Expressive Meaning In Florence Price’s Piano Sonata and Teaching Pieces

Piano Teachers’ Forum of Grand Rapids ¨ Womens City Club Grand ¨ February 13, 2015

Dr. Lia Jensen-Abbott ¨ Albion College


  1. Introduction

    ¨  THESIS:  Florence Price’s Piano Sonata in E Minor should not be given attention simply because she was a pioneering African American female composer.  Rather, the work should be given analytical and critical attention due to its intrinsic musical value.  The sonata exists as a historical and socio-cultural musical portrait—it combines distinctive African American spiritual, rhythmic, and melodic devices along with late Romantic idiomatic piano writing.  Further, the work presents this material in a structurally innovative fashion—Price composes in these seemingly disparate mediums and fuses them by borrowing from other generic sources—namely, the vocal and orchestral music.  In this sonata, one will find episodes not explainable in traditional sonata form language.  Instead, Price liberates certain sonata expectations and gives her music a greater lyrical, harmonic, and textural freedom, by interspersing cadenza and vocal episodes throughout the three movements.

  • According to Linda Holzer, UALR professor of piano, “Florence Price was an American nationalist.”[1] It is this information that will begin my analysis and discussion of her music.


  1. Biography/Historical Background
  • Florence Price’s father, James H. Smith, was a dentist from Little Rock, Arkansas, and her mother, Florence Irene Gulliver was a musical elementary school teacher from Indianapolis, Indiana.[2] Florence was born April 9, 1887.
  • Florence composed music for radio commercials and taught. Her most famous student was the composer and pianist Margaret Bonds.  In 1931, struggling through the depression, Florence began composing a symphony.  Her Symphony in E Minor, composed in 1932, won the prestigious Rodman Wanamaker Prize, as did the Piano Sonata in E minor.[3]
  • Jackson notes, “It was the 1932 competition which brought her music to the attention of Frederick Stock, who conducted the Chicago Symphony in a performance of her Symphony in E minor in 1933 at the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago—the first time a major American orchestra had performed a symphony by a black woman composer . . . Alain Locke then turned to . . . Florence Price’s Symphony in E Minor. He said of it:

In straight classical idiom and form, Mrs. Price’s work vindicates the Negro composer’s right, at choice, to go up Parnassus by the broad high road of classicism rather than the narrower, more hazardous, but often more rewarding path of racialism.  At the pinnacle the paths converge and the attainment becomes in the last analysis neither racial nor national but universal music.


Price seems never to have thought of herself as avoiding ethnic emphasis in her music, and it seems doubtful that she would have taken a completely positive view of this oft-quoted statement.  Her methods are actually quite close to Dvorak’s in the way she approaches the use of ethnic materials (both of the Old and the new Worlds), and she can certainly be aligned stylistically with Dawson, who said that his aim was to ‘write a symphony in the Negro folk idiom . . . in the same symphonic form used by composers of the romantic nationalist school.  When Price’s third symphony was to be performed in Michigan by Walter Poole in 1940, she wrote of it:  It is intended to be Negroid in character and expression.  In it no attempt, however, has been made to project Negro music solely in the purely traditional manner.  None of the themes are adaptations or derivations of folk songs.”[4]

  • In many of her works, she uses the rhythms of the, “juba   This syncopated dance was best known in the 1800s as a stage dance, although it was based on rural, black folk dancing.  By 1930, it was no longer common . . . Price herself used it, as she said, ‘in all my works which have been done in the sonata form with Negroid idiom’ as deliberately contrasted with the ‘spiritualistic theme’ which is the character of the second movement of the E minor Symphony . . . In program notes . . . she said:  In all types of Negro music, rhythm is of preeminent importance.  In the dance, it is a compelling, onward-sweeping force that tolerates no interruption. . . All phases of truly Negro activity—whether work or play, singing or praying—are more than apt to take on a rhythmic quality.’”[5]


  1. Analysis/Demonstration of the Piano Sonata in E Minor
  • Before breaking down the most interesting aspects of Price’s sonata—namely, the inclusion of concerto-like elements within the larger formal structure, it will be useful to outline some of the procedures that Price follows in her One Movement Piano Concerto, which was written one year after the sonata (and her Symphony in E Minor, written in the same year). Already, the musical aspects so apparent in the concerto appeared in the solo sonata.
  • According to Rae Linda Brown, the concerto is organized in three sections—with an over-arching Romantic spirit.  The first has a spiritual-like theme, while the second section is in a call and response form “of many African-American folk melodies,” the third section in a modified rondo, “is based on the rhythm of antebellum folk dances.”[6]
  • Brown also points out that the introduction of the concerto “begins with thematic fragments of the primary theme,” not unlike the opening Andante of the sonata.[7] The sonata is slightly different, in that Price really uses different thematic material from the sonata form proper, but the thematic elements foreshadow motives in the PT, ST, second, and third movements of the sonata as a whole.
  • In the concerto and the sonata, dotted rhythms are prominent, and so is chromaticism, something that Brown says, “places her music closer to that of her less conservative contemporaries.”[8]
  • At one point, Brown says about the concerto, “This section is one of the best examples of the musical independence of African-American composers in the early twentieth century. They often utilized and transformed classic/romantic musical structures into forms that became personal expressions and intrinsic reflections of their cultural heritage.”[9]  This statement is particularly applicable to the sonata, which, as we will see, adapts traditional models for expressive purposes.
  • Brown writes, “The form of the second division . . . is similar to the most common poetic structure found in African-American folk music (call and response) in which a solo line alternates with a refrain . . .”[10] It is  this author’s contention that the very same call and response idea resonates in the sonata as well.
  • Finally, Brown says that the third movement of the concerto, “abandons the lyrical melodies of the preceding sections for the rhythms of antebellum black folk dance. The movement is based on the rhythm of the popular antebellum folk dance, ‘pattin’ juba.’  The dance involves  a pattern of foot tapping, hand clapping, and thigh slapping, all in precise rhythm . . . For Price, the rhythmic element in African-American music was of ‘preeminent importance. . . In all of my works which have been done in the sonata form with Negroid idiom, I have incorporated a juba as one of the several movements because it seems to me to be no more impossible to conceive of Negroid music devoid of the spiritualistic theme on the one hand than the strongly syncopated rhythms of the Juba on the other.’[11]


  • Holzer writes, “Price’s Sonata in E Minor is unique for the solo piano repertoire of its time in that it is a synthesis of elements of Negro folk music with elements of nineteenth-century virtuoso Romanticism within sonata form.”[12]
  • Specifics about Development brevity and success


  • Slow Introduction discussion
  • Primary Theme discussion
  • The ST1 is in C major (bVI), and is not surprising given that C Major as a harmonic area is given some attention in the opening Andante.
  • A section I label a concerto solo cadenza-like passage ensues in mm. 93-104


  • The first stage of the Development is extremely concise (mm. 134-137).
  • Stage 2: 138-153
  • Stage 3: 154-167
  • Stage 4: 168-177
  • Cadenza episode mm. 178-187


  • A Brief Comparison to exposition

MOVEMENT II:  Andante:  Rondo Form

  • A rondo form for a second movement is unusual, but it recalls music such as Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, which is a wonderful model.
  • The opening A theme runs from mm. 1-20 and contains syncopated cake-walk rhythms, 4/8 meter (also heard in III), and in a low register.
  • Opening C Major with add6!!!
  • “The melodic material of the movement is original, but very much in the style of folk song, favoring the interval of the third. Both the opening and closing “A” sections feature the rich ‘contralto’ register of the piano, and it is easy to imagine the music as being sung.”[13]
  • Overall, C Major is VI in relation to e minor, and is a half step away from e minor’s dominant. It is also the key of ST thematic material in the first movement.
  • The contrasting B occurs in mm. 21-38, marked più There is still a syncopated half step motive.  However, this melody begins in a similar register, but moves to a higher register.  An E6/3=V6 of a minor.  In m. 27 Price uses N6 of a minor followed by V7/a minor in m. 28.  In m. 31 she reharmonizes the melodic material to return to V/C, with the same procedure happening in m. 35.
  • A’ returns in mm. 39-49, now in a higher register, but much more unstable harmonically. For instance, m. 46 has V7/bIII in C moving to V7/D in m. 47.
  • A second contrasting episode, C occurs in mm. 50-61 which is characterized by a thicker texture, a singing step-wise melody, and is harmonically unstable in mm. 53-61 (e minor, g#hd7, followed by a linear sequence in thirds, then an ascending sequence by third in mm. 58-60), all which move to V7/e in mm. 61.
  • C’ is heard again in mm. 62-80 now ff, and the sextuplets recall ST2 and the slow introduction motives in mvt. I. By m. 72, Price arrives in F# Major (V/V of e minor), m. 75 has a#07-G7, which is V/C in mm. 78-80.
  • The final A2 statement of the rondo occurs in mm. 81-102, where it begins as a piano dynamic, moving to a f dynamic by m. 95. The movement ends softly and is overall very appealing and tuneful.  It also represents Price’s ability to create contrast from seemingly related thematic material.


MOVEMENT III—Hybrid Two-Part Form:  ABA’+Rondo

  • Price’s wonderful and imaginative approach to form continues in the third movement, which is a large two-part structure with a small ABA’ and rondo form making up the larger form.
  • The opening A is a bustling tarantella-like theme in e minor and 6/8. It outlines a descending e minor triad, and again illustrates Price’s simple, but lyrical tune writing.  Unique cadence structure.
  • As if Price’s structural processes didn’t contain enough deviations from traditional models, the Cantabile maestoso in mm. 83-121 sounds nothing short of a Rachmaninoff-style solo cadenza episode. This is the B of the opening ABA’ material, and not unlike Rachmaninoff’s piano writing, her melodies seem endless and wind around harmonically ultimately emphasizing #vi (c#), vii07/V, vii07/e minor.  Texturally, the music behaves like a Rachmaninoff concerto solo episode—right hand legato octave melody with rhapsodic left hand passagework that covers a large span of the keyboard.
  • In mm. 122-129, A’ returns, albeit in a much more condensed format. Measures 130-141 reprises the b’ phrase now slightly varied.  The chromatic end of the phrase now lands on a C7 harmonically in mm. 142-153, which sets off basically a transition.  Price emphasizes the half step motion from C-B in the bass-line in m. 153, as part of a vii04/2 of e minor followed by V7 of e to set up Part II.
  • The second part of this movement is a Rondo form, and begins with the major refrain, what I have labeled as C in mm. 154-157. A folk-like simple theme in 4/8 meter lasts for four measures, followed by a secondary part of the refrain, d, in mm. 158-163.
  • Holzer writes, “The ‘c’ section breaks from 6/8 meter to a lively cakewalk rhythm in 4/8 time. The music is not literally a cakewalk.  The phrase structure is not set in the conventional 8-bar patterns of the ragtime dance;  rather, it is a 10-bar pattern of 4+2+4.  Price maintains a sense of development here by varying the accompaniment pattern in the left hand after the initial 10-bar statement.”[14]
  • Marked Andantino, the D section has similar juba rhythms (sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth), as heard in other movements, and it begins on an am6/5 (overall, iv6/5). D only lasts from mm. 184-197, but expressively, it functions as another solo interlude.  Furthermore, it is the same voicing at movement two.
  • The Andantino episode in mm. 220ff., writes Holzer, “George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) was widely credited with being one of the first successful attempts at uniting popular and classical elements of American music. One can only speculate as to whether Florence Price was making a sincere ‘tip of the hat’ to the white man who was acclaimed for bringing jazz to the concert hall, or if the reference was intended to be more ironically humorous, in parody.  The ‘schmaltzy’ lyricism of Price’s score at this point is clearly very similar to the style found in the fifth extended solo piano passage in Rhapsoy in Blue.”[15]
  • The structural PAC occurs between mm. 359-360, when e minor as a tonality is presented orchestrally in the texture, with sweeping scales, octaves, and ffz dynamic writing.
  1. Rhythm, Juba, Cakewalk, and Other Stylistic Associations
  • “Scott Joplin (1868-1917) and R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) . . . set the two most famous Negro dance styles in piano music, the cakewalk and the juba. Both dances originated with plantation slaves, and were characterized by vigorous, syncopated music.”[16]
  • Plantation cakewalk was a competitive “dance for couples, set in duple meter as a sort of march. Juba was connected with holiday dances on the plantation.  Usually, a single singer, male or female, would sing a lively tune while beating syncopated rhythmic patterns by clapping and/or stomping the ground.  The dancers improvised their steps to the beat individually, not in couples . . . Its essential difference from the cakewalk is that the juba features syncopated accompaniment.”[17]


  • Linda Holzer concludes that, “One may well ask what prompted the composer to choose to write in a clearly tonal style in sonata form in 1932. After all, the most prominent composers were writing in serial techniques or experimenting with extreme dissonance beyond a tonal center at this time.”[18]
  • It was my hope today to not only introduce you to the life and times briefly of Florence Price, but to make a compelling argument for why her piano sonata should be heard and performed and taught more than it is.  

Sources Consulted

 Brown, Rae Linda.  “The Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago and Florence B. Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement.”  American Music, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Summer 1993), 185-205.


_____.  Editor, Florence price Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, American Musicological Society:  A-R Editions, Inc.  Middleton, Wisconsin:  2008, pp. xv-lii.


_____.  Editor, Florence Price Piano Sonata in E Minor, G. Schirmer, Inc.  New York, NY:  1997.


Epstein, Dena J.  “Black Spirituals:  Their Emergence into Public Knowledge.”  Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring, 1990):  58-64.


Florence Price Papers Addendum (MC988a and MC988) Special Collections, University of             Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.


Hill, Helen Walker.  “Black Women Composers in Chicago:  Then and Now.”  Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring 1992):  1-23.


_____.  Piano Music by Black Women Composers:  A Catalog of Solo and Ensemble Works.  New York:  Greenwood Press, 1992.


Holzer, Linda.  Selected Solo Piano Music of Florence B. Price (1887-1953).  (DM degree, Florida State University, 1995).


Jackson, Barbara Garvey.  “Florence Price, Composer.”  The Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring, 1977):  30-43.


Schenbeck, Lawrence.  “Music, Gender, and ‘Uplift’ in the ‘Chicago Defender’ 1927-1937.”  The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 81, No. 3 (Autumn, 1997):  344-370.



General Musical Style

  • Harmony:  add6, enharmonic reinterpretations, augmented triads, whole tone scales
  • Melody: VOCAL impulse (from African American Spiritual Tradition)
  • Form: organicism, hybrid forms (cyclicicity in Sonata in E Minor)
  • Rhythm: juba and cakewalk rhythms
  • Texture: innovative (Canebrakes, Cotton Dance, Arkansas Jitter)—relationship between rhythm and melody—often orchestral writing, concerto-textures, vocal music textures



General Remarks On Some of Price’s Teaching Music

  • The Goblin and the Mosquito—(1951) 4/8 meter!  A minor, AA’ Coda (with abac internal phrasing), pleasing melodies, often melodic and accompanimental material inseparable
  • Cotton Dance: (no date supplied)—5 part Rondo form.  ABACA’.  Again, at times, melody inseparable from accompanimental rhythms, patterns, etc.  Call and response effects in B section (d minor).  F major overall, Part C has Cakewalk rhythms.
  • From Dances in the Canebrakes (1953)—the title of the suite “refers to slave dances on the sugar plantations of the antebellum south . . . Price was not the first black American composer to make reference to the slave dance scenario in piano solos. The most direct compositional antecedents may be found among the solo piano works of Scott Joplin (1868-1917) and Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943).”  (See Holzer, p. 69).
    • Nimble Feet (E Major, but moves to Eb Major! ABA’)  Juba influnces:  syncopated accompaniment, melodic material co-dependent upon accompaniment
    • Silk Hat and Walking Cane (same harmonic progression as Beethoven Op. 79/III and Chopin, Op. 25, No. 9 Gb Major Etude).
  • Arkansas Jitter (unpublished manuscript received courtesy of the Florence B. Price Archives, Special Collections, University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, no date supplied). Large ABA’Coda form.  Lots of chromatic half step slides.


Availability of Scores


  • The Sonata is published by Schirmer Editions, edited by Rae Linda Brown
  • See William Chapman Nyaho’s Collection, Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora, published by Oxford University Press
    • Volume 1:  Early Intermediate contains “Ticklin’ Toes”
    • Volume 2: has “Silk Hat and Walking Cane” classified as Intermediate
    • Volume 3: has “Nimble Feet” classified as Early Advanced
  • University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, Special Collections—copies of most pieces can be obtained for educational use only
  • In Editing Process: several small volumes of teaching and more advanced music by Dr. Lia Jensen-Abbott through Clarnon Editions (TBA)





“Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass,” mm. 1-20



Hopefully you are convinced by the validity of Florence Price’s contribution to American Piano Music after hearing some of her works performed today.  As teachers, I also hope you recognize that even by the early 1900’s, Price was a very adept pedagogue, as is evidenced by the care with which she crafted her early teaching music.  As you have seen, her compositions deal with five finger type melodies, evocative titles, and the artful practice of introducing new concepts in non-complex settings.


A Few Remarks About Semiotics


Semiotics, in its most basic form, is the study of signs and symbols.  As music teachers, whether you know it or not, you are dealing with semiotics every day.  My analytical discussion of the music you heard today is not anything “new” per se.  The practice of looking at all available discourses about any piece studied is an extremely satisfying methodology to follow as a performer and teacher.  The reality is that this kind of extreme scrutiny takes time—often more than we as teachers have to give, and more than our students have to work.  But when and if you have time to flesh out every musical detail and to combine it with historical contexts, the results can be astounding in terms of one’s ability to audiate every musical detail within a score.  The process of audiation itself is what translates into our own technical and musical facility.  In other words, if you can hear your ideal version of a passage or a piece in your mind’s ear, then you can play it.  I hope that this musical evidence about Florence Price has given you new ways to think about your own musical lives and teaching.







[1] See Linda Holzer, Selected Solo Piano Music of Florence B. Price (1887-1953), diss., Florida State University, 1995, p. vi.

[2] See Barbara Garvey Jackson, “Florence Price, Composer,” in The Black Perspective in Music, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring,

1977), p. 30.

[3] Ibid., p. 37.

[4] Ibid., pp. 37-38.

[5] Ibid., p. 38.

[6] See Rae Linda Brown, “The Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago and Florence B. Price’s Piano Concerto in One Movement,” in American Music, Vol. II, No. 2 (Summer 1993), p. 192.

[7] Ibid., p. 192.

[8] Ibid., p. 193.

[9] Ibid., p. 197.

[10] Ibid., p. 199.

[11] Ibid., p. 199-200.

[12] Holzer, p. 52.

[13] Ibid., p. 59.

[14] Ibid., p. 64.

[15] Ibid., p. 64.

[16] Ibid., p. 69-70.

[17] Ibid., pp. 70-71.

[18] Ibid. p. 72.