Michael Clark’s knowledge and reverence for Florence Price shines in WALTZES & CHARACTER PIECES OF FLORENCE PRICE. Opening with the first waltz in Price’s musical catalog, Valsette Mignon, and closing with one of her final waltzes, Waltzing on a Sunbeam, Clark’s respect and intimate understanding of these elegant piano works is evident in his delicate treatment of each passage down to the single note. The sheer musicality Clark presents in the rolling melodic line of character pieces such as Dreamboat and Barcarolle honors Price’s work in a way that both uplifts and exceeds expectations. Clark hopes that the fragment of her vast repertoire showcased in WALTZES & CHARACTER PIECES OF FLORENCE PRICE will implore listeners to further explore her works, continuing to give Price her long overdue flowers.
Recorded July 22–23, 2023 at Dudley Recital Hall at the University of Houston in Houston TX
Recording Session Producers Michael Clark, Todd Hulslander
Recording Session Engineers Todd Hulslander, Mark DiClaudio
Executive Producer Bob Lord
VP of A&R Brandon MacNeil
A&R Danielle Sullivan
VP of Production Jan Košulič
Audio Director Lucas Paquette
VP, Design & Marketing Brett Picknell
Art Director Ryan Harrison
Design Edward A. Fleming
Publicity Kacie Brown
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.
Florence Beatrice Smith was born on April 9, 1887, in Little Rock AK.1 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 GA. 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.
In the decades following Price’s death, only a fraction of her compositional output remained available. Her legacy was maintained through the diligent activism of musicologists like Barbara Garvey-Jackson, Helen Walker-Hill, and Rae Linda Brown, but their scholarship was largely ignored in the classical music community. In 2009 a treasure trove of Price’s manuscripts were rediscovered in a former residence in Chicago. Hundreds of pieces, including every work on this album, were among the recovered documents. The manuscripts are now safely archived in the Special Collections of the University of Arkansas. Through the efforts of Barbara Garvey-Jackson and John Michael Cooper, many of these piano pieces have finally been published for the first time. My performances on this album are based on my own study of Price’s manuscripts at the University of Arkansas and differ in some details from the currently available published editions.
— Michael Clark
1 The biographical details summarized here derive from Rae Linda Brown, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020).
The piano was Price’s first instrument and remained central to her musical career throughout her life. She composed over 200 works for solo piano, most of which are miscellaneous character pieces with descriptive titles. The next largest genre in her output is waltzes: she composed 11 (at present count), which appear together on record for the first time with this album.
Price’s music exhibits a range of styles. She described this diversity herself in 1943: “Having been born in the South and having spent most of my childhood there I believe I can truthfully say that I understand the real Negro music. In some of my work I make use of that idiom undiluted. Again, at other times it merely flavors my themes. And at still other times thoughts come in the garb of the other side of my mixed racial background. I have tried for practical purposes to cultivate and preserve a facility of expression in both idioms, although I have an unwavering and compelling faith that a national music very beautiful and very American can come from the melting pot just as the nation itself has done.”2
Price’s 11 waltzes exemplify her mastery and extension of European romantic styles. Composed between 1926 and the early 1950s, these waltzes span virtually her entire compositional career. Her earliest waltzes — Valsette Mignon (1926), Hilda’s Waltz (1927), and Rowing (early 1930s) — exhibit the charm, tunefulness, and immediacy of expression that would become hallmarks of her style. Her waltzes of the later 1930s and 1940s — Waltz of the Spring Maid (1930s), Rainbow Waltz (1939), Summertime Waltz (or Waltz Charming, ca. 1940), Cherry Blossoms in Her Hair (or Debutante Waltz, 1943), and Whirlaway Waltz (1949) — inhabit larger structures, harness more adventurous harmonic relationships, and display more overt virtuosity. She explores new connections between works in this period: the lushly romantic In Sentimental Mood (1947) draws melodic inspiration from Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood.3 In Three Roses (1949) Price characterizes three shades of the flower: yellow, white, and red. Appearing last in the set, To a Red Rose presents a lilting waltz and reimagines a theme from the earlier To a Yellow Rose, now swept up in the rapture of the dance, suggesting a transformation from friendship to romance between the movements.4Waltzing on a Sunbeam is Price’s final essay in the genre, a mature work of subtlety and sophistication. Its sparse texture seems to suggest rather than declaim, leaving space to absorb the unexpected modulations and intricate variations of the opening theme as they unfold.
This album 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). 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. 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. Quickly emerging as a favorite among performers and audiences, Clouds showcases Price’s expressive and technical range as it transforms from the intricate delicacy of raindrops into the sweeping winds of a tempest.
WALTZES AND CHARACTER PIECES OF FLORENCE PRICE highlights Price’s graceful and melodious writing for piano in the romantic tradition. It is merely one facet of her expansive and varied oeuvre, and I hope that listeners will be inspired to further explore the music of this groundbreaking American artist.
— Michael Clark
2 Brown, 187. 3 John Michael Cooper, Preface to In Sentimental Mood (New York: G. Schirmer, 2020), ii. 4 John Michael Cooper, Preface to Three Roses (New York: G. Schirmer, 2020), ii.