Florence Price was a prolific composer of orchestral music, including over 300 symphonies, concertos, sonatas, chamber pieces and songs. In 1933, she made history when she became the first female Black composer to have a symphony performed by a major US orchestra.
So who was Florence Price?
Florence Price was born in Arkansas in 1887. Her mother was a music teacher mother and her father a dentist. (Her father had tried to apply to dental schools, but was denied acceptance because he was black. He continued to work as an apprentice until he received certification and was able to practice dentistry – a great feat considering less than a dozen black dentists existed in America at this time.)
Price’s musical talent was evident from an early age, and she gave her first piano performance aged four, reportedly publishing a composition (now lost) aged 11. Her mother encouraged Price in her musical studies, and Price eventually went on to study at the new England Conservatory of Music, one of the most prestigious musical academies in America. She majored in piano and organ, graduating with honours.
By 1910 Price was the head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia. She married her husband, Thomas J Price, in 1912, after which they moved back to her home town of Little Rock, Arkansas. Racial tension in the city was rife and escalated to the point where a lynching occurred near Thomas’ office, prompting the family to move to Chicago in 1927.
Study of composition
Price had continued studying composition since her graduation, and published four pieces for piano in 1928. Florence and Thomas divorced in 1931 after he became abusive, leaving Price with two daughters to look after. To make ends meet, she began working as an organist for silent film screenings and composing songs for radio ads.
Price was deeply religious, and often combined African-American church and folk music with musical influences such as Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and other European Romantic composers.
In 1932 she and her housemate, fellow composer Margaret Bonds, entered the Rodman Wanamaker Foundation Awards. Price won first prize in the Contest in Musical Composition for her Piano Sonata in E minor (part of her Symphony in E minor), and also took the third prize. Margaret Bonds took first place in the song category.
As a result of her first prize, on 15 June 1933, Price made history when she became the first African-American woman to have a symphonic work performed by a major national symphony orchestra. Her winning Symphony in E minor (No 1) was performed by Music Director Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, launching her into life as a composer.
A music critic from the Chicago Daily News who had heard the performance declared that it 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.’
Although this premiere brought instant recognition and fame, Price would continue to wage an uphill battle to get her music more widely heard.
The Lincoln Memorial Concerto
On Easter Sunday in 1939, a concert was held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with Marian Anderson, a contralto, as the star performer. Because she was black, Anderson hadn’t been allowed to perform in Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall due to the city’s segregation laws, and the hall rules which proclaimed only white performers could appear there. (The audience in the hall would also be segregated.)
First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, stepped in resulting in the outdoor concert. Anderson chose to close the evening with one of Price’s most famous (and haunting) songs, My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord. The concert was broadcast on the radio, and consequently, Price’s music reached hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Although Price wrote over 300 pieces of music, her work was largely forgotten (and some of it lost) after she died in 1953.
Unsurprisingly, Price experienced a difficult time making headway in a culture that predominantly defined composers as white, male, and dead. As she herself once wrote to Russian conductor, Dr Koussevitzky,
I have two handicaps – I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.
In spite of the battle Price fought for her compositions to be heard in her own lifetime, much of her music is now being rediscovered and finally getting the recognition it deserves.