“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility. Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.” —from a 1943 letter to Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky from Florence Price, trying to convince him to program her music
As I noted in my recent post about black cellist Donald White, where I discussed the lack of black and Latino musicians in orchestras, the lack of women in the classical music world is also a real issue. In today’s post I will be discussing a composer who fits into both categories: Florence Price, the first African American female composer to have a piece debuted by a major American symphony. As a musician, I had heard her name only in passing, but when the good news broke this week that her catalogue will now be published by major classical publisher G. Schirmer/Music Sales Classical, I thought it would be a great opportunity to finally learn more about her.
Florence Beatrice Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, to a dentist and a music teacher. Her father was the first black dentist in town, and rumored to have been the governor’s dentist. Her mother was her first music teacher. The family was successful and respected in the community despite the racial tensions in the South, and also traveled to Europe (see Baranello article, The New York Times). Price gave her first piano performance when she was four years old, and published her first piece when she was eleven.
At fourteen, she had finished high school at the top of her class and went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, one of the only music schools that admitted African-Americans at the time, where she studied the piano and the organ (see New Yorker article). As racism was not limited to the South, Price passed as Mexican when she first started at the conservatory to avoid painful encounters. She began studying composition, having the great opportunity to study with the conservatory’s president, writing a string trio and a symphony (see Baranello article, The New York Times). It would be this teacher who would encourage her to incorporate elements of her black southern musical culture into her own music. She graduated with honors in 1906, with an artist diploma in organ and a teaching certificate.
After leaving Boston, Price returned to Arkansas to teach and then moved to Atlanta to assume a position as head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University, an historically black university. After marrying attorney Thomas Price in 1912, the couple moved back to Little Rock, but fled to Chicago after a lynching took place in 1927. It was this move to one of the centers of American music that would turn out to be the most important in her career.
Price studied at various schools throughout Chicago including the University of Chicago, where, in addition to music, she studied languages and the liberal arts. She improved her composition skills while studying with a number of influential teachers in the city at the time, and turned out four more piano pieces in 1928.
In 1931, Price became a single mother to her two daughters after she and Thomas divorced after he became abusive (see New Yorker article). She played the organ for silent film screenings and wrote songs for radio ads under a pseudonym. She moved in with a fellow black pianist and composer, Margaret Bonds, who introduced her to black luminaries of the time, writer Langston Hughes and singer Marian Anderson. Anderson sang a Price arrangement in her famous concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 (see Baranello article, The New York Times).
In 1932, Price had her first lucky break when she won first prize ($500) for her Symphony in E Minor, her first symphony, in a competition (and third prize for her Piano Sonata). This led to the Chicago Symphony, conducted by Frederick Stock, one of Price’s few supporters during her lifetime, premiering her symphony in 1933, making Price the first African American female composer to have a piece played by a major orchestra.
The Symphony in E Minor is a good example of Price’s musical style. While she follows the overall European classical style, Price incorporates elements of black southern culture, particularly church hymns, using the rhythms of how they would have been sung, such as call and response. Her music is a lovely blend of traditional European classical and blues, giving it a truly American feel. She stated that her goal for another one of her symphonies was “a not too deliberate attempt to picture a cross-section of present-day Negro life and thought with its heritage of that which is past, paralleled or influenced by contacts of the present day” (see Baranello article, The New York Times).
Unfortunately, due to both her gender and race, Price didn’t haven’t as much success and fame as she should have after that premiere. She wrote many other works for orchestra (including concertos), chorus, voice and piano, solo piano and organ, and chamber ensembles. She also wrote arrangements of many Negro spirituals. She was also inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1940. But once she died of a stroke at the age of 66, her work was largely forgotten until relatively recently.
While it is unfortunate that Price did not receive the recognition she deserved during her lifetime, recent events have helped cement her legacy for future generations. In 2009, a large collection of her works and papers were found in an abandoned house, which turned out to be her summer house in a town outside of Chicago. These works and papers are now housed at the University of Arkansas library. This lucky find was the start of Price gaining back some well-deserved attention. Musicians have been performing and making recordings of her music, including her symphonies and violin concertos (see Baranello article, The New York Times).
And in an even more exciting development, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, as of this week she finally has a widely respected publisher! This week, publisher G. Schirmer announced that it has acquired worldwide rights to Price’s catalogue. This is a step in the right direction for classical music, which is infamous for its lack of inclusion of non-male, non-white musicians. We can hope that in addition to celebrating composers who were not properly acknowledged during their time, current musicians/composers outside the “circle” will also be welcomed in and properly recognized.
A discussion of a composer like Florence Price, just like the discussion of a musician like Donald White, brings up important issues of race, gender, and inclusion both in the world of classical music and American society in general. The first, which should be relatively obvious, is the double struggle Price dealt with not only as an American or even as a musician, but as a composer, a profession where it is particularly difficult to succeed and make a living: being both female and black. She said herself in one of her letters to Koussevitzky in 1943, “To begin with I have two handicaps–those of sex and race.” She also said, rather simply, “I would like to be judged on merit alone” (see Music Sales Classical announcement). Also, let’s recognize that she accomplished all that she did while raising two kids on her own!
Price’s story, which is sad enough, makes me wonder: how many other composers (and musicians, just like the story of Donald White) were there just like her, who we likely will never hear about? Even since the premiere of Price’s symphony 85 years ago, very few black female composers (or black male composers, for that matter) have had their music performed by major orchestras or elsewhere.
The lack of exposure given to female and non-white composers is one that continues to be debated in programming departments of major orchestras. As American society slowly begins to accept that our mainly white, male “heroes” were seriously flawed, and that minorities were essentially erased from history, we need to do the same in the arts (see more in New Yorker article). Major orchestras, who have the majority of the press, should seriously consider planning programs devoted solely to the work of minority composers, in their main concert program schedule. As Micaela Baranello explains in her profile of Price, the Boston Symphony programmed one of her string quartets in a community concert. While this is better than nothing, and a great opportunity both for raising Price’s profile and bringing her music to audiences who might not normally hear her, it’s still not good enough; orchestras like Boston need to consider performing her symphonies at Symphony Hall as part of their regular concert series.
As students going through public school, we all could have benefited from learning about the lesser known characters in history, who were generally non-white and sometimes non-male. Similarly, as a musician and musicology student myself, I know that learning more about composers like Florence Price would have been not only inspiring, but would have given me a more diverse and accurate account of who actually participated in the musical sphere. The rediscovery and recent publishing of Price’s music is a great achievement that should be celebrated; but I only hope it is the first of many to come.
Learn more about this Groundbreaker!
If you have found what I’ve written about Florence Price and the lack of recognition of minorities in music interesting and/or infuriating and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles and websites and videos I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources. I’ve also included a couple of links to her music.
Announcement by G. Schirmer of acquiring Price’s catalogue: http://www.musicsalesclassical.com/news/3894
Profile on her and the recent performances of her music by Micaela Baranello in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/arts/music/florence-price-arkansas-symphony-concerto.html
New York Times article on the G. Schirmer acquisition: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/15/arts/music/florence-price-music-publisher-schirmer.html
Profile in The New Yorker by Alex Ross: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/05/the-rediscovery-of-florence-price
Bio from Music Sales Classical website: http://www.musicsalesclassical.com/composer/short-bio/Florence-Price
WQXR radio program on Price: https://www.wqxr.org/story/271521-musical-biography-florence-beatrice-price/
Symphony in E Minor & Concerto in One Movement: https://amzn.to/2Kh2KG8
Violin Concertos: https://amzn.to/2TkTEMy
[top image from Southern Arkansas University website]