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Program Note: Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes

Florence Price

(Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887; died in Chicago in 1953)

Dances in the Canebrakes (Arr. For Orchestra)

  1. Nimble Feet
  2. Tropical Noon
  3. Silk Hat and Walking Stick

Born in Arkansas, Florence Price was such a musically gifted child that she eventually studied keyboard and composition at the New England Conservatory in Boston.  She returned to Arkansas where she began her family life, but in 1927, another brutal lynching in Little Rock persuaded Florence and her family to move north to Chicago as part of the “Great Migration” of African-Americans.  In Chicago’s south side, the “Black Chicago Renaissance” was awakening with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.

In Chicago, Price soon began accruing a number of “firsts” – especially important, becoming the first African-American woman to have written a symphony – but despite her successes, she struggled for recognition.  She nonetheless composed prolifically until the end of her life, increasingly focusing on music of the African-American community and arranging many Spirituals (particularly for the great African-American contralto, Marian Anderson).  In 1953, the year of her unexpected death from a stroke, Price wrote her winsome Dances in the Canebrakes for piano.  Soon after her death, Price’s original version was superbly arranged for orchestra by her colleague, William Grant Still (1895–1978), often referred to as the “Dean of African-American Composers,” and a personality who often brought African-American composers together.

Canebrakes are a large spread of sugarcane-like wild grass that grows thick as bamboo in the south where Price was born.  The canebrakes once covered the river landscapes, and they became the source of songs and legends – especially as hideouts for escaped enslaved peoples.  Price said that her Dances were animated by “authentic Negro rhythms” from the region where canebrakes thrived.

The first dance, Nimble Feet, captures the sophisticated syncopations of ragtime.  The opening theme is jaunty with a “kick off your shoes” kind of feeling.  A lyrical middle section contrasts the dance with a nod to romance.  Meanwhile, the orchestral colors arranged by Still are delightful – listen, at about one-and-a-half minutes, for the triple call-and-response section between the flutes, glockenspiel (orchestra bells), and the harp.

The second dance, Tropical Noon, is lazy and carefree, a sort of dance that the great African-American jazz-blues composer, Jelly Roll Morton (1890 – 1941), called a “slow drag” – a dance that allowed couples to hold each other close and slowly step – and Price marvellously captures its gently syncopated, intoxicating effects.  Here, too, the orchestral colors are sparkling, for example, Still’s addition of the mellow sounds of the vibraphone.

The final dance movement, Silk Hat and Walking Stick, evokes the extraordinary tradition of the “cake walk.”  In antebellum South, enslaved African-American people created an amazing contest in which couples would dress in finery – top hats, tuxedos, silk gowns – and strut-dance about a ballroom in competition.  The prize for the best “dance” was an exquisitely decorated cake, hence the name, “cake walk.”  Notably, the dance was as much about mocking white plantation owners’ garish wealth as it was about the joys of the tradition.  In this dance’s first section, Price conjures up the pure joyfulness of the “walk,” giving the melody a graceful air.  As orchestrator, Still gives it a more contemporary feeling by adding a saxophone.  At about one-and-a half minutes, Price turns the melody more somber and changes to a minor key, hinting at the dance’s undertone of sarcasm.  Soon enough, however, the opening theme returns, and the work ends with a charming, dignified cheerfulness.

© Max Derrickson