As we wrap up Black History Month and open March with National Women’s History Month, we celebrate the life of Florence Beatrice Price (1887-1953), the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and to have a composition played by a major orchestra. However, to reach this achievement and become recognized for her distinct idiom, Price had to fight her way through substantial prejudices toward her gender and race throughout her lifetime. Even today, there remains a lack of recognition and appreciation for much of Price’s work, but gradually, more groups and individuals have begun to shed light on her rich and unique musical language.
Price composed for many types of musical forces, having written orchestral works (including four symphonies and several concertos), chamber works, art songs, works for violin, organ anthems, piano pieces, and spiritual arrangements. While Price was trained in European traditions, her compositions occupy a largely American idiom. Like fellow composers William Grant Still and William Levi Dawson, Price was known for exploring her Southern roots, commonly incorporating the Blues and melodies of black folk songs into her works. Being deeply religious, Price often used spirituals and African American church music as sources for her music, not only their text and melodies, but also their unique rhythms and syncopated style. Price went beyond simply quoting traditional African-American folk songs, instead integrating structural techniques of these songs, like pentatonicism and call and response, into the very core of her works. Price’s works attempt answer the question of how to create sounds that reflect both a past and present embodiment of the black experience in the United States.
Price’s 5 Folksongs in Counterpoint, performed by the Apollo String Quartet
In 1893, during his time in the United States while composing his New World Symphony, composer Antonín Dvořák advised other American composers to study African American spirituals and other songs of African Americans and indigenous peoples as inspiration, going as far to proclaim that “an American art music should be built on African-American idioms.” Composers such as George Gershwin and Aaron Copland were later known for taking up this directive and exploring uniquely “American” idioms, but it is often disregarded that many African-American composers did this as well. Price might be considered the culmination of the initial group of African-American composers whose work followed Dvorak’s footsteps with the New World Symphony. How did Price navigate through hostile obstacles to come to this place? Let’s begin at the beginning, with Price’s early years in Arkansas.
Price was born in Little Rock to a well-respected mixed-race family, her father a dentist and her mother a music teacher. Price’s mother first introduced her to music, and Price’s music education continued at the integrated Allison Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, where she was regularly exposed to the sacred works of Bach, Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams. Price gave her first piano performance at age four and publishing her first composition by the age of 11, graduating high school at the top of her class at the age of 14. Price then went on to study music at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she majored in piano and organ. While there, Price studied with renowned composers including George Chadwick and Frederick Converse. During this time, however, her mother pushed her to conceal her race to avoid prejudice held toward African Americans, her graduation program listing her hometown as “Pueblo, Mexico.”
After graduating, Price devoted much of her time to teaching and raising a family in Arkansas, and in 1910, Price became the head of Clark Atlanta University’s music department. She also provided private instruction in organ, piano and violin. Despite her qualifications, Price application for membership of the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association was rejected because of the color of her skin. Price persisted, however, by going her own way, founding the Little Rock Club of Musicians and thereby enabling herself to program and perform her own compositions.
In 1927, Price moved to Chicago with her family, driven to leave Arkansas due to several cases of lynchings and escalating racial tensions. In Chicago, Price was able to study composition with numerous teachers and was also enrolled in various times at the Chicago Musical College, Chicago Teacher’s College, University of Chicago, and American Conservatory of music, where she studied languages and liberal arts studies in addition to music.
Price divorced her husband in 1931 due to abuse and financial issues. Now a single mother, Price supported her two daughters by working as an organist for silent film recordings and composing songs for radio ads under a pen name. Price moved in with her student and friend Margaret Bonds, also a black pianist and composer. Her friendship with Bonds led to valuable connections with influential figures in the artistic world and among African-American intelligentsia. Price corresponded with W.E.B. Dubois, and set several of her pieces to poems by Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Price also developed a relationship with the eminent contralto Marian Anderson. Anderson performed several of Price’s spiritual arrangements on a regular basis, and closed her historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial with Price’s arrangement of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in De Lord.”
Price’s arrangement of the spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord,” performed by Marian Anderson
Price soon began receiving national recognition for her compositions and performances. In 1932, Price received Wanamaker Foundation Awards for her Sonata in E Minor for solo piano and her Symphony in E minor. The Wanamaker family is one example of the numerous musical patrons in Chicago that empowered suppressed communities and shared the belief that advancing the artistic achievements of black men and women could help dismantle white supremacy. As Micela Baranello described in a recent article from The New York Times, Price’s musical style was both mainstream and idiosyncratic at the same time. Pieces such as her Sonata in E Minor and Symphony in E minor are steeped in 19th century harmony and orchestration akin to Tchaikovsky. Price’s beautiful lyricism, however, also gives way to her use of traditional African-American folk material, as well as modern chromatic harmonies. Price’s Sonata in E Minor is a clear example of this infusion of classical roots with vernacular idioms. The three-movement work represents a collage of influences, with thick chordal textures and dotted rhythms reminiscent of Beethoven in the opening of the first movement contrasting with several melodic themes carried throughout the piece that recall the form and meter of plantation songs.
Movement I (Andante-Allegro) of Price’s Sonata in E Minor for solo piano, performed by Samantha Ege
Price’s Symphony No. 1, too, joins together different musical worlds. An extended percussion section throughout the symphony alludes to the sounds of spirituals, with Price employing non-conventional instruments including African drums, wind whistles, and cathedral chimes. In the first movement, “Allegro ma non troppo,” both the primary and secondary themes are built from a pentatonic scale, with syncopated rhythms common to African-American folk music. Price’s second movement, “Largo, maestoso,” revolves around an original hymn tune played by brass choir, and the use of overtones creates a solemn religious atmosphere. The third movement, “Juba Dance,” recalls plantation life, with imitations of fiddles, banjos and “patting” rhythms. And while the “Finale” sounds the most conventional of the movements, it too incorporates call and response procedures with syncopatation over a jaunting triplet figure in 2/4 time.
Shortly after Price received the Wanamaker prize for her Symphony No. 1, she was approached by German composer and conductor Frederick Stock, the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Stock was on the watch for new pieces to perform the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, and Price’s Symphony No. 1 caught his attention. In 1933, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered the symphony, making Price’s piece the first composition by an African American woman to be played by a major orchestra. During this time, Price also had several other orchestral works played by the WPA Symphony Orchestra of Detroit and the Chicago Women’s Symphony, and in 1940, Price was inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.
Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, performed by the New Black Repertory Ensemble
Price died from a stroke in 1953, but she was composing music up to the end of her life, ultimately accumulating hundreds of unpublished manuscripts. Unfortunately, however, much of Price’s work became overshadowed by changing tastes in musical styles after her death. Consequently, Price was largely kept out of, along with other under-recognized women composers, a canon dominated by white men. Some of her works were even lost. Fortunately, in 2009 a substantial collection of her works were rediscovered in a dilapidated house on the outskirts of St. Anne, Illinois, apparently a former summer home. Within this collection were dozens of scores, including her fourth symphony and two violin concertos. As Alex Ross stated in a February 2018 article in The New Yorker, “not only did Price fail to enter the canon; a large quantity of her music came perilously close to obliteration. That run-down house in St. Anne is a potent symbol of how a country can forget its cultural history.” Frankly, Price’s work deserves greater exposure. Price herself was proud of her accomplishments but was indubitably aware that her race and gender were major obstacles to the reception of her music. Individuals such as Frederick Stock served as a champion of Price’s work during her lifetime, but she otherwise found difficulty making headway into the classical music culture.
However, we are beginning to remember Price, and her works have been slowly gaining renewed attention. Price’s discovered manuscripts are now safely kept in the University of Arkansas library, mostly complete and read to be performed. The Fort Smith Symphony in Arkansas has begun a recording project for her four symphonies under the Naxos label, based on editions prepared by the composer James Greeson (the Fourth Symphony being one of her recently discovered works). Additionally, the first recording of Price’s two violin concertos has been released last month by Albany (see below). By continuing the efforts of these groups and committing ourselves – as listeners, performers, and patrons – to more diversified narratives and backgrounds, we can begin to give under-recognized composers such as Florence Price platforms for greater access and appreciation within a culture that once excluded these voices.
Listed below are recommended recordings of some of Florence Price’s most popular works:
Price & Cockerham: Violin Concertos / Kahng, Cockerham, Jacacek Philharmonic
Includes Price’s: Violin Concerto No. 1 and Violin Concerto No. 2
Blurred Boundaries / Apollo Chamber Players
Includes Price’s Folksongs in Counterpoint
Piano Phantoms / Michael Lewin
Includes Price’s piano piece The Goblin and the Mosquito
I, Too / Smith / Mccain / Simpson
Includes Price’s song Night for voice and piano
Price: Symphony In E Minor / Dunner, New Black Music Repertory Ensemble
Includes Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor and Piano Concerto in One Movement
Songs Of America / Oral Moses, Rosalyn Floyd, Timothy Holley
To the Dark Virgin for Baritone, Cello, and Piano
Soulscapes – Piano Music By African American Women / Corley
Includes Price’s Sonata for Piano in E minor
Music She Wrote – Organ Compositions By Women / Dr. Frances Nobert, Organ
Includes Price’s Variations on a Folksong for Organ
Price: The Oak, Mississippi River, Symphony No 3 / Hsu, Women’s Philharmonic
Includes Price’s Songs of the Oak, Mississippi River Suite, and Symphony No. 3 in C Minor
- Baranello, Micela. “Welcoming a Black Female Composer Into the Canon. Finally.” The New York Times. 9 Feb 2018. Web. Accessed 21 Feb 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/arts/music/florence-price-arkansas-symphony-concerto.html
- Brown, Linda Rae, and Shirley, Wayne. “MUSA 19 – Florence Price: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3.” Music of the United States of America, Web. Accessed 2 March 2018. https://sites.google.com/a/umich.edu/musa/publications/musa-19-florence-price
- Ege, Samantha. “Florence Price and the Politics of her Existence.” The Kapralova Society Journal. 16, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 1–10. http://www.kapralova.org/journal30.pdf
- Florence Beatrice Price Biography. The Biography.com Website. A&E Television Networks, 2 April 2014. Web. Accessed 21 Feb 2018. https://www.biography.com/people/florence-beatrice-price-21120681
- Price Piano Concerto. Symphony in E minor. Leslie B. Dunner, cond; Karen Walwyn (pn); New Black Music Repertoire Ens. ALBANY 1295 (57:10)
- Ross, Alex. “The Rediscovery of Florence Price: How an African-American composer’s works were saved from destruction.” The New Yorker. 5 Feb 2018. Web. Accessed 21 Feb 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/05/the-rediscovery-of-florence-price