Friday, April 08, 2022

Karen Walwyn Plays Florence Price's Piano Music

For much of her professional career, the pianist Karen Walwyn has been a champion of Florence Price's piano music. Thanks to the windfall discovery in 2009 of a large number of Price's unpublished manuscripts, found during the renovation of a house in St. Anne, Illinois, where the Price family lived during the final years of Florence's life, Walwyn has a great deal more of Price's music to learn, perform, and record. Michael Cooper has been engraving and editing this musical cache for G. Schirmer (a project that will take many more years), and Walwyn has started recording the music.

This first Walwyn recording of Price's solo piano music includes the E minor Piano Sonata, a piece that won a well-deserved prize in the 1932 Wanamaker Competition. It was not published during Price's lifetime, and only after a great deal of work by Price's biographer Rae Linda Brown, did G. Schirmer publish the Sonata in 1997. The Sonata is one of Price's best known and most often recorded solo piano pieces. My hope is that Walwyn's superb recording will inspire many more performances and recordings of it, not because Florence Price was an African American woman, but because in this work she combines a complete mastery of the European formal tradition with a unique and deeply expressive musical voice. It is, in many ways, the kind of American voice that Antonín Dvořák might have been thinking about in an 1895 article he wrote for Harper's Magazine, though he probably hadn't imagined that voice as being the voice of a woman:
A while ago I suggested that inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants. I was led to take this view partly by the fact that the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water, but largely by the observation that this seems to be recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans. All races have their distinctively national songs, which they at once recognize as their own, even if they have never heard them before. When a Tcech [sic], a Pole, or a Magyar in this country suddenly hears one of his folk-songs or dances, no matter if it is for the first time in his life, his eyes light up at once, and his heart within him responds, and claims that music as his own. So it is with those of Teutonic or Celtic blood, or any other men, indeed, whose first lullaby mayhap [perhaps] was a song wrung from the heart of the people.

It is a proper question to ask, what songs, then, belong to the American and appeal more strongly to him than any others? What melody could stop him on the street if he were in a strange land and make the home feeling well up within him, no matter how hardened he might be or how wretchedly the tune were played? Their number, to be sure, seems to be limited. The most potent as well as the most beautiful among them, according to my estimation, are certain of the so-called plantation melodies and slave songs, all of which are distinguished by unusual and subtle harmonies, the like of which I have found in no other songs but those of old Scotland and Ireland. The point has been urged that many of these touching songs, like those of Foster, have not been composed by the Negroes themselves, but are the work of white men, while others did not originate on the plantations, but were imported from Africa. It seems to me that this matters but little. One might as well condemn the Hungarian Rhapsody because Liszt could not speak Hungarian. The important thing is that the inspiration for such music should come from the right source, and that the music itself should be a true expression of the people's real feelings.
The CD begins with Price's set of five Preludes that Price wrot between 1926 and 1932. Like Chopin in his Preludes, Price and a knack of drawing out the most personal expression from pianists, and I imagine that, like Chopin, she wrote these Preludes with a pianist's enjoyment in mind. Karen Walwyn's masterful performance of these pieces is a great pleasure to hear, and I trust that after hearing this recording pianists everywhere will want to play them. And they are far more technically accesesible than Chopin, or even Gershwin.

Price's "In the Land O'Cotton Suite," from around 1926, was among the first of her published pieces that used images from agrarian life in the Southern states (often with a rose-colored vantage point describing daily tasks from the lives of enslaved ancestors). This suite began Price's relationship with several Northern publishing companies, and paved the way for her to leave her native Little Rock, Arkansas for Chicago, where she spent the remainder of her career.

During the 1920s and 1930s Price wrote a great deal of music for teaching, and she had relationships with many important publishers (including G. Schirmer, Carl Fisher, Theodore Presser, and Authur P. Schmidt). "Joy in June" is a lovely example of one of these teaching pieces. "Child Asleep" from 1932 has only recently been published. Price wrote it on her daughter Florence Louise's fifteenth birthday.

I love hearing Price's piano music. People seem to measure a composer's success by their orchestral music (in Price's time and in the twenty-first century). Florence Price is often introduced as the first African American woman to have a piece performed by a major American orchestra, and just recently has been honored by the Grammy Award that the Philadelphia Orchestra received for their recording two of her Symphonies. But hearing her solo piano music, music written in her true musical "mother tongue," played with such expressive love and musical intelligence, provides the real measure for me of Florence Price's tremendous musical value.

You can get a copy of the CD here

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