“I’m Workin on my Buildin'”: Sonic Foundation-building in Florence Price’s Violin Fantasy in F-sharp Minor (1949)
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 will compare and contrast Fantasy No. 2 with an earlier piece, Fantasy in G minor, No. 1 (1933) and conclude with a performance of both works.
R. Larry Todd
Katharina Uhde, DMA, PhD, is Associate Professor of Music at Valparaiso University. She is the author of The Music of Joseph Joachim (Boydell & Brewer, 2018). Her articles on Joseph Joachim have appeared in journals including Nineteenth-Century Music Review, and The Musical Times, and The Musical Quarterly. Uhde has written the work list for the Joachim entry on Oxford Music Online, the Joseph Joachim article for Oxford Bibliographies, and she has edited for Bärenreiter two Joachim works (2018). As a violinist she has won first and second place prizes in international competitions in Prague, Germany, the Netherlands, and she has also
R. Larry Todd is Arts & Sciences Professor at Duke University. His books include Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Sein Leben, seine Musik), “likely to be the standard biography for a long time to come” (New York Review of Books), and Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn, which received the Slonimsky Prize.
He has published numerous articles on topics ranging from Obrecht, Haydn and Mozart to the Mendelssohns, the Schumanns, Liszt, Joachim, Brahms, and Webern. A fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation, he edits the Master Musician Series (OUP). He studied piano at the Yale School of Music and with Lilian Kallir, and has issued with Nancy Green the cello works of the Mendelssohns (JRI Recordings). He has recently co-authored with Marc Moskovitz Beethoven’s Cello: Five Revolutionary Sonatas and Their World.