Here published for the first time, Scenes in Tin Can Alley is one of Price's most important compositions for piano solo. The suite apparently began as three separate compositions, but Price then grouped these into a suite, provided nos. 2 and 3 with descriptive programs, and then further revised the whole (music and programs). The only dated manuscript is the separate autograph of "The Huckster," which is dated October 1, 1928; however, internal evidence makes clear that the collected manuscript is the latest of the four. Since that autograph has the retroactively added address of 641 E. 50th Place, where Price lived from 1937 until the spring of 1941, we may conjecture that the entire set was written before her move to 50th Place and the address added after she moved there. The handwriting and writing implement in this manuscript are nearly identical to those of Version D of the latest manuscript of the Fantasie nègre No. 4 (before June 15, 1937). Therefore, the final version of the Scenes in Tin Can Alley may well date from the first half of 1937 also; certainly it was written before the spring of 1941.
The Scenes in Tin Can Alley are part of a small cohort of Price's pieces that expressly critique social issues — a group that also includes the Three Miniature Portraits of Uncle Ned (1932-41) and Thumbnail Sketches of a Day in the Life of a Washerwoman (1938-42). The first movement is the only one that does not bear a verbal programmatic sketch, but its titular reference to "the huckster" — a person who sells small, often gaudy items, sometimes of dubious authenticity, either from a cart or car or moving door-to-door in lower-income areas — accounts not only for the jaunty character of the main theme, but also for the periodic episodes that turn alternately dark or showy. The second movement was originally titled "Scene in an Alley: An Intention," but when Price reconceived the set as Alley Scenes in the Big City she revised its title to "Children at Play" and drafted a program that read "Children at play in an alley pause as a beggar woman passes searching in garbage cans for food. Like children, however, they suddenly forget the old woman and resume play." (She further revised this program later on to read as given on p. 7 of the present edition.) The themes of poverty, hunger, and the plight of the elderly in a cold, uncaring world then return in the final movement ("Night"), a movement whose unrelentingly dark and moody character vividly conjures up images of the "sordid" scene, with figures "slinking" and "scurrying," wailing children, and the "complaint" of "an older member of the family" in the "squalid tenement." The set as a whole reveals a wide emotional range and employs some of Price's richest and most expressive harmonic language, especially in the oppressive darkness of "Night." But perhaps the most provocative feature of the Scenes in Tin Can Alley is its overall shape — for while Price's multi-movement works usually adhered to the familiar paradigm of moving from darkness or mystery to lightness and gaiety, the Scenes in Tin Can Alley subvert this paradigm, as jaunty daylight and children's laughter yield to a scene of sordid poverty, hunger, and neglect. Clearly, this previously unpublished set was composed — and intended to impress — as a condemnation of a society that left its most vulnerable members to suffer in hunger, squalor, and hopelessness.
— John Michael Cooper
I. The Huckster
II. Children at Play