Florence Price: Black musical genius whose first symphony made history but was overlooked

Mildred Europa Taylor March 06, 2022
Florence Beatrice Price was the first African-American woman to have a work performed by a major orchestra. (University of Arkansas Library)

In the late 19th century when Florence Beatrice Price started her music career, it was rare for young people, particularly young Black women in the American South, to pursue music. Born Florence Smith in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, to a dentist father, it was her piano teacher mother who encouraged her to study music.

Price went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music, one of the few music schools allowing Black students at the time. There, she earned two diplomas in piano and organ and by 1910, she was the head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia. She got married to Thomas J Price in 1912 and the two moved back to her hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas.

But they had to move to Chicago in 1927 as racial tensions heightened in Little Rock followed by a public lynching. In Chicago, Price’s husband found it difficult to find work. The two divorced in 1931 even though Price continued to use her married name. At the time of her divorce, she had published four pieces for piano after having continued studying composition.

So with two children to take care of following the end of her marriage, she started playing the organ for silent film screenings and composing songs for radio ads, to make money. She also entered composing competitions and won a lot of prizes. Then what she had probably been waiting for happened in 1932. That year, she entered the Wanamaker Foundation Awards and did not only take home the first prize for her Symphony in E minor (First Symphony) but also took the third prize.

Conductor Frederick Stock admired Price’s work and he premiered her symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the following year. This made Price the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra. The music critic of the Chicago Daily News declared it “a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion… worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertoire.”

Ten years later, Price was still struggling to get orchestras to perform her work in an industry that was dominated by White, male composers. She even wrote a letter to the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky in 1943, asking him to think about performing her music.

“I have two handicaps. I am a woman and I have some Negro blood in my veins,” she wrote, according to BBC.

At the end of the day, her music was performed in concert halls in Detroit, Michigan, and Brooklyn, New York. Marian Anderson, an internationally acclaimed contralto singer, performed one of Price’s most famous songs, “My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord”, during her historic Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC in April 1939 in front of an integrated audience of 75,000 people. The concert was broadcast to millions via radio, and thus, Price’s music reached a lot of people across America.

Price was known for bringing into her compositions elements of Negro spirituals and traditional African music. There were also influences from European composers such as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Antonín Dvořák. In spite of her success, she was soon forgotten and her music overlooked following her death in 1953.

In 2009, her archive was discovered in her former summer house in Chicago, bringing her name back into the limelight. This also led to a renewed interest in her music.

“It almost goes without saying that access to previously unknown (or little-known) music will excite a certain type of musical researcher. I’m certainly one of them!”, Douglas Shadle, an authority on the history of Price, told exploreclassicalmusic.com. “Between 2013 and 2017, the availability of the new manuscripts prompted several more people—Jim Greeson, Er-Gene Kahng, the Apollo Chamber Players, Anthony Green, members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Louisville Orchestra, among others—to edit some of these new pieces for performance, and even to record them.”

Shadle continued: “Over the same period, audiences clamored for major orchestras to program more music from outside the canon, especially by historically marginalized composers. Price certainly fits that bill. But my biggest worry is that organizations will program Price’s music once and feel like their job is done.

“Whether they are conscious of it or not, the leaders of these groups ought to recognize that ‘business as usual’ is what led to the suppression of Price’s music in the first place. They need to ask, ‘How can we change from the inside to become more inclusive organizations?’ This change will include a realignment of certain bygone processes and values.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: March 5, 2022


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