Women History Month: Florence Price, A Black Musical Genius Who Made History With Her First Symphony But Was Ignored

When Florence Beatrice Price began her musical career in the late 1800s, it was uncommon for young individuals, particularly young Black women in the American South, to study music. Florence Smith was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1887 to a dentist father and a piano teacher mother who pushed her to pursue a career in music.

Price went on to the New England Conservatory of Music, one of the few music schools at the time that accepted Black students. She obtained two certificates in piano and organ at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia, and by 1910, she was the dean of the music department. In 1912, she married Thomas J Price and the two returned to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she grew up.

However, in 1927, they were forced to relocate to Chicago due to rising racial tensions in Little Rock, which culminated in a public lynching. Price’s spouse had a difficult time finding a job in Chicago. Price continued to use her marital name when the couple split in 1931. She had published four piano works after continuing to study composition at the time of her divorce.

to make money She also competed in composing competitions and received numerous awards. Then, in 1932, the event she had been anticipating occurred. She entered the Wanamaker Foundation Awards that year and won not only the first award but also the third prize for her Symphony in E minor (First Symphony).

Price’s piece was acclaimed by conductor Frederick Stock, who premiered her symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the following year. Price became the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra as a result of this achievement. “A perfect piece, a composition that speaks its message with restraint and yet with emotion… worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertoire,” wrote the Chicago Daily News’ music critic.

 

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Price was still having trouble getting orchestras to perform her work ten years later, in an industry dominated by White, male composers. In 1943, she even wrote a letter to Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, requesting that he consider performing her music.

“I have two disadvantages. According to the BBC, she wrote, “I am a woman with some Negro blood in my veins.”

Her music was performed in concert venues in Detroit, Michigan, and Brooklyn, New York towards the end of the day. Marian Anderson, an internationally recognized contralto singer, performed “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord,” one of Price’s most famous songs, in front of a mixed audience of 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on Easter Sunday in April 1939. Price’s music reached a large number of people across America as a result of the concert, which was broadcast to millions via radio.

Price was recognized for incorporating elements of black spirituals and traditional African music into her songs. European composers such as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Antonn Dvoák influenced the music. Despite her fame, she was quickly forgotten, and her music was forgotten after her death in 1953.

Her archive was uncovered in her previous summer house in Chicago in 2009, resurfacing her name in the media. This rekindled interest in her music as well.

“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.”

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