FANTASIE NEGRE: realization of a black girl's fantasy
Fantasyˈ| ˈfantəsi,ˈfantəzi |
the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things
(Cambridge English Dictionary)
Florence Price allowed me to see myself in the centre of a history I had spent my whole life learning about from the periphery. Before I knew about her life and music, I had been inculcated to see classical music as the exclusive domain of white men. My music education proceeded from here and left me looking into a world in which I felt I could never truly belong. This was my norm. Black women did not exist here. Each history seminar, theory class and piano lesson affirmed this seeming reality. Being the only black girl in the music classroom affirmed that I should not exist either. I knew that I could not possibly have been the first black girl in classical music. But looking around, there was very little to suggest otherwise. Like trying to dream up a new colour, I struggled to paint alternative possibilities in my mind and to imagine a classical music history that placed black women at the centre. These were impossible or improbable things.
One of my secondary school music teachers suggested that I could be a composer. She emphasized the specialness of being a black female one at that. I found the suggestion uncomfortable, even strange. My experiences studying music had reinforced my position on the outside, but there was my teacher asserting a place for me at the centre. Rather than work through the cognitive dissonance, I placed the idea out of sight, out of mind.
The adage “you can’t be what you can’t see” had clearly worked its way into my psyche. It had also warped into another pragmatic truth: you can see what you can’t be. I think of the time my piano teacher told my ten-year-old self to put aside my Scott Joplin rags for some real music. I was annoyed. But it was the same kind of annoyance I had towards being told to practice. And in the same way I eventually accepted the logical correlation between practice and progress, I also came to accept that Joplin’s music wasn’t real and bore no relation to my progress. In fact, it symbolized quite the opposite. I was too unaware to distinguish between what was useful fact and what was racist fiction, so I believed it all. The significance of playing music by a black composer barely had time to settle. Order was restored. I played (and eventually practiced) as normal. My Joplin rags were a reminder of what, or who, I couldn’t be as a classical pianist.
As time went on, I simultaneously became more involved yet less at ease with classical music. I became privy to a world that entwined exclusivity, elitism and whiteness; a world of unspoken rules; a world where clapping between the movements of a piece was sometimes seen as barbaric. Joplin gave me a glimpse into what new possibilities for this world could look like. But upon learning his rags were not real music, my view shifted. It was as if my teacher had pointed out the hidden visual in an optical illusion. I could not unsee the image of who belonged in the classical world and who did not.
That was until my foreign exchange year at McGill University, Canada.
My professor's “Early Twentieth-Century Music” course included Price and Margaret Bonds. Their names and works followed the previous week’s focus on Lili and Nadia Boulanger. My encounter with the Boulanger sisters marked a pivotal moment. Up until this point, it had never truly occurred to me that there was an actual history of women composers. Naturally, my encounter with Price and Bonds was a revelation. While I may have been vaguely aware of women in classical music, this awareness had not yet extended to the likelihood of these women being anything other than white.
In anticipation of the Price-Bonds class, I clicked the first audio link provided by the professor. The track was Price’s Fantasie Negre, and with that broad and bold opening e minor chord, my existence was written into history. If I compare my experience at McGill to the moment my secondary school teacher told me I could be a composer, I see that my teacher had essentially given me a destination with no directions for how to get there. At sixteen, I didn’t know how to explore this path and navigate this kind of journey on my own. My professor, however, brought these two brilliant black women to the fore with real intent. She accompanied their presence in the syllabus with resources that equipped me with the tools to determine my own direction. (PhD dissertation The Aesthetics of Florence Price: Negotiating the Dissonances of a New World Nationalism coming soon!)
Fantasie Negre carried the message that there was nothing incompatible, and more importantly, nothing new about being black, classically-trained and a woman. Because of Price, Bonds and the numerous composers of African descent that I would later learn about, I no longer had to dream up the impossible. I could see a very real classical music history before me that placed black women at the centre. And I could see myself.
Fantasie Negre didn’t inspire me to become a composer (as my secondary school music teacher might have hoped), but it did push me to broaden my definitions of what could be. It allowed me to see my potential in a powerful and uninhibited light. It gave me permission to wholeheartedly and unapologetically pursue whatever I decided that potential was.
As a pianist, I was enamoured with Helen Walker-Hill’s interpretation of Fantasie Negre (from Kaleidoscope: Music by African American Women). But I knew my interpretation would be different. I wanted to use Price’s andante and moderato tempo markings as an opportunity to explore greater temporal, spatial and even mental freedoms. So far, I’d been conditioned to minimize and even erase black classical lives within the classical music narrative. To work through this, I aimed to take up more time in my exploration of Fantasie Negre, to occupy more space, embrace centre stage, linger and indulge.
Here is my Fantasie Negre, my realization of a world where black classical lives exist, matter and thrive.
About Florence Price
Florence Price is recognized as the first African-American woman to achieve national and international success as a composer. She was born in Little Rock Arkansas and began piano lessons with her mother when she was 3 years old. At the age of 19, Price graduated with the highest honours. She earned a double major in piano teaching and organ performance from the New England Conservatory of Music. Five years after moving to Chicago, Price won the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Music Contest (a national competition for African-American composers). Her Sonata in E Minor and Symphony in E Minor won first prize.
About Fantasie Negre
Price dedicated Fantasie Negre (1929) to Margaret Bonds. The theme comes directly from the Negro Spiritual “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass.” Soon after its composition, a dance troupe, led by Russian ballet teacher Ludmilla Speranza and pioneering African-American choreographer Katherine Dunham, premiered Fantasie Negre as a ballet. Bonds, a frequent and familiar interpreter of Price’s works, accompanied the performance.