the New England Conservatory. She misrepresented herself as Mexican because, although she was proud of her African-American heritage, her parents hoped to minimize the discrimination she was certain to face. After Price left NEC with artist diplomas in organ performance and piano pedagogy, she taught at a number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Georgia and Arkansas in the 1910s and 1920s before marrying lawyer Thomas J. Price and starting a family. In 1927, as racism in the south raged uncontrolled and John Carter’s horrific Little Rock lynching made national headlines, the Price family joined the Great Migration of the Black population, moving to a new home in Chicago. It was there that Price’s compositions began receiving meritorious notice. Perhaps most significantly, Price took first place in the prestigious 1932 Wanamaker Competition for her Symphony No. 1. The piece was subsequently included in a 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As such, the symphony became the first by a Black woman to be performed by a major U.S. orchestra. Singer Marian Anderson also championed Price’s work, performing her spiritual arrangements before national audiences. Throughout her lifetime, Price composed more than three hundred works, including symphonies, concertos, songs, and choral, chamber, organ, and piano music. Most of her music remained unpublished and some pieces were almost lost. In 2009, a trove of documents, including more than a dozen manuscript scores, was discovered during a home renovation in what was formerly the Price summer house in Illinois. Fortunately, the new residents recognized they had happened upon something important and contacted archivists at the University of Arkansas. In 2018, publisher Schirmer gained rights to Price’s catalog and her works are becoming increasingly available.

Florence Price’s Suite of Dances was first realized in 1933 as a set of piano pieces titled Three Little Negro Dances. They were then arranged for wind band in 1939. Individually subtitled “Hoe Cake,” “Rabbit Foot,” and “Ticklin’ Toes,” they demonstrate Price’s practice of incorporating traditional Black musical styles into her compositions. All the movements are upbeat with marked dance rhythms. Price’s notes in the score state: “In all types of Negro music, rhythm is of preeminent importance. In the dance, it is a compelling, onward-sweeping force that tolerates no interruption. All phases of truly Negro activity—whether work or play, singing or praying—are more than apt to take on a rhythmic quality.” The last movement evokes a Juba dance, originally a rural folk idiom that became a popular stage dance in minstrel shows of the 1800s. Price also incorporated this style into movements of both her first and third symphonies. The three dance pieces were reset as a suite for symphony orchestra in 1951, utilizing more traditional, tempo-indicated movement titles.

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2022

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan

Suite of Dances
Composer: Florence Price

Florence Price, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, was a pioneer American composer who distinguished herself early on.  Most notably, she is remembered as the first Black woman to garner success as a composer of symphonic music.  Her first symphony, Symphony No. 1 in E minor, 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.  She 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.  With Price’s increasing popularity today, that very well may change.

Suite of Dances is an orchestration done around 1950 of her well-known work for piano originally entitled Three Little Negro Dances. This suite is also currently enjoying performances in a duo piano version.   Composed in 1933, these three brief dances are “Rabbit Foot,” “Hoe Cake,” and “Ticklin’ Toes.”  They’re a delightful evocation of the style of southern Black folk tunes, and show Price to be equally at home in the milieu of her youth as in the concert halls of the big cities.

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2022

Performed by the Fort Collins Symphony on the concert Anxious, Tender & Jaunty at the Lincoln Center, March 2022.