Florence Price is a Mediocre Composer

It’s axiomatic at U-M that diversity is always a positive, not neutral, value. Whether that’s true in such industries as hydropower and salt ought to be studied further, but it is true in classical music. Like the other arts, music is enriched by innovations — harmonies, instruments, rhythms — from different cultures. And musicology aside, it’s more interesting to listen to a concert with varied music styles than one without.

In 2023, that’s not so simple. List the best classical composers, and it might take you a few dozen before you get to anyone considered diverse according to today’s ever-contracting standards.

Though white men’s predominance in classical music has been a concern for a long time, a few years ago orchestras around the country synchronously tried to solve the problem by constantly programming pieces by a composer whose music had barely been performed before.

Her name is Florence Price. She’s African American. She’s a woman. And she’s dead.

So, the maestros willed her resurrection from the unmarked grave where she lay for 70 years, now to haunt the concert halls she should have visited long ago. The idea is undeniably irresistible. Here’s a composer who proved her worth during her lifetime — her first symphony was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — but because of her race and sex was unvalued. It therefore must be a triumph of restorative justice that Price and her music are at last appreciated.

Among her strongest champions is a well-known conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who will lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in Price’s Symphony No. 4 at Hill Auditorium in April. The Chineke! Orchestra played her Symphony No. 1 at the same venue in March. Likewise, Price’s compositions are becoming fixtures in the U-M School of Music, Theatre and Dance orchestras.

If Price were a terrific composer, this would be an excellent development. Unfortunately, she’s not. It isn’t that she’s bad. There are even some quite good moments throughout her music, especially if you listen to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Grammy-winning recordings, which, as the anonymous “Don Baton” writes in a three-part critique of Price, use “audio production wizardry” to compensate for deficiencies she wrote into her scores.

Overall, though, Price is merely adequate. She’s better than almost everyone who’s ever tried to write music, but worse than Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and the other popular white men, and she has a predisposition toward the dull and awkward. Nevertheless, I suspect she’s going to be in the U-M rotation for a long time. Since her surviving orchestral repertoire is small, we’ll have to get used to hearing the same dull, awkward pieces over and over.

Dances in the Canebrakes is that kind of piece. The Campus Symphony Orchestra played it last fall, and we’ll hear the University Symphony Orchestra play it in November for what I’m sure won’t be the last time. It’s a suite of three dances Price wrote in 1953, originally for piano and later orchestrated by the superb composer William Grant Still. Each movement is so similar it’s easy to get bored listening to one after another.

The first movement, though marked “Allegro,” is not lively enough to be joyful, and the following two are slower. Each movement’s main melody is based on the pentatonic scale, which, by using only five notes of the typical 12, can provide limited expressiveness and tension. Then, after the melodies repeat too many times, the pentatonic scale is abandoned, and moody themes arrive without warning or transition.

Rhythmically, the dances all depend on a rudimentary syncopation. Syncopation is a key contribution of African and African American music, but it had been developed well beyond Price’s abilities or interest by black composers such as Scott Joplin more than 50 years before Dances in the Canebrakes. Price’s rhythms, consequently, no matter how much she intended for this to be so, must have had in 1953 the obsolete sound 1980s synthesizers have today.

So, Price wasn’t the brilliant composer she’s often touted as. Unless you count Margaret Bonds (who wrote almost exclusively piano and vocal pieces), there just aren’t Americans who wrote great orchestral music and are diverse and dead enough to be part of a reparative strategy.

A better way to confront the diversity issue is to feature more contemporary music; talented, published composers are more likely to be women and minorities today than in the past. U-M indeed has been doing this, with decent results.

Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout was programmed at at least three Hill Auditorium concerts last school year. During the piece, the orchestra cheers and claps, evoking the way apartment dwellers at the beginning of the pandemic celebrated the people we briefly hailed as “frontline workers.” Musically, the piece is stirring. Sociologically, it’s a questionable concert choice; 2020 is too far away to be relevant, yet too recent to inspire nostalgia.

The university’s patronage of Nkeiru Okoye is also worth monitoring. You might have heard of her piece Invitation to a Die-In, which calls for orchestra members to fall over as if they’re being shot dead by the police. (In case you were wondering, the University Symphony Orchestra is playing it in October.) But ignore the provocation — in 2023, is it really shocking? — and you’ll find a talented composer. Among her other pieces, Voices Shouting Out, performed in the winter by the Campus Symphony Orchestra, is inventive and worth a listen.

Lastly, orchestra leaders should remember that the main benefit of programming works by diverse composers isn’t fulfilling identitarian obligations but rather making the audience aware of outstanding music. I’m reminded of what Joshua Bell said before an encore at his Hill Auditorium concert in February. (I’ll quote from the notes I took at the time, which might be slightly paraphrased.) He announced that he was going to play “a little romance by Schumann. Not Robert Schumann — Clara,” the wife of the more famous composer, Robert. The girl-power applause swelled, but Bell interrupted: “It’s not about women’s rights! It’s just a great piece.”

You might not believe it, but that Ann Arbor audience laughed. And as Bell began to play, it was clear that it is a great piece, worthy of following the four male composers we’d just heard. So there’s evidence that if we seek music that is (1) good and (2) unique and give contemporary music the exposure it’s due, diversity of style and culture follow. But if, conversely, we sacralize music because of its composer’s identity, we end up with Florence Price.

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About Alex Stamell

Alex Stamell is editor in chief emeritus of the Michigan Review.