• Florence Price
  • Three Miniature Portraits of Uncle Ned

  • G Schirmer Inc (World)

ed. John Michael Cooper

  • Piano
  • 6 min

Programme Note

I. At Age Seventeen
II. At Age Twenty-Seven
III. At Age Seventy

The Three Miniature Portraits, published here for the first time, pose a number of enigmas. Foremost among these is the existence of one complete holograph score for this set, unsigned, among the Margaret Bonds papers in the Booth Family Center for Special Collections at the Georgetown University Libraries. Equally vexing are the work's title and overall structure: the holograph just mentioned names "Uncle Joe" and consists of movements "At Age Seventeen," "At Age Thirty-Five," and "At Age Seventy," but the later autograph held in the Florence Beatrice Price Smith papers in Fayetteville, Arkansas, names "Uncle Ned," and although the music of the second movement is the same of that in the "Uncle Joe" suite, it is there given as "At Age Twenty-Seven." And the latest surviving autograph is titled simply "Two Photographs" (no "uncle") and includes only the first and third movements. Finally, although internal evidence shows that the "Uncle Joe" set held in the Bonds papers pre-dates the other two manuscripts, the date of this manuscript is unclear, except that it was written on the No. 1 staff paper printed by McKinley Music Company (Chicago) and predominant in Price's manuscripts after she moved to that city. Since the Uncle Joe version was performed in 1948 and the two other versions post-date that one, we may assign a date of 1948 or later to the Uncle Ned and Photographs versions, tentatively conjecturing that Bonds was in Chicago around the time of the 1948 performance and that Price may have given the earliest manuscript to the younger composer sometime after that performance — but when the work was actually written remains unclear.

More important for an understanding of the music of the Three Miniature Portraits is the identity of the "uncle" named in the earlier two versions. (Price's own family tree reveals no candidates for any avuncular relation named or nicknamed Joe or Ned.) While it is theoretically possible that the original version referred to legendary U.S. Representative Joseph ("Uncle Joe") Gurney Cannon of Price's adopted state of Illinois (1836-1926; Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1903 to 1911), or to the character Uncle Joe in Wallace Thurman's acclaimed Harlem Renaissance novel The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1926), these scenarios are weakened by Price's having changed the titular uncle's name to Ned in the second version. More likely, considering the names Joe and Ned in conjunction with the term Uncle, is that these Portraits are a musical attempt to humanize, through the process of aging, the stock character of "Uncle [X]" from the minstrelsy tradition — a character memorialized partly through Stephen C. Foster's notoriously racist and well-known song "Uncle Ned" ("There was an old darky, and his name was Uncle Ned / and he died long, long ago / He had no wool on the top of his head / in the place where the wool ought to grow"). As is well known, the stereotype of the folksy wit and wisdom of the African American "Uncle [X]," often portrayed as a former slave looking back on the "good old days" of the antebellum South, dehumanizes that figure by locking him into a specific stage and station of life and assigning to him a specific pattern of thought and speech that reaffirm White racist stereotypes. In this context, Price's Miniature Portraits may be understood as her taking a stand against Black stereotypes that remained current in her day (and in some quarters remain so today) — a clear societal critique. The humanizing resistance to a racist stereotype becomes more poignant because of Price's music: all three movements share common motives — most importantly the descending G – E – D – (B) motive heard at the outset — but the character of these motives change as the "uncle's" personality develops over time. The jovial tone of the first movement yields to what Price termed a "pompous" character in No. 2 and then to a character of serene reflection or recollection redolent of stile antico polyphony in No. 3. Price herself presumably identified with this maturation, since the first documented performance of the Uncle Joe suite occurred in 1948, when she was sixty-one years old, and the other two versions were written after that. (The reasons for her eventual removal of No. 2 and re-titling of the suite from Miniature Portraits to Photographs remain obscure — although the Snapshots puts this work in the company of her 1952 suite Snapshots).

— John Michael Cooper


Jeanne-Minette Cilliers, piano