Baylor Piano Professor’s New Album Features Never-Before-Recorded Works of “Hidden Figure” Florence Price
“Waltzes and Character Pieces of Florence Price” highlights the Black composer’s substantial contributions to American classical music
WACO, Texas (Feb. 7, 2024) – In 2009, a treasure trove of works by Black American composer Florence Price (1887-1953), including her two violin concertos and her fourth symphony, was rediscovered in her former summer home outside of Chicago. As a Black woman in the early 20th century – and as the first Black woman to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra in 1933 – Price was a “hidden figure” in classical music, facing numerous obstacles from segregation, Jim Crow laws, racism and sexism in the promotion of her music, with only a fraction performed and published during her lifetime.
A passionate advocate for Price’s music is Michael Clark, D.M.A., lecturer of piano at Baylor University’s School of Music, who will make his solo album debut on Feb. 9 with Waltzes and Character Pieces of Florence Price on Navona Records. Clark’s album represents the first recording of Price’s complete waltzes, each discovered among the hundreds of manuscripts in Chicago and now archived in the Special Collections of the University of Arkansas. The album also includes a never-before-recorded mix of seven Price waltzes and character pieces: Impromptu, Rowing, Scherzo, Valsette Mignon, Summertime Waltz, Waltz of the Spring Maid and Waltzing on a Sunbeam.
“I first heard Price’s music at the 2019 Music Teachers National Association Conference. I was immediately struck by its beauty and power, but also frustrated that I had never learned about her during my three music degrees,” Clark said. “Only a small portion of her piano music was available at that time, so I performed one piece as I finished my doctoral studies. During the height of the pandemic, I began to learn more of her music, and I gave my first all-Price recital in January 2022. Every time I play her music, audiences always love it.”
Waltzes and Character Pieces of Florence Price highlights Price’s graceful and melodious writing for piano, exemplifying her mastery and extension of European romantic styles.
“It is merely one facet of her expansive and varied catalog, and I hope that listeners will be inspired to further explore the music of this groundbreaking American artist,” Clark said.
Price’s music throughout her career also joined together the European classical tradition (Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and other European Romantic composers) with the music of the Black church, including haunting melodies of African American spirituals and folk tunes.
Clark opens his album with the first waltz in Price’s musical catalog, Valsette Mignon, and closes with one of her final waltzes, Waltzing on a Sunbeam, with his respect and intimate understanding of Prices’ elegant piano works evident in his delicate treatment of each passage down to the single note.
Clark pairs Price’s waltzes with eight of her character pieces in a similar romantic vein. To a Yellow Rose and To a White Rose precede To a Red Rose, completing that set. Three pieces with generic titles recall the tradition of Schubert, Mendelssohn and Chopin: Impromptu No. 1 (1926) bursts forth with sudden energy, Scherzo in G Major (1928) prances playfully, and Barcarolle (likely early 1930s) evokes a gently rocking Venetian boat song. Three other character pieces employ descriptive titles: Pensive Mood (1928), Dream Boat (1930s) and Clouds (1940s).
“Florence Price wrote Pensive Mood shortly after fleeing violence in Little Rock, and its sharp internal contrasts may express the torrent of emotion Price surely felt in this period of transition,” Clark said. “Moments in Pensive Mood hint at impressionism, an influence Price embraces more fully in the rippling accompaniment of Dream Boat and the hazy harmonies of Clouds. Clouds has quickly emerged as a favorite among performers and audiences, showcasing Price’s expressive and technical range as it transforms from the intricate delicacy of raindrops into the sweeping winds of a tempest.”
Clark’s album was funded by a ONE-URC grant through the Office of Vice Provost for Research, which recognizes the limited availability of external funding and resources needed to complete significant projects by faculty in areas of humanities, fine arts, certain areas of social science, health and human sciences and more.
“I’m immensely grateful to have received a ONE-URC grant to make this recording possible, and I’m so proud that Baylor supports projects like this that lift up marginalized voices,” Clark said.
Clark’s Waltzes and Character Pieces of Florence Price is available on Feb. 9 to stream or buy on multiple platforms, including Apple, Spotify, Amazon-Digital, YouTube, Deezer and Tidal.
ABOUT FLORENCE PRICE by Michael Clark, derived from Rae Linda Brown, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020).
Florence Beatrice Smith was born on April 9, 1887, in Little Rock, Arkansas. In the decades after the Civil War, Little Rock developed a flourishing Black community with expanded educational access and improved economic standing. The Smiths were leaders in the community and ensured that Florence received an excellent education. She began piano lessons with her mother quite young, performing in her first recital at four years old. After studying piano and organ throughout her childhood, she was admitted to New England Conservatory, moving to Boston in 1903 to pursue a double major in organ performance and piano pedagogy.
After graduating in 1906, she began her teaching career, which included several years at Shorter College in Little Rock and two years as Head of the Music Department at Clark University in Atlanta. She married attorney Thomas Price in 1912 and moved with him back to Little Rock to start a family. Price continued to teach piano and began composing pieces for her students, often drawing on the southern landscape for inspiration. In the 1920s, she started to enter her compositions in contests, resulting in her first publication, At the Cotton Gin: A Southern Sketch.
In the early decades of the 20th century, conditions worsened for Black citizens of Little Rock. Price was denied admission to Arkansas Music Teachers Association due to her race. Lynching and other acts of violence against Black Americans were more prominent than ever, and by the late 1920s, Little Rock was no longer safe for Florence and her family. Price joined the Great Migration northward: she and her two children fled to Chicago in 1927, and her husband followed a few months later.
Price was familiar with Chicago, having attended summer music lessons at Chicago Musical College in 1926 and 1927. She soon found community at Grace Presbyterian Church and in the National Association of Negro Musicians, connecting her with musicians who wanted to hear and perform her work. She continued to teach piano and write pieces for children, several of which were published by Fischer, Presser and Schirmer.
By the 1930s, Price turned her attention to larger forms. In 1932, she entered the Rodman Wanamaker competition for African American composers and won first prize with her Symphony No. 1 in E Minor. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered Price’s work at the Auditorium Theatre on June 15, 1933 — the first performance of a symphony by a Black woman by a major American orchestra.
Price’s compositional achievements came amid personal struggles. In her first few years in Chicago, Florence’s husband repeatedly assaulted her. She filed for divorce in 1930 and was granted sole custody of their two daughters. Price remarried soon after, more for financial stability than love. By 1934, she no longer lived with her second husband, though they never divorced. She and her daughters moved from apartment to apartment, at one point living with the family of Margaret Bonds, a young pianist and composer who premiered many of Price’s works. Though never destitute, she felt the pressures of financial insecurity and worked tirelessly composing and performing to provide for herself and her family.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Price built on the successes of her First Symphony and continued to hone her mature style, drawing on both African American and European influences. She composed another symphony, a piano concerto, chamber music, works for organ and piano, choral music and art songs, which were performed widely. After beginning to enjoy some international success in the early 1950s, Price died of heart disease on June 3, 1953.
ABOUT MICHAEL CLARK
Michael Clark is a pianist devoted to the interconnection of performance, scholarship and pedagogy. He has appeared in 15 U.S. states as a soloist, chamber musician, and clinician, specializing in 20th and 21st century repertoire. An advocate for the music of Florence Price, Clark has presented numerous lecture recitals on her piano works and made his solo album debut with Price’s complete waltzes and selected character pieces for Navona Records.
In addition to his interest in Price, Clark researches historical approaches to piano fingering and is the founder of Piano Tricks, an online database of fingerings and redistributions for over 800 passages from the piano repertoire. He recently explored Chopin’s and Liszt’s redistributions in an article for Piano Magazine and published a study of the most frequent historical redistributions in Beethoven’s sonatas in MTNA e-Journal.
A dedicated teacher, Clark was appointed as lecturer in piano at Baylor University in 2022, building upon a record of diverse teaching experience in collegiate, studio and community outreach settings in the Houston area. Clark earned a D.M.A. in piano performance with the certificate in teaching and learning from Rice University, an M.M. in piano performance and pedagogy from the University of Houston, and a B.M. in piano performance from Ithaca College. His primary teachers include Robert Roux, Nancy Weems, Jennifer Hayghe and Melinda Smashey Jones.
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked Research 1 institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.
ABOUT THE BAYLOR UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MUSIC
Celebrating more than 100 years of musical excellence, the Baylor University School of Music provides transformational experiences that prepare students for careers in music. Students thrive in a Christian environment characterized by a nurturing resident faculty, an unwavering pursuit of musical excellence, a global perspective, dedication to service and devotion to faith. They investigate the rich musical and cultural heritage of the past, develop superior musical skills and knowledge in the present, and explore and create new modes of musical expression for the future. While preparing for future leadership roles, students join with School of Music faculty in enhancing the quality of community life, enriching the larger culture and making Baylor a place in which heart, mind and soul coalesce. Baylor’s School of Music is a member of the National Association of Schools of Music and the Texas Association of Music Schools. Degree programs include bachelor’s and master’s degrees in performance, music education and academic majors, as well as doctoral degrees in church music. Degrees leading to the Bachelor of Music Education conform to certification requirements of the Texas Education Agency. Visit the School of Music website to learn more.