Florence Price

America’s little-known composer

Created date

January 22nd, 2019
Although not nearly as well-known as some composers, Florence Price was both brilliant and prolific, having composed over 300 works for piano, organ, strings, orchestra, and musical instruction.

Although not nearly as well-known as some composers, Florence Price was both brilliant and prolific, having composed over 300 works for piano, organ, strings, orchestra, and musical instruction.

Few people have heard of her. But Florence Beatrice Price came into the world an underdog and left it behind having proven her brilliance as a leading composer.

Born in 1887 in Little Rock, Ark., to a white father, dentist James Smith, and an African-American mother, music teacher Florence Gulliver, Price was a victim of prejudice and racial discrimination from the start. At a time when the wounds of the Civil War had yet to heal and the Klan reigned terror over much of the Southern United States, opportunity was hard to come by for those who possessed so much as a vestige of so-called “colored blood.”

Yet Price’s parents were moderately successful and respected, as was the girl herself, who soon became known throughout the community as a child prodigy.

Early introduction to music

From her days as a toddler, Price received piano instruction from her mother. At age four, she performed her debut recital, and at 11, she published her first composition.

By age 14, Price had graduated valedictorian from high school. There was no question that she was an over-achiever.

Still, the odious matter of skin color seemed to loom over her, despite her undeniable achievements. When she enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music in 1901, Price pretended that she was Hispanic to avoid the discrimination that she knew she would inevitably face had anyone realized her true race.

But once she settled into her new life up north, she flourished. At the Conservatory, Price studied counterpoint, composition, and instrumentation with noted composers such as Frederick Converse and George Chadwick. While she had focused much of her training on piano and other keyboard instruments, she excelled in writing for strings.

As a student, she had produced both symphonies and string trios, graduating with honors in 1906 with degrees in organ and teaching.

At just 23, she landed a position as head of Clark Atlanta University’s music department in Georgia, then, once again, returned to Arkansas after marrying in 1912. As the years passed, however, racial tensions increased.

Hate crimes were all too common—everything from daily acts of discrimination to lynchings, the latter of which pushed Price and her husband to move their family to Chicago. And it was in the Windy City that she fully blossomed as a composer.

In 1928, Price published four works for piano, meanwhile studying orchestration and organ with such artists as Leo Sowerby, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1946.

Price, nonetheless, continued to struggle against the period’s forceful currents of racial and gender bias, as well as the financial difficulties that prompted her divorce in 1931.

Now a single mother of two children, she found work composing songs for radio advertisements and, on the side, played the organ at silent film screenings. Having hit rock bottom, Price moved in with a close friend and former student, pianist Margaret Bonds, who introduced her housemate to the artistically well-connected writer Langston Hughes.

Price and Bonds began composing and performing together, and with Hughes’ help, quickly gained a national following. In 1932, the pair entered works in various categories of the Wanamaker Foundation Awards and won several of them.

Symphony in E Minor

In particular, Price took first place for her Symphony in E Minor—perhaps the best example of her gift for orchestral composition. At a time when modern styles overwhelmed classical music, she managed to capture and reproduce the grandeur of the Romantic tradition with majestic swells and moving string sections.

In fact, her Symphony in E Minor plays like the score to an epic motion picture. The piece made its premier in June 1933 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, making it the first composition by an African-American woman ever played by a major orchestra.

Even with this triumph, though, Price and her music largely faded from the public consciousness. Until her death from a stroke in 1953, she wrote prolifically, producing another symphony along with numerous compositions for strings, piano, and organ.

Amazingly, in 2009, news broke about the discovery of a massive cache of her unpublished works, found in a ramshackle building in St. Anne, Ill. Among the papers retrieved were dozens of scores that, until then, were previously unknown.

Indeed, the incredible find stands as a haunting reminder of our culture’s fragility and Price’s genius.

Selected works

Piano

At the Cotton Gin (1928)

Sonata in E (1932)

Bayou Dance (1938)

Dance of the Cotton Blossoms (1938)

Dances in the Canebrakes (1953)

 

Organ

First Sonata for Organ (1927)

Passacaglia and Fugue (1927)

Steal Away to Jesus (1936)

In Quiet Mood (1941)

 

Orchestra

Symphony No. 1 in E minor (1932)

Ethiopia’s Shadow in America (1932) (unperformed until 2015)

Mississippi River (1934)

Symphony No. 2 in G minor (undated)

Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major (1939)

Symphony No. 3 in C minor (1940)

Symphony No. 4 in D minor (undated)

Violin Concerto No. 2 in D major (1952)

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