Rediscovered Masterpiece by Florence Price: "A Real Mystery"

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On April 6th, 2019, for the CM feature Beyond the Stage, we invited Nathaniel Meyer, conductor of the Du Bois Orchestra, to our studio. The Du Bois Orchestra is dedicated to using music as a means of overcoming social exclusion, and the ensemble does so by pairing historically forgotten works alongside the well-known pieces of the classical canon. In this 17-minute interview, Nathaniel Meyer talks about his orchestra’s upcoming exciting world premiere of a piece written by female African-American composer Florence Price called Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight. This piece was lost for over half a century and was only recently rediscovered. Here are some memorable quotes, but please listen to the entire interview for the full story!

Conductor Nathaniel Meyer on the piece Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight by Florence Price:

…This piece has a really amazing, exciting story to tell…

…This piece was part of the addendum of the archive [of a set of Florence Price’s works rediscovered in 2009]. I ordered a copy to be sent to me. I sat down at the piano and thought, this is an unbelievable piece of music. It has a full chorus, orchestra, organ, piano, and soprano soloist. It’s a cantata written about one of the great heroes of American society, Abraham Lincoln, and it’s a beautiful setting of the poem by Vachel Lindsey, who wrote the piece in the wake of World War I…

…This piece is a passion work directly from her heart. If you look at her diaries, you find that at this time in her life, when she was composing this piece, just a few years before she died in 1953, I think she felt that this was a pivotal moment in her life. She was contacting publishers, other composers, it was almost a desperate plea to be heard. For her voice to be heard. In her career, she had one big musical break. In 1933, her Symphony No. 1 was premiered by the Chicago Symphony, the first time an African-American woman had a piece performed by a major symphony orchestra. She was celebrated, and it was a huge success. After that, her name and music drifted off, and people lost sight of Florence Price and her work. In the 40s, she was contacting everyone she knew to try to get her work heard. I think this piece represents one of the most emotionally intense moments of Florence Price’s life, and it is one of her great works…

…Putting the piece together, there are some questions marks, because there is only one manuscript to work from. There is a piano version which will actually be premiered by the Andover Choral Society on May 4th, and we’re playing the orchestral version here in Cambridge. There are some differences in the score, which is very interesting. But this process has been such a joy, and so exciting. We’ve been working with Schirmer, and we’re going to send the manuscript out to them after we play it. They want to put this out into the world as a published work for the first time…

…This piece is one of her only pieces with soprano solo, and I believe that the soprano represents her voice. I also believe that the organ represents her voice – she studied organ at NEC…

AP: You mentioned that Price was trying her best to contact people to get her works heard. Was she well connected to other composers? What was the American classical music scene like at that time?

NM: She was studying, at this point (rather late in her life, she kept on studying) with Roy Harris, one of the leading American composers at the time. There was a community of composers at that time in New York called the Composers’ Collective, which was writing music for the working class with revolutionary ideas. They were also called the Popular Front, and they were a very leftist group. The community included composers such as Earl Robinson, Elie Siegmeister, Marc Blitzstein, Henry Cowell. They were inspired by Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler, the leftist musical revolutionaries in Germany. There’s actually a musicologist who’s referenced in Price’s diary whose name is Rosenwald. He came from Germany in the 30s and was part of this conversation. In her diary, she writes about these conversations which were about not only music, but music and society, music and the transformation of society through art. And it really connects to this quotation from W.E.B. Du Bois, who in 1926 wrote about the connection between art, music, and society:

“What has this Beauty to do with the world? What has Beauty to do with Truth and Goodness -- with the facts of the world and the right actions of men? "Nothing" the artists rush to answer. They may be right. I am but a humble disciple of art and cannot presume to say. I am one who tells the truth and exposes evil and seeks with Beauty and for Beauty to set the world right. That somehow, somewhere eternal and perfect Beauty sits above Truth and Right I can conceive, but here and now and in the world in which I work they are for me unseparated and inseparable.”

Everyone knows Bernstein and Copland - they were the leading figures at that time - but there were so many other composers out there who contributed to this pivotal moment in American musical history. And they were so committed to music as a symbol and a catalyst for social change.

AP: Given all this background, then, what do you think Abraham Lincoln represents, if anything, in this work?

NM: It’s fascinating that not only Florence Price wrote a piece based off of this poem and based off of Abraham Lincoln. There are at least 5, 6, or 7 of these composers who composed similar pieces at around the same time in American history. Over the span of 5-10 years, there were a huge number of pieces about Abraham Lincoln, and many of them were based on this poem. Many of them, interestingly enough, have a similar instrumentation. The question is, are these pieces somehow related to this movement, to the Composers’ Collective, to the Popular Front, to this cultural movement? Is Abraham Lincoln a symbol, or you could even say, a code? Was he a figure that represented the ideals that these composers held so dear? It’s a real mystery and coincidence.

This piece is a portal into a different time in American history and life, but it's also a time that has a lot of resonance with where we are today and who we want to be, and the role of music and the role of the artist in our time. It’s always been a complicated question – what is the role of the artist in society? The artist is not a politician, but as Howard Zinn said, the artist stands apart and is able to comment on the nature of society. He talks about the moral imperative of the artist to not only affirm where we stand but also to lead us forward. I think Florence Price was doing just that. She was writing music that gave people hope and a sense of openness towards the future, a sense of idealism. At the end of this beautiful cantata, the chorus is singing in full force and the orchestra is playing at full force, but the piece ends with a question. Florence Price asks a question of all of us, as musicians, as listeners – who are we, where do we come from, and where do we want to go?

Allison Pao is a producer for WHRB Classical. You can listen to the Du Bois Orchestra and the world premiere of Florence Price’s Abraham Walks at Midnight this at 8pm this Friday, April 12th, at First Church Cambridge located at 11 Garden Street. You can reserve free tickets here or get them at the door.