ed. John Michael Cooper

  • Piano
  • 4 min

Programme Note

The date of hte Cotton Dance is unknown, but the handwriting in the two autographs is consistent with Price's script from late 1930s and 1940s — less fine and spidery than is found in the works of the late 1920s and early 1930s but steadier and less blocklike than her script in the last five or six years of her life. The work thus belongs to a sizable corpus of compositions that reflect back musically on the South that Price left behind in 1927, never to return except on occasional visits. The earlier of the two autographs is titled simply "Presto," but when Price prepared a fair copy she retitled the work "Cotton Dance," retaining "presto" as the tempo designation. In addition to the obvious difficulties presented by the nearly pervasive rapid repeated-note dense chords, the tricky syncopations (e.g., mm. 37-43 and 80-81 in the left hand), and the stamina required to shape the work's dense rhythms dynamically, the work is remarkable for its relatively compact juxtaposing of widely different compositional styles and influences. On the one hand, the well-known African American plantation song "Shortnin' Bread" is never far in the surface of the main theme itself, and is emphasized in the passages where Price gives accented descending eighth notes (e.g., mm. 38, 40, etc.); that tune, first documented in the 1890s, was enjoying newfound popularity in its rendition by The Andrews Sisters in 1938, around the time of this piece's composition. That tune is stylistically consistent with the Cotton Dance's other references to vernacular repertoires such as the obvious Boogie Woogie accompaniment in mm. 47-50. But those vernacular references are ensconced in a rondo-like structure that reveals not only Price's advanced harmonic technique (for example, the difficult modulation from G major to D-flat major in mm. 28-33), its bold tonal design, and most obviously the dissonant section with the two hands running in parallel sevenths and ninths in chord planing of augmented triads (mm. 114-26). The latter passage in particular displays the compositional audacity of Price's musical imagination — for surely the stylistic connotations of a title such as Cotton Dance do not lead one to expect extended passages of dissonance and whole-tone chord planing, and those compositional techniques also fall far beyond the pale of the generally conservative musical training she received. In this sense, the Cotton Dance is testimony to the power of Price's determination, despite her race and sex (or perhaps because of them), to exercise the same freedom of expression that was one of the most potent driving forces of twentieth-century music — and, for that matter, of Blacks and Women generally.

— John Michael Cooper