In 2009 a treasure trove of music was found in an abandoned house in Chicago. Now, for the first time, we can hear some of these works, thanks to two fantastic new EPs from pianist Lara Downes.
MUST LISTEN: As most of this music has never been recorded, and is by one of the most unjustly-overlooked but nonetheless pioneering composers of the 20th century, I say: listen to all of it!
WHY THIS ALBUM: Lara Downes’s digital-only releases, the last of which comes on February 14, represent the first recordings of this music since it was written. It's an important cultural marker and one that deserves to be heard. But more than that, the music and playing is really good!
This week's Out of the Box segment is no longer available on-demand.
Once upon a time, inside an abandoned house 70 miles south of Chicago, there lay a treasure. No one knew it was there; no one had touched it for years. But there it was, growing dusty and yellow with age.
Then, in 2009, a young couple bought that house, and instead of razing it (and the precious treasure within), they chose to renovate. And with that choice they inadvertently saved boxes and boxes of music, containing some two hundred never-before-published compositions by the celebrated American composer Florence Price.
WHO WAS FLORENCE PRICE?
Florence Price lived between 1887 and 1953, and in 1933 became the first African American woman to have a symphony performed by a major US orchestra. She was also the validictorian at her high school (at just 14), and received two degrees from Boston's New England Conservatory (in piano and organ) in 1906.
Following her time at NEC, she returned to Little Rock and lived there until 1927, when the violent public lynching of a black man in her city led her and her family to move north to Chicago. And it's in Chicago that her star began to shine. Six years after arriving in the city, her Symphony No. 1 (which she had written at NEC) won a composition competition, and gained the attention of the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who went on to premiere the piece.
But despite this success and others (in 1939, Marion Anderson chose Price's arrangement of "My Soul is Anchored in the Lord" to close her historic Lincoln Memorial performance), widespread recognition of her talents never materialized. She was, after all, fighting an uphill battle, not only as a woman composer in the United States, but a black woman composer in the United States. And she was all too aware of it. "I have two handicaps," she wrote to Serge Koussevitzky, then conductor of the Boston Symphony, while submitting music she hoped the organization might perform, "I am a woman and I have some Negro blood in my veins."
Her music was not chosen by the BSO.
But she kept writing, composing everything from symphonies and concertos, to music for commercials and silent films, to piano works like those performed on these world-premiere recordings by Lara Downes.
In 1953, Florence Price died suddenly of a stroke at just 66 years old. And with a society unwilling to take a risk on her music, and no major sponsor like a Koussevitzky or a Bernstein to champion it, her works quickly fell from public view.
OVERLOOKED VS REDISCOVERED
In his 2018 New Yorker piece "The Rediscovery of Florence Price," Alex Ross wrote, "She is widely cited as one of the first African-American classical composers to win national attention ... Yet, she is mentioned more often than she is heard."
It's an important point. While a lot of Florence Price's prodigious compositional output music is only just now seeing the light of day, there is also a lot of her music that was already known and was simply not played.
And there's a reckoning to be had there, for performers and performance organizations, and certainly for us in the radio biz. While we enjoy the story of her music's rediscovery (and it is a good story), it is also important for us to take stock of what led this now widely-celebrated American composer to be so overlooked.
Lara Downes's world-premiere performances of some of Florence Price's piano music gives us an opportunity to move in the right direction. Beautifully played, and lovingly curated and sent out to the world, it's a step toward giving an unjustly-overlooked composer's music its due. And with many more pieces of hers to choose from as of 2009, I'm willing to bet Florence Price will be heard a lot more in the coming years.
As NPR's Tom Huizenga puts it, "Florence Price's story is far from over."
To learn more about Florence Price's biography and the impact of her pioneering compositions, read the fantastic profile of her by Alex Ross in the New Yorker.
Keep up with Lara Downes's digital releases of Florence Prices's piano music at her website.