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Happy Birthday, Florence Price - Groundbreaking Composer

Alan Westby, Librarian, Art, Music & Recreation Department,
Portrait of Florence Price taken by G. Niledoff
Florence Beatrice Price was born Florence Beatrice Smith in Little Rock, Arkansas on April 9, 1887. Photo credit: G. Niledoff / Florence Price Papers

On Easter Sunday, 1939, contralto Marian Anderson performed one of the most significant concerts in American history. Though Anderson was originally scheduled to perform in Washington D.C.'s Constitution Hall, the Daughters of the American Revolution enforced segregationist policies of the day and refused to allow her to hold her concert at the location. Instead, Howard University and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Anderson to hold the concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This concert, which became an iconic moment in the fight for civil rights, was performed before an audience of more than 75,000 people and broadcast by radio to countless more. Anderson concluded this legendary concert with an arrangement of the spiritual, 'My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord' written for her by her friend, the composer Florence Price.

As a female composer of African-American descent, Price, like Anderson, broke through many barriers in the field of classical music throughout her career. Her First Symphony was the first composition by an African-American woman to be performed by a major orchestra, and she went on to receive international commissions for her works. After her premature death in 1953, Price's music was largely overlooked on the concert stage for over half a century. Scholarship and major discoveries of unpublished manuscripts in recent years have helped bring about performances and recordings of Florence Price's music, bringing her to public attention once again.

Program featuring the debut of Price’s Symphony No. 1
Program featuring the debut of Price’s Symphony No. 1

Florence Beatrice Price was born Florence Beatrice Smith in Little Rock, Arkansas on April 9, 1887. The family of composer William Grant Still were also residents of Little Rock at this time and were acquaintances of the Price family. Price and Still attended the same schools, and, though he was eight years her junior, the two retained a friendship throughout her life. Of Price's family, Still later recalled, "They belonged to our social set—which consisted of people who were interested in intellectual matters."

Growing up in an upper-middle-class family during the immediate post-Reconstruction Era, Price was exposed to a broad range of cultural and intellectual pursuits from an early age. Price's mother was a school teacher and gave Florence, the youngest of her three children, early musical training at the piano. At church, Price became familiar with the sacred works of such classical masters as Bach, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Palestrina, and Haydn. She began composing melodies at an early age and had her first piece published in 1899. When racial discrimination denied her the ability to pursue further musical studies in the South, she enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she studied with George Chadwick. She was already an active composer by the time she graduated with degrees in piano and organ in 1906, and, by 1910 she was head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia.

She married Thomas Price in 1912 and moved with him back to Little Rock, where he had a law practice. In Little Rock, she gave lessons in piano, organ, and violin. At this time her compositional skills were put to use mainly in writing exercises for her students. By the time of Price's return to Little Rock, Jim Crow laws had set up more racial barriers throughout the South. She was denied membership in the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association due to her race. She started the Little Rock Club of Musicians, which allowed an outlet for performances of her own compositions, and began winning awards and recognition for her music throughout the 1920s. She continued pursuing musical education at this time by taking summer courses in Chicago. Worsening race relations in Arkansas, culminating in the lynching of an African American man near her husband's office, led Price and her family to leave Little Rock and permanently settle in Chicago in 1927. The Price family was thus part of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South which would lead to the blossoming of the Chicago Black Renaissance of the 1930s to 1950s.

In Chicago, Price was welcomed into a musically active community that included groups focused on encouraging Black and women's involvement in classical music. The National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) was founded in Chicago in 1919 to encourage African-American performers and composers of classical music. The organization gave its first scholarship to singer Marian Anderson while she was still in high school. In this encouraging atmosphere, Price's career began to take off. She published a set of piano pieces in 1928, and became acquainted with such prominent figures as W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, setting poems by the latter two to music. She also continued her studies in Chicago, pursuing studies in languages and the liberal arts at the University of Chicago, and earning a postgraduate degree in 1934.

Chicago was not as advantageous to Price's husband's career, however. He lost his job after the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and, to support the family, Florence gave music lessons, and played organ for silent film screenings. Though her aspirations were always for the concert stage, she also wrote popular songs for radio commercials under the pen name "Vee Jay" at this time. Nevertheless, the strain on the marriage from money problems led to their divorce in 1931.

Now a single mother of two daughters, financial struggles worsened for Price. After a short-lived second marriage, she lived for a time at the home of her student, Margaret Bonds. The Bonds household proved beneficial for Price's musical connections, as Margaret’s mother, Estella Bonds was a prominent figure in Chicago's musical life. A musician herself, Estella Bonds had been the first music critic of the Chicago Defender, and was renowned for her salon gatherings. Margaret Bonds was also to become a successful teacher, pianist, and composer, and a frequent collaborator with Langston Hughes. While living with the Bonds family, Price organized concerts around Chicago as director of the Chicago Treble Clef Club. Membership in the NANM brought Price into contact with such nationally-known musicians as Marian Anderson, and composer William Dawson. Through their association, Price would write more than 50 songs specifically for Anderson.

In this supportive musical environment, Price, now in her 40s, could write for larger instrumental forces with some expectation that they might be performed. She had started on the composition of her first large-scale orchestral work, her First Symphony, in January 1931. In a 1967 interview, Margaret Bonds recalled, "During the cold winter nights in Chicago, we used to sit around a large table in our kitchen—manuscript paper strewn around, Florence and I extracting parts for some contest deadline. We were a God-loving people, and, when we were pushed for time, every brown-skinned musician in Chicago who could write a note, would 'jump-to' and help Florence meet her deadline."

She submitted her First Symphony, along with three other works to the Rodman Wanamaker music contest in 1932. The symphony won first prize, her piano sonata won third prize, and her other two submissions—the orchestral piece “Ethiopia's Shadow in America”, and the “Fantasie Nègre No. 4” for piano—both gained honorable mentions. Only 19 at the time, Margaret Bonds also entered the competition and won second prize for her song, “Sea Ghost”.

Besides awarding Price a cash prize of $750—the equivalent of over $14,000 today—the competition also brought her symphony to the attention of Frederick Stock, who had been conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1905. Long a champion of American music, the German-born Stock had insisted on including at least one American piece per program since 1917. Stock offered to conduct Price's symphony and invited her to attend rehearsals. When Price's composition was premiered by the Chicago Symphony in a concert on June 15, 1933, it became the first symphony by an African-American woman performed by a major orchestra. Margaret Bonds also made history in this concert as the first African-American soloist to perform with the orchestra, in John Alden Carpenter's Concertino for Piano and Orchestra.

The concert was situated in time as part of the blossoming and affirmation of African-American cultural expression represented by the Harlem Renaissance and the Chicago Black Renaissance. The premiere of Price's symphony came a mere two years after William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony had become the first symphony by an African American performed by a major orchestra—Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra—in 1931. Including William Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony, premiered in 1934 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, three major symphonic works by African-American composers were premiered by major orchestras within four years. All three works used the structure of the European symphony to express the vocabulary of African American musical traditions, particularly spirituals. Among Price's references to African-American heritage in her First Symphony were the inclusion of African drums in the orchestra, and the replacement of the third movement minuet or scherzo with a "Juba Dance"—a syncopated African-American dance form with origins in Angola. The Juba Dance became one of Price's signatures, including Juba third movements in several pieces, including her piano quintet, and her third and fourth symphonies.

Price received a good deal of public attention from the premiere. Present in the audience were such prominent national figures as composers John Alden Carpenter and George Gershwin, and diplomat Adlai Stevenson. The concert was covered by press and radio, and very well received. The Chicago Daily News wrote the symphony was, '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.'

With the success of her First Symphony, Stock encouraged Price to write a piano concerto. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered the resulting piano concerto in one movement with Price as soloist, on June 24, 1934. After its premiere, the concerto received several performances in a reduction for two pianos, with Margaret Bonds as accompanist or soloist. The full score was long thought lost and reconstructed through existing reductions, however, the original score was rediscovered in 2019.

The livelihood of professional musicians had been severely curtailed by the advent of radio and sound in film. The Depression made the situation even more dire. To help alleviate financial stress such as this, the Roosevelt administration started the Federal Music Project as part of the Works Projects Administration in 1935. WPA sponsorship enabled Price to have more major works performed in the 1930s and early 1940s. In 1939 the Chicago Woman's Symphony performed her Second Symphony in G Minor. Written about 1935, at present only the first page of this composition is extant. The Michigan WPA Concert Band popularized her Three Negro Dances, which were then taken up for performance throughout the 1940s and '50s by the United States Marine Band.

Price composed her Third Symphony in the summer of 1938 and revised it a year later. In this work, she attempted to express contemporary African-American 'life and psychology', but, unlike many of her other works, without directly imitating traditional African-American music. The Michigan WPA Orchestra gave this symphony its first performance on November 6, 1940, at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

When Marian Anderson concluded her legendary performance at the Lincoln Memorial with Price's arrangement of 'My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord', she brought Price's music to the ears of an integrated audience of 75,000 in attendance, as well as millions through the airwaves. In response to the DAR's refusal to allow Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt later withdrew her membership from the organization, writing to them, "I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist...you had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed." Anderson continued performing Price's arrangement in other concerts, including the radio program Bell Telephone Hour in September 1942, and during a tour of Russia in 1957.

Despite historic successes and high-profile performances in the 1930s, as a female composer of African-American ancestry, Price faced opposition in the concert world, which constrained her career. In a 1943 letter asking Serge Koussevitzky to consider performing her music with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, she wrote: "To begin with I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. Unfortunately, the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic, and virility. Add to that the incident of race—I have Colored blood in my veins—and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position."

Though the recognition she received in the 1930s diminished somewhat as the 40s progressed, Price never stopped composing. Her Fourth Symphony, written in 1945, quotes the spiritual "Wade in the Water", and again includes a "Juba Dance" as its third movement. Price's fame had reached Europe, and in 1951 Sir John Barbirolli commissioned her to compose a piece for string orchestra based on African-American spirituals. Price responded with her suite for strings, which Barbirolli premiered in England with the Hallé Orchestra. Though she was invited, health issues prevented Price from traveling to Europe to attend the performance.

Dedication program for the opening of the Florence B. Price Elementary School
Dedication program for the opening of the Florence B. Price Elementary School

In 1953 Price was again scheduled to travel to Europe to receive an award in France, and to vacation there and in England. The trip had to be canceled, however, when she was hospitalized after a stroke. She died on May 26, 1953, at the age of 66. Chicago honored her memory in November 1964 with the dedication of the Florence B. Price Elementary School. The opening ceremony included performances of her first piano concerto and her second violin concerto, completed a year before her death.

Through the recognition she had achieved during her lifetime, the barriers she had broken during her career, and with the existence of several of her works in publication, Florence Price's name retained a place in music history following her death. A vast quantity of her music was assumed to be lost forever and came perilously close to being so. Though her name was known, particularly among students of African-American music, her music was less frequently heard on the concert stage in the decades following her death. Having had more songs published than instrumental pieces, her vocal music—songs and arrangements of spirituals—retained more of a place in the repertoire after her death. Musicologists such as Eileen Southern, Barbara Garvey Jackson, and Rae Linda Brown kept Price's memory alive through scholarship, culminating in Brown's biography of the composer, The Heart of a Woman, published in 2020.

A series of remarkable, news-making discoveries have helped rescue Price's legacy, and to put her music back into the public eye during the past decade. In 2009, a married couple purchased Price's summer house in St. Anne, Illinois, 70 miles south of Chicago, which had long lain vacant. In it, they discovered a trove of about 30 boxes of musical manuscripts by Price containing approximately 200 compositions that had never been published and were assumed lost, including her Fourth Symphony. This symphony received its world-premiere recording in 2019. Also among the manuscripts were her two violin concerti, the first of which, composed in 1939, was never performed during Price’s lifetime. G. Schirmer bought the manuscripts with the intention of publication. Schirmer had previously added Price's Piano Sonata in E Minor to their Library of Classics in 1997. In 2019 Schirmer acquired another collection of handwritten scores by Price, some dating back to the 1900s, including the original orchestration of the piano concerto. In the years since these findings, performers, composers, and musicologists have been working through the manuscripts and assembling them for performance and publication. Schirmer began publication of these new discoveries in 2018 and currently lists nearly 100 works by Florence Price in their catalog.

With the recent discoveries of Florence Price's music, has come a renewed focus on and appreciation of her legacy through festivals, studies, performances, and recordings. The International Florence Price Festival had planned to hold its inaugural conference in 2020, however, due to the pandemic, it has been postponed to Summer 2021 in Washington D.C. A virtual Price Fest was held in August 2020. Recordings of her two violin concerti, her symphonies, and her songs and piano pieces have been released for the first time and proved popular with audiences. Just this month (March 2021), pianist and musicologist Dr. Samantha Ege released an album of Price's piano music, including her reconstruction of the long-incomplete Fantasie Nègre No. 3 in f Minor.

Price's musical style reflects both the European classical tradition of the late Romantic era of her formal musical training, as well as the traditional and popular music of her African-American heritage. The rhythms and harmonies of popular music, blues, jazz, and folk tunes make their way into her compositions. Devoutly religious, she also made much use of the sacred musical styles of the African-American community, such as spirituals, gospel music, and hymns. Take some time to listen to some of Florence Price's music available to our patrons through Freegal, and, if you are interested in learning more about the life and music of this American composer, read her newly-published biography, recently added to our collection.


Further Reading


The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price
Brown, Rae Linda

Florence Price Piano Discoveries

Florence Price: Violin Concertos

Florence Price: Concerto/Symphony in E Minor

Beyond The Traveler - Piano Music by Composers From Arkansas

Kete - Piano Music of Africa and the African Diaspora

The Negro Speaks of Rivers - Art Songs by African-American Composers

Symphonies nos. 1 and 4
Price, Florence, 1887-1953

Sonata in E Minor, for Piano
Price, Florence, 1887-1953

Two Songs
Price, Florence, 1887-1953


 

 

 

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