Many Musics of America

“I’m Workin’ on my Buildin’”: Sonic Foundation-building in Florence Price’s
Violin Fantasy in F-sharp Minor (1949)

Performers: Katharina Uhde and R. Larry Todd

Lecture: 0:00 – 52:59
Recital: 53:00 – 1:04:59
Q&A: 1:05:00 – 1:16:46

Florence Price (1887-1953) was instrumental in establishing a “black musical idiom” in the 20th century (Samantha Ege, 2020), often by embedding vernacular songs into several of her fantasies, including Violin Fantasy No. 2 in F-sharp minor, built on the spiritual “I’m workin’ on my Buildin’” (1949). “Price’s version of this tune does not concur with any other published version, but one of the autographs specifies that her version was written ‘as sung to Fannie Carter Wood of Chicago by her grandmother Melinda Carter / a former slave from Memphis Tennessee’” (Michael Cooper, 2020). The tune seems to have resonated for the composer with a special force. In 1940 she arranged the melody as the second of the Two Traditional Negro Spirituals, finished on March 26, 1940, which ultimately appeared in print in 1949. Just days later, on March 29 and 30, 1940, she quickly dispatched Fantasy No. 2, a textless poignant rumination on the melody.

Price often performed the piano part of her works herself. The performative act of playing Fantasy No. 2 with its embedded spiritual “I’m workin’ on my Buildin’ […] All for my Lord” would have solidified her faith, which rested in part in her own interpretation of its lyrics: her “work” on her “buildin” and foundations, in composition and in life. At the same time, each performance of Fantasy No. 2 would have created an embodied performed commemoration, from her perspective, of historical events of injustice and oppression in the Jim Crow south, which she abandoned in 1927 for Chicago.

By engaging with Price’s fantasies through the lens of performance studies and genre theory, and by drawing on Ege (2020), Rae Linda Brown (2020), Cooper (2019; 2020) and Douglas Shadle (2021), this lecture recital examines how Price’s Fantasy No. 2 and its vernacular foundation explore sonic foundation-building symbolically and through genre-specific markers, and how she investigates meanings of freedom on several, including generic, levels, which not only helped Price express her own creative freedom but represented “freedoms in the most oppressive of social environments and gave a powerful musical language to the politically voiceless” (Ege, 2020).

The ongoing revival of interest in the music of Florence Price has led to the recent release of several important compositions that open up new perspectives on her life and music and are emblematic of her attempt to find a rapprochement between African-American folksong and the European concert tradition, all in an effort to establish a viable option for American music in the twentieth century. This lecture/recital compares and contrasts Fantasy No. 2 with an earlier piece, Fantasy in G minor, No. 1 (1933) and conclude with a performance of both works.

 

This lecture-recital was performed and recorded at the 2022 AMS-SEM-SMT Joint Annual Meeting in New Orleans at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel.