• Florence Price
  • Fantasie nègre No. 4 in B Minor (1932)

  • G Schirmer Inc (World)

ed. John Michael Cooper

  • Piano
  • 5 min

Programme Note

First composed on 5 April 1932, the Fantasie nègre No. 4 in B minor is the last of Price's surviving essays in its genre for piano solo, and in some ways the most extraordinary. To begin with, other than the First Fantasie nègre it is the only one for which exact performance date is currently available: it was given on 15 June 1937 by Marion Hall [MacFadyen] (1910-2012) in a Composers Forum concert of the Federal Music Project in Chicago. Additionally, Price submitted it (in Version B; see below) along with at least one of her other fantasies nègres to the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Contest in Musical Composition for Composers of the Negro Race, and it won honorable mention in that prestigious competition (in which, however, her Ethiopia's Shadow in America also won honorable mention and her First Symphony took first prize). Fourth Fantasie nègre juxtaposes African American idioms with those of the tradition-laden genre of the European piano fantasy, ultimately subsuming stereotypically White idioms into Black ones in the context of a densely interwoven thematic structure that becomes telescopically more compact as the piece progresses. The main theme evokes an authentic African American folksong or spiritual but is actually newly composed, and the second subject of the latest version, in G major and likewise original to Price, recalls the classic blues style of Bessie Smith; between these two there is a cadenza-like arpeggiated transitional passage redolent of the piano music of Robert or Clara Schumann. Most extraordinary, though, is the last minute or so of music — a combined reprise and coda that displays the pianist's virtuosity and Price's harmonic technique, as well as compressing the ideas that constituted the previous 131 bars into just thirty-four bars. Its foreground element, certainly, is a climactic reiteration of the B-minor main theme, but mm. 150-53 allude to the cadenza-like transition, and mm. 154-55 structurally reiterate the G of the second theme, complete with a raised fifth degree that produces a two-bar augmented sonority rare in the vernacular idioms of the two main themes. What triumphs in this compressed apotheosis, then, is the African American heritage — the titular nègre — rather than the White European idioms that, symbolically and societally, were conventionally afforded predominance. More than any of its predecessors, Price's final essay in the genre of the fantasie nègre for piano solo celebrates the inherent beauty of a Black musical imagination that was typically segregated out from its White counterparts.

The Fourth Fantasie nègre also provides an extraordinary glimpse into the creative workshop of Price's musical genius. It survives in four separate versions varying in content and scope, plus two sets of rejected pages from two early versions of those four main versions. Most of those manuscripts also contain a multitude of changes, revisions, and annotations. To discuss these versions and variants in the detail they warrant would exceed the bounds of this brief foreword, but for now we may note that they were of a deeply personal as well as professional nature. The work's music makes this observation self-evident, but the autographs reinforce it in a different way — for the earliest surviving version (version A, transmitted in source AS 1), dated 5 April 1932, identifies its author as "by 'Out of the Crucible.' " Since this version was written about fourteen months into Price's second marriage and eighteen months before her separation from her second husband, that nom de plume probably refers to unspecified but severely trying marital circumstances surrounding the work's conception. By the time of the second version (Version B / source AS 2), which bears the same copied date, the author is given simply as "Florence B. Price," while the third version (Version C / source AS 3) bears not only Price's name, but also her address — a measure of professional autonomy and self-recognition commensurate with this version's likely status as the one that Price had performed at a Federal Music Project Composers Forum concert in 1937 (see above). The latest version (Version D / source AS 4) dispenses with both title and named author, but its musical form reveals an extraordinary self-assertive independence in its concluding summative combination — as audacious as it is brilliant — of main theme, tonal center of second theme, and coda into just thirty-four bars.

In more specifically musical terms, Price's evolving concept of this Fourth Fantasie nègre — a genre which, it should be remembered, she herself invented — entailed the replacement of the lengthy and nocturne-like central F-sharp major episode of the original version with the more compact, blues-influenced G-major episode given in mm. 103-23 of the latest version. By the time of its latest version the work had been compressed by more than a third, the stylistic contrasts between its themes significantly enhanced in ways that focused on Price's African American heritage, and its form tightened to ensure more effective dramatic pacing. All of these versions (except for the two sets of draft pages here identified as sources AS 2a and AS 3a) may be considered valid because Price never published the piece and never specifically rejected any version. The present edition includes three significant variant readings as appendices, and Lara Downes has incorporated some of this material into her recording of the work (Flipside Music FL0017 [2020]).

— John Michael Cooper


Lara Downes, piano