Levee at Noontime (Barcarolle)
Little Miss Perky
Fairy Fun (originally “Little Toe Dancer”)
Florence Price was a piano teacher as well as a composer. Her education at the New England Conservatory of Music was largely geared toward becoming a music teacher for young musicians, with emphasis on keyboard instruments. She taught piano at the Cotton Plant — Arkadelphia Academy beginning in 1907, at Shorter College in Argenta, Arkansas, from 1907–1910, and at Clark College from 1910–12. After she married Thomas Price she continued teaching privately in Little Rock; and after the move to Chicago and her divorce from Thomas Price teaching was an important part of her career for many years. A complete tally of her students, many of whom would have had the privilege of playing manuscript compositions by Florence Price written specifically for her pupils’ lessons, remains an important desideratum for future Price scholarship. For present purposes suffice it to say that she taught regularly from age nineteen well into her fifties — some four decades of blending her unstoppable compositional imagination with her pedagogical gifts.
So it is hardly surprising that the four pieces presented here may be described as a short set of light-hearted works for proficient but not necessarily advanced pianists. The fourth piece was written, according to the date on the surviving autograph, on October 19, 1943, and was then copied into the manuscript following another three pieces that were written on November 17 of that year, closing the set. The first piece was originally titled “Levee Boats — Barcarolle,” but “Boats” was eventually deleted and the main title changed to “Levee at Noontime” — a scene vividly evoked here: the constant undulation between D and C (or D-flat and C, or D and C-sharp) suggests the incessant gentle rocking of the boats, while the melancholy melodies inflected with Black vernacular turns invite association with the Black longshoremen and the tempo and meter place with piece in the familiar genre of the barcarolle (a boat song traditionally associated with Venice). The whimsical grace notes and canonic exchanges between treble and bass voices in “Little Miss Perky” add delightful wit and charm to that movement, while the contrast between the cheerful A sections and the sterner B section of the next piece (mm. 1-24 and 25-40) explain its titular admonition to “Smile, Smile!” The final piece then amplifies the charm further — and its celebration of whimsical delight is reflected in the three titles that Price considered: first “Little Toe Dancer,” then either “Fairy Fun” or “Fairies’ Frolic.” The result is a musically rewarding but technically accessible set of pieces that would have been a delight for Price’s students to practice and perform — and for listeners to hear.
— John Michael Cooper