Florence Price (1887-1953) is truly a composer to celebrate. Involved in music from a young age, Florence Price would go on to study at the New England Conservatory, win multiple Wanamaker Foundation Awards, and become the first black woman to have her music performed by a major American orchestra. But most significantly, she would craft music that masterfully blended the sounds of traditional European classical music, American nationalistic styles, and African American spirituals in a beautiful display of artistry.
Young Florence Price learned how to play piano from her mother, a Jill of all trades who worked as a teacher, in a restaurant, as a real estate agent, and even a secretary for a loan and trust company during different periods in her life (shoutout to the hardworking moms who still managed to get us all to our music lessons). With the help of her mother, Price gave her first recital at age 4. Her father, by the way, was the only black dentist in town.
At 16, Price entered the New England Conservatory to study both piano and organ. She originally presented herself as Mexican to avoid heightened discrimination towards African Americans. Price began learning composition and counterpoint as she worked towards her degrees in piano and organ. Displaying talent for composition, her teachers encouraged her to pursue it more seriously. She graduated with honors in 1906 and went on to become a professor teaching at schools like Clark University and Shorter College, HBCUs that still stand today. Eventually, however, she returned to Little Rock as a private teacher and began focusing on her compositions.
Segregation, growing racial tension, and a lynching in Little Rock forced Price and her husband to move to Chicago in 1926. Moving to Chicago began opening doors in her career, leading her to the Chicago Music College to further her compositional studies and eventually to deals with publishing companies to issue her songs, piano pieces, and instructional collections. This didn’t amount to resounding recognition, however, and Price still faced an uphill battle to get the recognition she deserved.
Shortly after her move, the Great Depression hit. Stress was felt around the country but amplified in Price’s household where her husband became abusive. She decided to divorce and was left with two children to raise alone in a depression. This was quite the brave move given that no woman had much access to economic assistance without it coming from her male partner at this time. She moved in with her student and friend Margaret Bonds after her divorce and supported her family with her work as a composer, teacher, and organist.
Bonds encouraged Price to enter the Wanamaker Foundation Awards in 1932. Price won the foundation’s first prize for her Symphony in E Minor and the third prize for her Piano Sonata in E Minor. After her win, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered Symphony in E Minor at the 1933 Chicago World Fair which made her the first African American woman to have music performed by a major orchestra. Chicago Daily News critic Eugene Stinson described the symphony as “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.”
Price’s music is iconic for blending traditional European styles with American and African American musical vernacular. While Symphony in E Minor is her best-known piece, her repertoire is actually quite prolific. Price wrote for orchestra, piano, voice, violin, organ, chamber ensembles, and did her own arrangements of a number of African American spirituals. Other notable works include her Piano Concerto in One Movement, two violin concertos, and Fantasie Negre. You can check out a much larger list of her repertoire here.
Beyond all of her accolades and the things she overcame to obtain them, I am probably most in awe of just how beautiful Price’s music is. I wish I had known her music sooner. Her music is full of tonalities and textures that invoke an array of human emotions. Some pieces uplifted, some burdened, and some with a feeling of a higher power. It is a great display of the role music has in culture and the role culture has in music. When you listen, you hear the incredible ways she was able to layer all of the musical influences, from her European style education to the music of her church, and you hear it done in an expert way. Those layers of music hold layers of history - American history, African American history, classical music history – and she deserves to be a part of that. And for her pieces, I think the Chicago News critic was right – “worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertoire.”
And here are some musicians taking that step: