Florence Price, Concert Overture No. 2 (1943)
Program Note by Jeffrey Tucker
The excavation of the work of Florence Price (1887 – 1953) represents a triumph of historical rediscovery and reevaluation. During her lifetime, Price’s compositions were performed by significant American ensembles, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which premiered her Symphony No. 1 in E Minor at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in June of 1933. Her death in 1953 was followed by a half-century of substantial neglect of her work, but the new millennium saw instrumentalists and ensembles renew their interest in Price’s music, a task substantially augmented by the discovery in 2009 of a treasure-trove of her manuscripts and papers in an abandoned house outside the town of St. Anne, Illinois, that Price used as a summer home away from Chicago and where she lived out the final years of her life. This discovery brought to light and made available for fresh consideration and listening the scores of dozens of works previously thought lost, including, astonishingly, two violin concertos and the score of her Symphony No. 4 in D Minor of 1945. Price’s substantial body of work now appears regularly on the concert agenda of performers worldwide.
Florence Beatrice Price was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, where her musical talents were recognized and nurtured early. Just after the turn of the 20th century, she studied composition and organ at the New England Conservatory in Boston, graduating with an artist’s diploma in 1906. Following a short return to Little Rock, she assumed duties as head of the music department at the institution now known as Clark Atlanta University. Her time in Atlanta was brief, however, and in 1912 she once more returned to Little Rock, followed by a final move, escaping intolerable conditions in the Jim Crow South as part of the Great Migration, to Chicago in 1927, where she lived and composed the rest of her life.
Price composed the Concert Overture No. 2 in 1943, between her Third and Fourth Symphonies. The piece was presumably composed at the house in St. Anne, because its manuscript score was among those rescued from oblivion in 2009. A work of around 15 minutes’ duration, it is scored for piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets in A, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings. The scoring of the Overture will immediately call to the listener’s mind the similar orchestral force employed in Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, and the sound-environment evoked by Price will further enhance recollections of Dvorak in his “American” mood. But the nature of her materials and Price’s consummate skill permits her to create a genuinely unique and memorable compositional style.
Firmly bracketed in B minor, the overture revolves around interplay among three familiar spirituals: “Go Down Moses,” “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”. The first half of the work presents three episodes or scenes, exhibiting the spirituals sequentially. The musical character of these sections moves from dark and stern (“Let my people go!”) to poignant and wistful to march-like and extravagantly ebullient. The more abstract second half intermixes melodic fragments from the three previous sections into a unified portrait that closes with a return to the profundity of Moses’ cry for liberation found in “Go Down Moses”.
The Concert Overture No. 2 provides an enticing entry into the compositional world of Florence Price. For those not already acquainted with her work, a stellar world of music awaits: symphonies, concertos, chamber works of all sorts, and a wide variety of pieces for solo instruments and for voices. The rediscovery and wide dissemination of Price’s work over the past 20 years, despite the long decades of unwarranted neglect, permits us to appreciate her at her true stature: a major American composer.
Liminal: an Atlanta Concerto (2023)
Program Note by Okorie Johnson
Co-composed by Timothy Verville and Okorie “OkCello” Johnson, this three-movement solo cello and orchestra composition is comprised of 4 original pieces – composed originally by OkCello and orchestrated for solo cello and Orchestra by Verville – and two interstitial pieces, composed by Verville to act as cadenza-like-codas, connecting the three major movements of the piece.
The four pieces by OkCello were composed for solo cello with a looper, which enabled him to create and play with a real-time, self-performed ensemble of cellos to back his largely improvised solo cello work. He recorded these works to faithfully represent his live performance and Verville has taken those recordings and arranged them for orchestra and solo cello. The result is a full yet nimble composition with melodic interplay between the orchestra and solo cello that still – uncharacteristic of classical music – leaves room for improvisation from the soloist.
Additionally, all four of OkCello’s four pieces have resonances, both musically and inspirationally, of the African Diaspora, and two of the pieces are the results of commissions from Atlanta Organizations: the National Black Arts Festival and Freedom Park Conservancy.
Elder Roots and Tree
The first movement of the concerto’s three movements is built around a piece from OkCello’s third album Beacon, entitled “Elder Roots and Tree.” OkCello was commissioned to write Elder by the Freedom Park Conservancy in collaboration with the National Black Arts Festival to accompany a piece of public art created by Masud Olaufani.
Olufani’s impressive piece – a felled, altered, and sculpted 100-year-old elm, entitled Elder – was conceived and created to commemorate the history of the David T. Howard School in Old Fourth ward, one of Atlanta’s most significant schools for Black students during the city’s era of segregation. The piece, whose limbs had been replaced with gesturing sculptures of arms and hands, cast from alumni of the Howard School during its era of segregation, sat in a section of Freedom Park directly across from and pointing, literally, to the newly renovated Howard School (2020), as a way of reminding attending students and families of its important, complicated, uncomfortable, and venerated history.
OkCello’s composition was to help communicate the gravity of this piece of art and the history it acknowledged. To help express the gravity of this commemoration, OkCello starts the piece with a contemplative drone and melody that invites the listener to travel inward and prepare for the fullness of the melodic communication to come, and he quotes the melody from the song “Trees,” performed by Paul Robeson, internationally significant civil rights leader, singer, actor, and orator of the time when the school was segregated. The movement ends with a contemplative flute solo, composed by Verville that seems to both reflect on the story presented in the first movement and prepare the listener for what’s to come.
Dreaming of Lagos
The second movement, while not slow like most concertos, centers around an OkCello composition off of his second album, Resolve, entitled, “Dreaming of Lagos,” a driving, rhythmic, major-pentatonic, musical exploration of what OkCello imagines it would be like, sonically, to travel to Lagos, Nigeria and be embraced by a cultural family that has only existed for him in his imaginings.
Growing up with a Nigerian, Igbo name, “Okorie,” OkCello has always been assumed to be Nigerian by other Nigerians here in the States. Always unable to confirm that assumption, OkCello has long been filled with a curiosity about Nigeria and a desire to travel there. This song for him, and in some ways the listener, is a reverse Middle Passage, reuniting him, at least in his mind’s ear, with a cultural family he has longed to know.
This movement has a two-part cadenza, comprised first of an OkCello piece from his first album, Liminal, entitled “In Memoriam,” a piece he often plays at memorial celebrations. It was originally commissioned by the National Black Arts Festival in 2014 for their annual gala as a score to a segment they produced recognizing recently passed Black Artists that the festival had previously honored. In the context of this concerto, however, “In Memoriam” almost feels like a memorial song for those Africans who perished in the Middle Passage, a song he seems to offer as he travels the imaginative and musical distance back to West Africa. The second part of the cadenza is a gorgeous and soaring chorale composed by Verville that adds a fullness to the solemnity of “In Memoriam” and gives this middle movement a feeling of grandeur in its ambitious emotional scope and spiritual intention.
The third movement rests on the polyrhythmic, pizzicato foundation of the song “Fire” from OkCello’s first album, Liminal. Fire’s Afro-Latin feel implies movement and dance in the way the melody winds through the on-and-off-the-beat quality of the bass. The melody – the solo cello – and the bass line – the orchestra – slowly combust over the course of the song until there stands between them an inferno of sound that dances with as much intensity as it does control. It is in this section that the solo cello explores the possibilities of improvisation within the structure of a conducted orchestra – an interesting experiment of European and African artistic sensibilities. This third movement, in typical concerto fashion, brings the entire composition to a sonic climax while also bringing the composition to a close in what might be considered an unexpected dance between the cello and orchestra.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, Op. 30 (1898)
Program Note by Jeffrey Tucker
The abbreviated career of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 1912) poses one of the great What Ifs of music history. His death from pneumonia at the age of just 37 silenced the voice of one of the most distinctive compositional personalities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in Holborn, central London, to a physician father originally from Sierra Leone and an English mother, Coleridge-Taylor’s stellar musical talents were recognized and cultivated early. He commenced studies in composition and violin at the Royal College of Music at age 15 and completed his compositional studies under Charles Villiers Stanford in 1896, following which he immediately began teaching at the Crystal Palace School of Music. Early in 1898, Edward Elgar commissioned Coleridge-Taylor to provide a major work for the Three Choirs Festival. In response to the commission, Coleridge-Taylor composed the work on today’s program, the cantata “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast,” which received its first performance at the Royal College of Music on November 12, 1898. Following the premiere, Sir Hubert Parry, one of the leading figures in British musical life, declared it “one of the most remarkable events in modern English musical history.” The composer was 23 years old.
Following the immense popular and critical success of its initial performances, the work traveled throughout the musical world with astonishing rapidity, receiving hearings in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and the United States within 2 years of the premiere. And its popularity led to similar-immense sales of its music; by the time of Coleridge-Taylor’s death in 1912, the publisher Novello had sold more than 200,000 copies. The financial rewards, unfortunately, did not accrue to the composer: prior to the first performance, the young and inexperienced Coleridge-Taylor sold the copyright and all performance rights to Novello for less than £ 20, perhaps $2,000 in today’s money. When he visited the United States in 1910, the composer remarked ruefully, “If I had retained my rights in the Hiawatha music I should have been a rich man.” The success of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast led him rapidly to compose two further similar works based on the same source material and for similar performing forces—“The Death of Minnehaha” (1899) and “Hiawatha’s Departure” (1900). All three interrelated cantatas were first performed together as The Song of Hiawatha at the Royal Albert Hall late in 1900. Of the three, “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” has proven the most popular and durable.
Coleridge-Taylor drew the text from “The Song of Hiawatha” (1855), the best-known epic work of 19th-century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; the composer loved Longfellow’s poem so much he later named his own son Hiawatha Coleridge-Taylor. The poet based the structure of the poem and its characteristic and hypnotic prosodic rhythm (trochaic tetrameter: BA-ba BA-ba BA-ba BA-ba) on the rhythms of the Finnish national epic known as the Kalevala. An interesting task for the listener is to track the ingenious techniques Coleridge-Taylor employs to vary and modulate the insistent, repetitive poetic meter. The hero Hiawatha’s wedding to his bride Minnehaha occurs at the very center of the poem’s narrative, and the music captures the swirl of emotions and events that accompany the nuptial celebrations.
“Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast” is scored for chorus, tenor soloist, and orchestra and lasts some 30 minutes. The work is partitioned into 9 principal sections, eight of which are for full chorus and orchestra. The first section lends its text to tonight’s program: “You shall hear how Pau-Puk-Keewis/How the handsome Yenadizze/Danced at Hiawatha’s wedding!” The tenor enters with the solo “Onaway! Awake, beloved!” approximately midway through the work. The cantata ends in a joyous and rapturous mood, with the full chorus and orchestra reestablishing the G major tonality set at the beginning: “Such was Hiawatha’s wedding/Thus the wedding banquet ended/And the wedding guests departed/Leaving Hiawatha happy/With the night and Minnehaha,” his beloved.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor died of pneumonia on September 1, 1912, 37 years of age and a fully mature composer in the prime of his working life. In his compositional career, he produced a body of music that spans an immense variety of styles and genres totaling nearly 100 opus numbers, including concertos, chamber works, and a full-length opera, Thelma. For interested and exploring listeners, wonders are waiting to be discovered (your annotator especially recommends the piano collection “Twenty-Four Negro Melodies,” Op. 59 (1905)). What if Samuel Coleridge-Taylor had been able to live out a full life and compose all the works in his head and heart?