A composer rescues a classical work for piano written by an African-American woman whose music graced the Chicago World’s Fair.
By Christopher Hann
Trevor Weston’s assignment seemed monumental, to put it mildly: Reconstruct the long-lost orchestral score for a piano concerto originally written by an early–20th-century, female African-American composer of classical music. Weston, 44, an associate professor of music at Drew, received the commission last year from the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago, which was planning to perform the concerto and release an album of the composer’s work. As Weston says, “My name came up as someone who could put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
Never mind that the composer was something of a mystery.
Her name was Florence Beatrice Price. Born in Little Rock, Ark., in 1887, she performed at a piano recital at 4, published her first work at 11 and enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music at 16. Though she left Little Rock for Chicago around 1927, she could not escape the smoldering vestiges of the de facto apartheid that had inspired her very flight. Even in Chicago, few were the opportunities for classical composers of her persuasion.
But in 1932 Price won a prestigious prize for symphonic composition, and the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock, took note. Stock encouraged her to write a piano concerto, and the following year he presented Price’s Symphony in E minor at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair—the first time that a major American orchestra performed a symphony written by a black woman.
Weston, who received a Ph.D. in music composition from UC-Berkeley, confesses to knowing little of Price’s life and work before he was approached by the Center for Black Music Research. The center was producing a series of recordings documenting the African diaspora, one of which was to be Price’s Concerto in One Movement. There was just one problem. “We knew going into this,” says Morris Phibbs, the center’s deputy director, “that part of the score for the concerto had been missing at least since 1940.”
What ensued was a fairly elaborate process of research, intuition and detective work. To reconstruct an orchestral score in the musical style of its author, Weston needed to make the same countless decisions—how much percussion here? how much brass there?—as had Price herself. He studied three of Price’s piano rehearsal scores for Concerto in One Movement and read articles about her written by Rae Linda Brown, a music professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Price biographer. “Trevor’s name surfaced early on as someone who understands the history of American music, because you have to be able to understand what a symphony orchestra would sound like in 1934,” Brown says.
Fortunately, Price had jotted notes on the piano scores, giving Weston insight into her musical tendencies, indicating, for example, where she wanted to use winds or strings. Weston listened to the only recording of Price’s orchestral work ever produced as well as works written by the renowned composer George Whitefield Chadwick, who taught Price at the New England Conservatory. For Weston, the process took on a familiar refrain: What would Florence do?
“Sometimes it isn’t really enough to know exactly what each part is doing,” Weston says. “The strings are playing these notes. Was it all of them? Or just some? If you use violins and cellos, that’s a different sound than violas and cellos. It’s like reconstructing a recipe or dish by a cook. That’s really how I approached it.”
Finally, on February 17—nearly 77 years after Florence Price’s Concerto in One Movement had premiered—the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble premiered Weston’s toil inside the 1,500-seat Harris Theater for Music and Dance in downtown Chicago. Weston, dressed in a navy blue suit, sat in the orchestra section with a former classmate, Horace Maxile, the associate director of research at the black music center. The center’s executive director, Monica Hairston O’Connell, introduced Weston and asked him to stand and take a bow. It is fair to say there were nerves.
Soon the conductor raised his baton, and the orchestra commenced to play the concerto, bringing to life the lush tones of the score’s first section, the spiritual reach of the second and the ragtime influence of the third.
“It was bizarre and delightful, hearing something that has been in your head for so long publicly presented,” Weston recalls. “It reminds me of why people create. It was actually fun.”
The ballad of Florence Price’s lost concerto did not end on a winter night in Chicago. This fall the Center for Black Music Research will release a studio recording of two works by Price: Symphony in E minor and Concerto in One Movement, as re-imagined by Trevor Weston. For Rae Linda Brown, the reviews are already in. “We can uphold Trevor’s score as authentic,” Brown says. “He upheld it as a piece of African-American history, a very important piece of history. He stayed true to Florence Price’s voice.”
Listen to an excerpt from Concerto in One Movement by Florence B. Price, reconstructed by Trevor Weston, associate professor of music. More audio clips are available at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College.
Read Weston’s take on a completely different genre of music: The Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”