Dates: Born: April 9, 1887 - Little Rock, Arkansas
Died: June 3, 1953 – Chicago, Illinois
Florence Beatrice (Smith) Price became the first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra when Music Director Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in E minor on June 15, 1933, on one of four concerts presented at The Auditorium Theatre from June 14 through June 17 during Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition. The historic June 15th concert entitled “The Negro in Music” also included works by Harry T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and John Alden Carpenter performed by Margaret A. Bonds, pianist and tenor Roland Hayes with the orchestra. Florence Price’s symphony had come to the attention of Stock when it won first prize in the prestigious Wanamaker Competition held the previous year.
The Chicago Daily News reported: “It is a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion . . . worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory.” Later it would become known through the archival records of the Chicago Music Association (CMA) that Maude Roberts George, classical music critic for The Chicago Defender and President of CMA of which Price was a member, underwrote the cost of the June 15, 1933 concert.
A Fight for Recognition
Although this premiere brought instant recognition and fame to Florence Beatrice Price, success as a composer was not to be hers. She would “continue to wage an uphill battle – a battle much larger than any war that pure talent and musical skill could win. It was a battle in which the nation was embroiled – a dangerous mélange of segregation, Jim Crow laws, entrenched racism, and sexism.” (Women’s Voices for Change, March 8, 2013). The same fate would also befall fellow Arkansan William Grant Still, the “Dean of Black Composers” (whose Afro-American Symphony was performed by the Rochester Philharmonic Symphony under Howard Hanson, the first time in history that a major American orchestra had played a symphonic work by a black composer) and many others due to rampant endemic and systemic racism.
A Young Beginning
Professor Dominique-René de Lerma, distinguished American musicologist and eminent historian states “Florence Price was born in a racially-integrated community in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887 where, at the age of four, she played in her first piano recital and her first composition was published at the age of eleven, all under her mother’s guidance.” De Lerma continues, “Her mother Florence Irene Smith Nee Gulliver, had been a school teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana before her marriage, and in Little Rock had a restaurant, sold real estate, and served as secretary of the International Loan and Trust Company. Her father, James H. Smith, was the city’s only black dentist (his patients included the state’s governor) who had moved to Little Rock in 1876.”
Price graduated as high school valedictorian at age 14 and left Little Rock in 1904 to attend the New England Conservatory and, after following her mother’s advice to present herself as being of Mexican descent, earned a bachelor of music degree in 1906, the only one of 2,000 students to pursue a double major (organ and piano performance) studying with Frederick S. Converse (piano), George Whitefield Chadwick (music theory), and Henry M. Dunham (organ). Dr. De Lerma states that it was about this time that Price “started to think seriously about composition.” Following graduation, she taught for one year at the Cotton Plant-Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy campus in northeastern Arkansas (the main campus was located in the southwestern Arkansas city of Arkadelphia) then at Little Rock’s Shorter College, and from 1910 to 1912 at Clark University in Atlanta before returning to Little Rock where she taught privately and became active in composition.
Segregation was the order of the day and racial tensions began to mount in the city. Price was unable to find employment and, after being refused admission to the all-white Arkansas Music Teachers Association, she founded the Little Rock Club of Musicians and taught music at the segregated black schools. Little Rock had been a comfortable city for Black residents, but as racial problems began to develop resulting in a lynching, she moved with her husband, Attorney Thomas J. Price (whom she married in 1912) and their two daughters, to Chicago in 1927.
Shortly after arriving in Chicago, Price joined the R. Nathaniel Dett Club of Music and the Allied Arts (named for the black composer of Canadian descent) and did additional study at the American Conservatory of Music, Chicago Teachers College, Central YMCA College, the University of Chicago and Chicago Musical College (now Chicago College of Performing Arts of Roosevelt University) as a student in composition and orchestration with Carl Busch and Wesley LaViolette, graduating in 1934.
It was at Chicago Musical College that Florence Price met baritone Theodore Charles Stone, a member of the Chicago Music Association who later served as its President from 1954 to 1996).
The Chicago Music Association (CMA) had been established March 3, 1919 by Nora Douglas Holt, then the classical music critic for The Chicago Defender, in order to provide performance venues for classically-trained “Negro” musicians who were, by tradition, denied performance opportunities in major concert halls and on opera stages throughout the country. In July 1919, musicians from Washington, D. C., met with the newly-organized CMA in Chicago at Bronzeville’s historic Wabash Avenue Y.M.C.A. and organized the National Association of Negro Musicians, Inc. (NANM); CMA became the first branch and awarded its first scholarship prize to Miss Marian Anderson of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is significant to note here that these meetings were held during a horrific race war occurring less than three miles away at the 31st Street Beach and gunshots could be heard through the open windows of the meeting hall.
Ted Stone encouraged Price to join CMA where she met organist Estella Bonds and her young daughter, Margaret, who would later become Florence’s student. Stone was the first black who would later study at The Sibelius Institute in Helsinki, Finland after having sung for Marian Anderson’s accompanist, Kosti Vehanen, a colleague of Jean Sibelius who awarded Stone a scholarship. The outbreak of World War II in Europe would force Stone to return to Chicago in 1939 where he reunited with CMA and resumed his career as a classical concert singer, music promoter and journalist writing for The Chicago Bee and The Associated Negro Press (both now defunct), The Chicago Defender, at that time the oldest Black-owned daily newspaper (est. 1905) and The Chicago Crusader, the oldest Black-owned weekly newspaper (est. 1940).
Florence Price’s career flourished after the move to Chicago. It was around 1928 when the G. Schirmer and McKinley publishing companies began to issue her songs, piano music, and especially her instructional pieces for piano. She filed for divorce from Thomas Price in 1928 and she and the children moved in with her student and friend Margaret Bonds. She gave music lessons at home and at T. Theodore Taylor’s School of Music located in the Abraham Lincoln Centre Community Service Agency, 700 E. Oakwood Blvd. in Chicago’s historic Bronzeville Community (now occupied by Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for Inner City Studies) and composed more than 300 works including symphonies, organ works, piano concertos, works for violin, arrangements of spirituals, art songs, and chamber works.
Florence Price’s friendship with Margaret Bonds gained national recognition and performances for both. Price and Bonds had submitted compositions for the 1932 Wanamaker competition with Price winning first prize for Symphony in E minor and second prize for her Piano Sonata. Bonds won third prize for a vocal work. Price’s works were performed in concerts held in churches and black social and cultural clubs by chamber ensembles, solo artists, her own Treble Clef Glee Club and by the Florence B. Price A Cappella Chorus conducted by Grace W. Thompkins. A number of Price’s orchestral works were played by the Chicago Women’s Symphony and the WPA Symphony of Detroit.
Florence Price became friends with Marian Anderson, who had sung Price’s spiritual arrangement “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” and Schubert’s “Ave Maria” in an international broadcast from Prague on May 6, 1937 (so noted in CMA’s archives), composer William L. Dawson of Tuskegee Institute, Will Marion Cook who had attended New York City’s National Conservatory while Antonin Dvorak was its president, Abbie Mitchell, Langston Hughes and many others.
Professor De Lerma adds “As a single person, she earned a living from the sales of her piano works and, under the pseudonym of Vee Jay, as a composer of popular songs. She also played organ for the silent films and orchestrated for WGN radio. Additional performances were secured with the U. S. Marine Band, the Michigan W.P.A. Symphony, the Forum String Quartet, the Detroit W.P.A. Concert Band, the Chicago Club of Women Organists, the Illinois Federation of Music Clubs, the Musicians Club of Women (Chicago), the Brooklyn Symphony, the Bronx Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Chicago Chamber Orchestra and the New York City Symphonic Band.
Marian Anderson began singing Price's arrangement of the spiritual My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord regularly on her concerts which always concluded with Negro Spirituals. She then performed Price's original setting of the Langston Hughes poem cycle Songs to a Dark Virgin which a Chicago Daily News reviewer called "one of the greatest immediate successes ever won by an American song." The Hughes song cycle was published in 1941 and other leading black vocalists, among them Roland Hayes and later Leontyne Price, began to sing Price's vocal music. Among her admirers was composer John Alden Carpenter (whose Concertino for Piano and Orchestra had been performed by Margaret Bonds on the 1933 history-making Century of Progress Exposition concert) who sponsored her for membership in the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Performers (ASCAP).
Price continued to compose throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, penning two concertos for violin and orchestra, two additional symphonies, one of which, Symphony No. 2, has apparently been lost. She gained recognition from as far away as England where conductor Sir John Barbirolli commissioned her to compose a suite for string instruments which had its premiere with the famed Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. Some of Price's output was written for specific instruments; she continued to write art songs and music for choruses that performed on radio station WGN. She continued to arrange spirituals for solo voice and composed pieces for organ that were performed by organists in the many black churches of Chicago. She even served a term as Recording Secretary of CMA whose members gave constant encouragement and support. In 1997 Calvert Johnson, organist at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia recorded seventeen of Price’s organ works and performed them in a 1999 CMA-sponsored recital on the historic Kimball Organ at Chicago’s First Baptist Congregational Church.
In 2010 the Center for Black Music Research (CBMR established by researcher Samuel Floyd in 1983) commissioned Trevor Weston, an associate professor of music at Drew University, to reconstruct the long-lost orchestral score for Price’s Concerto in One Movement for Piano and Orchestra in order to perform the concerto and release an album of the composer’s work which would become the third issue in the CBMR series, “Recorded Music of the African Diaspora.”
Dr. Weston studied three of Price’s piano rehearsal scores for the concerto and read articles about her written by Rae Linda Brown, music professor at the University of California-Irvine and foremost Florence B. Price researcher and biographer. Dr. Brown said Weston’s name surfaced early on as someone who understood the history of American music, one who would be able to understand what a symphony orchestra sounded like in 1934. She added “We can uphold Trevor’s score as authentic. He upheld it as a piece of African-American history, a very important piece of history. He stayed true to Florence Price’s voice” which is a combination of the romantic style coupled with the black cultural heritage.
Florence Price’s reconstructed Concerto in One Movement for Piano and Orchestra with Karen Walwyn, pianist and Symphony No. 1 in E Minor with Leslie B. Dunner conducting the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble were performed at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance on February 17, 2011, to great critical acclaim, thanks to CBMR Executive Director Monica Hairston O’Connell, Deputy Director Morris Phibbs and staff for their perseverance and dedication in keeping to the Center’s mission. The CD recording was released by Albany Records later that same year. In 2001 The Women’s Philharmonic, Apo Hsu, Artistic Director and Conductor had recorded Price’s The Oak (1934), Mississippi River and Symphony No. 3 in C minor (1940). A 2008 reissue of that CD by Koch International Classics is currently available at various outlets.
Dominique-René de Lerma writes that Florence B. Price’s materials are held within the Special Collections of the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville where they were presented in 1974 by Price’s daughter Florence Price Robinson and at the Library of Congress. Included in the Arkansas collections is correspondence to and from John Alden Carpenter, Roland Hayes, Eugène Goossens, Harry T. Burleigh, and others.
While planning a trip to Europe, Florence B. Price died of a stroke on June 3, 1953, in Chicago, her adopted city that she had come to love; a city that, in 1964, named an elementary school for her as its own recognition of her legacy as a Chicago musician and an important black composer (but, unfortunately, scheduled for closing by The Chicago Public Schools in 2011); and a city, a nation, a world that deserves to experience her music and that of her colleagues and contemporaries; music that Antonin Dvorak would affirm as authentic; music that had as its basis those slave songs that survived the middle passage to become firmly entrenched in the American musical landscape.
Mississippi River: “The River and Those Dwelling Upon its Banks” was written in 1934 and dedicated to Arthur Olaf Anderson, one of Price’s mentors and head of the Theory Department at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music.
The work replicates a boat cruising down the Mississippi River and experiencing life along its banks. The opening section, like Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, depicts the awakening of dawn, but in this case, along river banks. Section 2 introduces a Native American theme scored for Indian drum, timpani, marimba, and other percussion instruments. In section 3, four Negro spirituals Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, Stand Still, Jordan, Go Down, Moses and Deep River and original work by Price are mixed with traditional tunes of the day, River Song, Lalotte, and Steamboat Bill. The suite concludes with a layering of the melodies, alternately stacked one upon the other, with the spiritual Deep River the most dominant of all.