It was something of a miracle when Florence Price shook up the classical world by becoming the first Black woman to have a symphony performed by a major U.S. orchestra in 1933. And it was something of a travesty that it received only one play from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
“I think a lot of things went into that, but I can’t help but think racism and sexism and segregation were involved,” says Assistant Director of Orchestral Studies and Instructor of Music Education Joel Schut. “I think she’s one of the great, underrated American composers and it’s time that she gets her voice fully heard.”
Schut, who directs the CU Philharmonia Orchestra, is coordinating a concert on Feb. 8 featuring a full orchestration of “Seven Miniatures for Piano.” The work comprises seven standalone pieces—published in An Album of Piano Pieces and Second Album of Piano Pieces—each of which reveals different facets of Price’s creative personality. Seven CU Boulder student and alumni composers completed the orchestrations.
“For this project, there was a strong interest among faculty, students, researchers and music-lovers to feature voices that have been silenced or overlooked in the past,” Schut says.
Price, born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and educated at the New England Conservatory of Music, was a classical composer, organist and music teacher. “But in so many ways, the heart and soul of her repertoire was piano,” says Schut, “so we’re trying to put that into a full orchestra context.”
The program will begin with each of the seven piano pieces performed by seven different student pianists in the original setting that Price wrote them. “It’s really cool that all seven pianists are freshman students new to CU,” Schut says. That will be followed by the 70-student Philharmonia Orchestra playing a newly imagined orchestration of those works complete with strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion and harp. “We’re trying to see the work both as it was originally written and then also imagine it in a 2022 context,” Schut says.
The idea to honor Price in this way actually came from a student, “which I think is fabulous,” Schut adds. What excites him most about that idea, he says, are the infinite possibilities.
“A piano gives you the pitches and any detail that the composer chose to put in the score, but hearing it in three dimensions with many different timbres and textures and instruments and family groupings—that’s just a whole other way to do the piece,” he says. “I really love it because it sparks students’ imaginations, and it forces them to listen in multiple directions and dimensions.”
Price’s history-making concert in 1933 was tainted by racism. Her first symphony only made it onto the Chicago Symphony Orchestra program because it was underwritten by Maude Roberts George, eventual national president of the National Association of Negro Musicians. Price once famously wrote: “I have two handicaps: I am a woman and I have some Negro blood in my veins.” Her work largely faded into obscurity after her death in 1953.
Schut says, “I’d like to think that audiences are anxious to hear things in 2022 differently than they would have in 1932.”
This CU Philharmonia concert is part of a full weekend honoring diverse women composers.