Abraham Walks at Midnight, World Premiere by the Du Bois Orchestra
Florence Beatrice Price (nee Smith, 1887-1953) was born in Little rock, Arkansas to a mixed race couple. Her father was the city's first black dentist. Her music teacher mother trained her in piano and composition; Florence played her first recital at age four and produced her first piece at eleven. after graduating as her high school valedictorian, she enrolled at the New England Conservatory, one of thefew conservatories to accept African-American students (though for a while she "passed" as Mexican at the request of her mother). At NEC, she studied piano, organ, and composition. Her main teachers there were Frederick Converse and George Whitefield Chadwick. Later, she took lessons with Roy Harris.
Florence Price composed until her death in 1953, producing over 300 works, including four symphonies (the second lost), three piano concertos, two violin concertos, chamber works, art songs, choral works, organ works (especially for Black churches), spiritual arrangements, etc. One commission was an orchestral suite for the great British conductor, John Barbirolli.
Price's music is richly romantic and often modal. Orchestral textures are full but not dense or unduly heavy because of her emphasis on melody. Much of her work combines the native folk spirit, style, and sound of Antonin Dvorak with a strong infusion of the American South, African-American blues, hymns, jazz, and spirituals, the latter included at the encouragement of Chadwick. Some works, like her Second Violin Concerto, are less dependent on those elements. Her use of popular materials likens her to Aaron Copland and Charles Ives, but Price's sound is less brilliant and sharp than Copland, less modernistic and Yankee than Ives, and her blending of materials is different than both. At the behest of composer John Alden Carpenter, Price was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in 1940.
Price died from a stroke on June 3, 1953 while preparing for a trip to Europe. Her music seemed condemned to die with her, partly because of her gender and race, but also because she was one of many neoromantic and neoclassical composers swept aside by the modernism that dominated classical music in the coming decades. Florence Price's death left her silent until recently, when the music of several bypassed composers, including Price, has reappeared in concert halls and recordings. In Price's case, there was a bonus.
Abraham Walks at Midnight is one of the scores found in the Gatwood House. It is a cantata set to Vachel Lindsay's eponymous poem. Lindsay (1879-1931) was born in Springfield, Illinois, a city permeated with the spirit of Lincoln, another native son. the Lindsay home was located near the only house Abraham Lincoln every owned (both had the same contractor), and Lincoln was said to have visited there back when his sister-in-law owned the house. As a poet Lindsay sold his work first on the streets, then by touring the country, often on foot and exchanging poems for food or lodging. He believed music underlies his poems and often recited them from a stage in a kind of performance art that led him being called the "singing poet" and the "Prairie Troubador." Many of his poems were on progressive social issues. Lindsay considered himself a progressive and a friend of people like Langston Hughes (as was Price), but some critics, like W.E.B. Du Bois were not so sure. du Bois liked Lindsay's Golden-Faced People, a story of a future takover of the U.S. by China, and was critical of The Congo, a poem Lindsay defended as a history and criticism of the Belgian treatment of Africans in the Congo. Lindsay, never robust or financially well off, wore himself out giving readings to raise money and committed suicide on December 5, 1931.
Lindsay wrote several poems about Abraham Lincoln. In Abraham Walks at Midnight, Lincoln leaves his grave and walks the earth disturbed that so much conflict still existed on the planet and wondering when or if it all might end. Lindsay wrote the poem in 1914, probably soon after World War I started. Marjorie Taylor pointed out several influences of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address on the poem, noting that both consisted of 268 words.
Florence Price scored her work for soprano, chorus, piano, organ, and a Classical era orchestra (pairs of winds, trumpets, and horns, plus timpani). The organ and soprano suggest two sides of the composer: her work as an organist and her individual voice. The music is conservatively drawn in the style of early Twentieth Century American composers like Horatio Parker and John Knowles Paine and with less African-American influence than her symphonies. There are also subtle touches of Wagner's Tannhauser and Bach's St. Matthew Passion.
Price's scoring indicates that she wanted Lindsay's words heard and understood. Most of the choral writing is vertically chorded so that the entire chorus sings the same text. Counterpoint appears only in the fugue at the end to telling effect. Each of the several fugal entries of that section contains this text from the last line-and-a-half of the poem: "And who will bring white peace That he may sleep upon his hill again?" suggesting that Price considered those words the apex of Lindsay's poem.
Price Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight is one of several known treatments of this poem, including versions by Roy Harris, Elie Siegmeister, Earl George, and Robert Palmer.
Abraham Walks at Midnight, Audio Files
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