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Program notes
May 19, 2024

Florence Price 
Adoration, 1951

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence Price (1887-1953) was one of three children in a bi-racial family. Her father was the only African-American dentist in the city and her mother was a local music teacher. By all accounts, the family was well respected within the community. Florence began her music studies with her mother, giving her first piano recital at age four and publishing her first composition by age 11. She graduated as valedictorian from her local Catholic school at age 14. A year later, in 1902, she moved to Boston to enroll at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she pursued a double major in organ and piano teaching. She also studied composition and counterpoint with George Chadwick, one of the leading composers of the day. She graduated with honors in 1906, and with an artist diploma as well as a teaching certificate. She was only 19 at the time. She returned to Arkansas in 1910 before moving to Atlanta, where she took a job as head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University, an historically Black college. Two years later, she married attorney Thomas J. Price, gave up her job, and moved back to Little Rock, where her husband practiced law and she raised their two daughters. By this time, however, Jim Crow laws had consumed the region and Little Rock was racially segregated. Any advantages she had enjoyed years before no longer existed; she was not able to find meaningful work of any kind in the area.

Like many African-American families in the Deep South, Price and her family moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. The move was as successful professionally as it was personally. Price was part of the Chicago Black Renaissance and was once again able to pursue music on a professional level. She studied with the leading musicians in the city and pursued her interests in language and the liberal arts. She was also featured at important events such as the 12th Annual Convention of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) when her piece Fantasie nègre was premiered in 1929.  

Two years later, Price divorced her husband and began raising their children on her own, ending years of domestic abuse and financial instability. To make ends meet, she worked as an organist in silent film movie theaters and wrote music for radio ads using a pen name. She and her girls lived with friends, before making a permanent home with Margaret Bonds, another pianist and composer based in Chicago. Bonds introduced Florence to the writer Langston Hughes and the noted contralto Marian Anderson. The partnership between the four—Price, Bonds, Hughes and Anderson—spanned several decades, with Anderson performing many of Florence’s songs the rest of her career. 

As valuable as these connections where, Florence’s “big break” came in 1933 when a program titled “The Negro in Music” was organized in conjunction with the Century of Progress World’s Fair being held in Chicago. Maude Roberts George, president of the Chicago Music Association and music critic at The Chicago Defender, not only lobbied to have Florence Price featured at the concert, she personally underwrote the cost of doing so, paying $250 (roughly $5,100 in today’s dollars) for Price’s First Symphony to be added to schedule. The Chicago Symphony, conducted by Frederick Stock, performed the work. George’s underwriting made Florence Price the first African-American woman to have her music played by a major US orchestra. The response to her music led to further engagements, including an entire program devoted to Florence Price and her music scheduled not long after, again at the World’s Fair.

Praised for her blending of African American culture into her compositions, the musical press called her work “real American music.” Price’s music is based in European traditions governing form and harmony, but she incorporated uniquely American (and specifically Southern) elements into her work. She wrote in a vernacular style, weaving spirituals and other church music into compositions, emphasizing their melodies, rhythms and syncopations instead of their text. It was this blending of tradition, modernism and African-American influences that set her apart from other composers and put her on the path to even greater recognition.

In all, she wrote more than 300 works. Her catalogue includes four symphonies, four concerti, choral works, art songs, chamber music, and music for solo instruments. She also wrote organ anthems, piano works, and spiritual arrangements. Much of her music was considered lost after her death in 1953. However, in 2009, a substantial collection of her music was found in a dilapidated old house she had used as a summer home. A revival of her music began soon after and research into her life and work is an ongoing effort for musicologists focused on American music.

Adoration, the work the orchestra will perform at today’s concert, is one of those pieces discovered in 2009. According to The Organ Portfolio (vol.15/86, Dec. 1951, p34-35), it was first published as a work for organ. It was arranged for orchestra in 2024 by Kai Johannes Polzhofer. While research is taking place, not much more is known about the work at this time.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34 (1887)

Based on Spanish folk melodies, Capriccio espagnol is a five-movement orchestral suite. The composer conducted the Imperial Russian Orchestra for its 1887 premiere in St. Petersburg. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that he had originally intended to compose a solo work for violin and orchestra but decided later that a purely orchestral work would better serve the lively melodies he chose for the suite.

Capriccio espagnol is often lauded for its orchestration, which features a large percussion section and special effects such as in the fourth movement when the strings are asked to imitate guitars in passages marked “quasi guitara.” 

The piece opens with an Alborada, a festive and exciting dance from traditional Asturian music that celebrates the dawn of a new day. This movement features solo clarinet and violin. 

Variazioni. After the horns state the opening theme, other sections of the orchestra take it up and begin a series of variations on the theme.

The third movement, Alborada, presents the music heard in the first dance, except that here, we have a change in key and instrumentation. 

Scena e canto gitano (“Scene and Gypsy Song”) features five cadenzas performed first by the horns and trumpets, followed by violin, flute, clarinet, and harp. Each soloist is accompanied by various instruments in the percussion section. 

The fifth and final movement, Fandango asturiano, is another an energetic dance from the Asturias region of northern Spain. The theme is introduced by the trombones. The piece ends with an even more rousing statement of the Alborada theme that opened the work.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Pictures at an Exhibition, 1874


Pictures at an Exhibition, particularly its final movement, is widely considered one of Mussorgsky’s greatest works. He wrote it in three weeks’ time and dedicated it to Vladimir Stasov, a major figure on the Russian art scene. The work is the composer’s response to a display of Viktor Hartmann’s work at the Imperial Academy of Art. Hartmann (1834-1873) was an artist and architect who Mussorgsky met around 1868-1870. The two became close friends immediately, largely due to their shared passion for creating Russian art that was rooted in Russian culture rather than in European traditions. Hartmann died suddenly of a brain aneurysm at age 39. The Russian art world was in shock, no one perhaps more so than Mussorgsky. 

Hartmann’s friends organized an exhibition of 400 of the artist’s paintings, architectural drawings and other works. Because Pictures at an Exhibition illustrates, musically, 10 of those works, it is a great example of 19th century program music—music that tells a story while simultaneously providing music that depicts the scene. The suite includes the sounds of chickens, children, peasant carts moving through the mud, and so much more. Listeners are guided throughout the museum, so expect sudden contrasts between movements and as well as a few moments of reflection, as you would if you were walking through a museum yourself.

Originally written for solo piano, Maurice Ravel orchestrated Pictures in 1922, creating the edition the orchestra will perform today. 

The movements:

Opening Promenade

1—Gnomus—Stasov described this movement as “A sketch depicting a little gnome, running clumsily with crooked legs.” Listen for “lurching about,” contrasting tempos and frequent stops and starts. This tells us how the gnome moves. Hartman’s original painting, now lost, is said to have shown an ugly nutcracker with big teeth. Followed by Promenade 2.

2—Il Vecchio castello / The Old Castle—In his program notes, Stasov described this movement as “A medieval castle before which a troubadour sings a song.” Hartmann’s painting has been lost, but records indicate it was a watercolor depiction of an old castle the artist saw while in Italy. Followed by Promenade 3.

3—Les Tuileries: Dispute d’enfants après jeux—Children in the Parisian garden known as Les Tuileries quarrel with each other as playtime comes to an end. Hartmann’s painting, a memento of his time in Paris, is now lost.

4—Bydlo—Stasov’s program notes describe this movement as “a Polish cart on enormous wheels, drawn by oxen,” struggling over a muddy road. Listen for the movement of the cart. Can you hear it get closer, pass you, and then recede into the distance? That effect is created by the music gradually becoming louder and then just as gradually, becoming softer. Followed by Promenade 4.

5—Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks—Hartmann designed costumes for the ballet Trilby, which was produced at the Bolshoi Theatre in Saint Petersburg during the 1871 season. The story called for canary chicks dressed in helmets and armor, presumably to keep them safe while they performed a series of particularly dangerous moves for young chicks to undertake.

6—Samuel Goldenberg  und Schmuÿle—Two portraits by Hartmann depicting Jewish men—one rich, the other poor—presumably encountered in Poland or modern-day Ukraine. The paintings of these two men were loaned to the Hartmann Exhibition by Mussorgsky, himself. The artist had given it to him not long before his death. The music includes melodies and harmonies that evoke Jewish life in Eastern Europe, a land modern listeners might associate with films such as “Fiddler on the Roof.” 

7—Limoges. Le marché. La grande nouvelle—A scene from the artist’s time in Limoges, a town in central France. Here, we visit a busy market and get all the latest gossip, as well as a quarrel in the marketplace.

8—Catacombae (Sepulcrum romanum) “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua”— Hartmann’s painting of the Paris catacombs is the inspiration behind this movement. The composer wrote Cum mortuis in lingua mortua in the score, implying Hartman’s spirit led him toward the skulls—the dead speaking in the “dead language” of Latin.

9—Baba Yaga: The Hut on Hen’s Legs—A witch in Russian folklore, Baba Yaga captured her victims by chasing them through the forest. This movement evokes the sound of being chased, as well as clock bells that let the witch know how much time she has left to work her evil magic. 

10—The Great Gate of Kiev—Hartmann designed this Ukranian landmark in the “massive” Russian style, with a cupola shaped like a Slavonic helmet. His design was to commemorate the bravery of Tsar Alexander II’s men as they helped the monarch narrowly escape assassination, April 4, 1866.

— Program notes by Elisabet de Vallée