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Understanding Symphonies Part 2: Bringing Juba to the Symphony

A. Kori Hill

In the summer of 1933, a symphony was premiered in Chicago’s Symphony Hall. It was written by a woman who’d called the city home for only six years and had been composing since she was four and decided in her mid-30s to be a full-time composer. Her name was Florence B. Price.

Price’s Symphony in E minor premiered that day by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It would be one of four symphonies Price would compose before she died in 1953 and one of three that we have the music and recordings for (the parts and score for the second symphony are still MIA).

When Price wrote her symphonies (the E minor in 1931-32, the C Minor in 1938-40, and the D minor in 1945), some saw the genre as part of the 19th century “old guard,” a genre that had so many rules that it was stifling. But for some, especially in the United States, were still interested. It still represented the pinnacle of creativity. Shirley Graham, a journalist and composer, wrote in her 1936 article “From Spirituals to Symphonies” for The Etude that Price, William Grant Still, and William Levi Dawson were “the best America had to offer.” To her, their symphonies were the apex of a decades-long journey of Black American creativity, determination, and imagination.

As discussed in the previous post, composers used a minuet-trio or scherzo for their symphony’s third movement. Both forms shared characteristics: they were set in triple meter and ABA form and were short and spritely.

But in her symphonies (even some of her chamber works!), Price doesn’t use a scherzo OR a minuet-trio. She uses Juba. Juba, also known as “pattin’ juba” or “juba dance,” is a music-dance form that developed in enslaved African American communities. It featured body percussion, off-beat rhythmic patterns, and polyphonic textures. These features became part of ragtime and the cakewalk, a satirical music-dance form that mocked plantation owners’ mannerisms and dress.

No one had used a Juba for the third movement of a symphony before. But Price was right in step with Haydn, Beethoven, and others. Juba is a dance form; by the twentieth century, it was indicative of a sly, satirical response to discrimination thanks to juba rhythms used in the cakewalk. In using Juba for the third movements of her symphonies, Price worked with two precedents at the same time (minuet-trio’s dance and the scherzo’s humor). It showed there were still more cool things to do in a symphony!